Naugatuck, Conn. students keep Black Lives Matter fight going
Naugatuck students walk out in late January. | Nyjahn Wade via Nagatuck Peaceful Protests.

NAUGATUCK, Conn.—What do the police killing of George Floyd and Naugatuck, Conn., have in common? Plenty.

In June 2020, there was a March of 1,100 people in Naugatuck in solidarity with the many George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches across the country. It gave birth to the peace and solidarity group Naugatuck Peaceful Protests. Its focus is opposing systemic racist policing and advocating for defunding.

Recently surfaced racist and violent Snapchat posts by the daughter of local police chief Steven Hunt and the associate principal at the local high school, Johnna Hunt, have been like a shot from a flame thrower on an already smoldering fire. They have also, however, been an accelerant for ongoing community organizing and working across movements.

The viciously racist posts of the young woman, now a high school student, are believed to be from early 2019. They directly implicate her father, who had been recently promoted to police chief. Her messages included multiple references to violence against Black people and repeated use of racist language.

“My dad is now officially police chief so that means he’s more advanced in shooting black people then (sic) he just was a couple minutes ago,” the text of one message reads.

Students have demanded the removal of the parents from their respective town positions. They have also demanded that the daughter/student be expelled.

An activist town

Naugatuck has a population of 31,750, with 21% being people of color or persons with other national origins. The high school is just under 40% students of color.

The town has a history of working class organizing. Site of one of the world’s largest rubber and chemical industries, it was organized into five unions in the 1930s and ’40s. Some of the first to sign union cards had been members of the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) and immigrant workers.

Naugatuck experienced the runaway shop phenomenon and deindustrialization of the 1980s. It was left with a toxic landfill on top of Hunters Mountain, the site of a protracted environmental struggle that resulted it being designated a superfund site. It was closed in 1987.

Recently, Naugatuck has been on Connecticut’s list of distressed towns. Unemployment is estimated by some to be double the official rate of 8%.

Student walkout and BLM march to the Naugatuck, Conn. Green in January 2021. | Len Yannielli / PW

Other environmental and labor struggles followed. In 2020, a town-wide battle emerged as the community defended one of the ecologically healthier streams, Fulling Mill Brook, on its east-side. A proposed 10,000 sq. ft. strip plaza is seen by activists here as endangering a green wildlife corridor and the stream’s connection to the Naugatuck River. As blasting would be required, the proposed development is also seen as a threat to neighboring drinking water wells.

At the same time, workers at the local Stop and Shop grocery store, owned by a company in Brussels, Belgium, went on strike. As members of the Food and Commercial Workers Union (FCWU), their focus was saving their health insurance, an issue that would, in general, loom large in the 2020 national elections. A green leader joined their picket line.

A series of Naugatuck grassroots town halls emerged as these struggles and the 2020 electoral battles unfolded. Panelists from the BLM, environment, and labor movements, a town commission, and electoral candidates rotated through the forums. A reading of Martin Luther King’s famous Riverside Church Speech, initiated by a U.S. Peace Council member and BLM activist, was one result.

These essential workers successfully maintained their union contract. In the pivotal 2020 November elections, their union organizer, Jorge Cabrera (D), wrested a state senate seat from a Trumpite Republican.

Continuing struggle

On the day of the student walkout in the latest episode involving the racist Snapchat posts, one BLM leader said:

“Today, was a magnificent day. Naugatuck’s Youth made history today. They stood on the right side of history. They stood for justice. They stood for Black Lives Matter. They made headlines this week. They will continue to make headlines because they will not be pushed aside or led astray. They are not done. They will see to it that those responsible are held accountable.”

Participants in a town hall meeting and others are circulating a letter in support of the student walkout. The first demand reads: “If deemed culpable for the actions of their daughter, Steven and Johnna Hunt be removed from their respective positions.”

Defunding the police and cutting the military budget are demands that need to be moved up the movements’ agendas. Last year, Conn. Congresswoman Jahana Hayes voted for a 10% cut in the military budget. Money needs to be moved to meet people’s needs, like the Green New Deal. Locally, the articulation agreement, involving the Naugatuck Police Department and military supplier Northrop Grumman, needs investigating.

Hate crimes more than doubled during the Trump years, and this normalization of hate seeped into every corner of the country, including Naugatuck. These local grassroots struggles, given the fascistic, white supremacist coup attempt on Jan. 6, are crucial to our democracy


CONTRIBUTOR

Len Yannielli
Len Yannielli

Long time environmental activist Len Yannielli was a professor of biological science at Naugatuck Valley Community College, Waterbury, Conn.

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