Lessons from East Haven for dignity, justice and respect

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EAST HAVEN, Conn. - The Feb. 26 unity march down Main Street in this town for dignity, justice and respect was remarkable. Hundreds of immigrants who live or work in East Haven were joined by union members, elected officials and supporters from nearby New Haven, surrounding towns and across the state.

The peaceful Latino, African American and white marchers held American flags and white flags to symbolize unity. The march was highly organized and disciplined.

One white business owner served lemonade to the marchers as they passed by. Some residents in houses along the route waved from their windows.

Of course all was not friendly. Marchers ignored the anti-immigrant expressions of hate including jeers and a confederate flag. These detractors did not succeed in provoking a clash.

The march was organized by the newly formed Community of Immigrants of East Haven.

After the federal Department of Justice arrested four East Haven police officers for racial profiling and harassment of immigrants, public pressure forced the resignation of notorious police chief Leonard Gallo. Republican Mayor Joseph Maturo exposed his bigotry with degrading remarks against Latinos, which sparked national protest.

The first meeting of CIEH was filled with stories about intolerable police harassment of shopkeepers, Latino drivers, and children in school. The feeling was strong that the march must take place despite attempts to get the organization to postpone. Within days nearly 50 immigrant, clergy, labor and civil rights organizations signed on in support.

For decades the East Haven police have been notorious for harassment of African Americans and Latinos who drive through town. The ongoing DOJ investigation led by Obama appointee Thomas E. Perez has brought this racism and abuse of power to light.

In recent years, immigrants from Ecuador, Mexico and other Latin American countries began to settle in East Haven, just as Italian immigrants had done decades earlier. The total combined Latino and African American population in East Haven is under 10 percent.

The demands of CIEH are straightforward. They include respect for everyone in the community regardless of race or nationality, public recognition of wrong doing by the police, creation of an independent commission to repair relations between the Latino community and the municipality, dropping charges against those wrongly arrested by the police, an end to racial profiling by the police and the resignation of Mayor Maturo.

Maturo was narrowly elected in November after having been defeated in two previous close elections by progressive Democrat April Capone Almon. The police leadership remained loyal to former Mayor Maturo while Capone Almon was in office and tried to discredit her by arresting her for a parking violation during her first term.

The implications of the DOJ investigation and the march go far beyond East Haven. Here, as in Arizona with Sheriff Arpaio, it has been established that anti-immigrant bigotry and racism will not go unchallenged.

The police abuse of power in East Haven has become part of the national call by immigrant rights groups to dismantle the federal "Secure Communities" program, which empowers local law enforcement to detain someone who is foreign-born if they are stopped for a routine traffic violation.

Supporters of the march took time out of their organizing to travel to the State Capitol and urge the governor not to implement this program.

CIEH provides the format for Latino immigrants to organize locally and protect their rights. It also provides the opportunity for solidarity by the broader community. The expressions of unity that emerged around the march open the door to build a stronger, inclusive community to the benefit of everyone.

Photo: People's World

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