By ERNIE GOTTA
On Sunday, June 14, hundreds of youth rallied in Woodstock, Conn., against police brutality and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The rally was organized by a group of high school students inspired by recent mobilizations.
Woodstock, like other rural towns in Connecticut, is almost entirely white and still maintains a strong connection to its roots as a farming community. It has also historically been a hub of far-right-wing activity. Almost immediately after posting about the rally on social media, organizers received threats from far-right-wing groups. The Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and KKK are all known to operate in and around Woodstock.
Protests in urban centers like Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York City are well known, but what do workers, farmers, and students in mostly white communities think? In this interview, Ernie Gotta talks with Kyle Spalding, a Marine Corps veteran, a union cook, and 8th-generation Woodstock resident. Kyle helped organize peace marshals for the action, calling on union, veteran, and social justice groups to help defend the rally from any possible threats.
Ernie Gotta: Can you talk about the complex history of racism in Woodstock, Conn., the presence of the KKK, and why the Black Lives Matter action was significant?
Kyle Spalding: Woodstock started off as most colonial towns did, by eradicating the presence of Native Americans throughout the town. The town of Woodstock was settled by white folks and has stayed well over 90% white since then. In the early 1900s, there was a Ku Klux Klan rally that had 3000 people from all over the state show up. This rally was larger than the town’s population. Towns south of this one are confirmed “SunDown” towns, which is the name of a town where it was legal to murder Black people after the sun went down. The practice of “Sundown” towns came about because [after] the abolition of slavery, whites in this county were horrified of living peacefully with people of color.
It is assumed by locals today that we were never a “Sundown” town because there were so many of these towns to the south of us that the locals never felt the practice was necessary. As recently as 1992, there was a KKK rally in the neighboring town of Putnam, with at least 30 attendees. The cause for the rally was the KKK defending a student from Putnam who was suspended for using the “N” word to a Black student’s face.
To my recollection there has never been a public anti-racist protest of any kind in Woodstock. Racism runs deep here still, but the fact that we had at least 400 people from the local area take a public stand against racism shows a massive shift in how people feel about living in a racist society. Never in my lifetime would I have imagined such a powerful and inclusive message being sent by this town.
The majority of attendees were students for the local high school, Woodstock Academy, and that is a fantastic sign of our future and where things are heading. If Black Lives Matter can get such fantastic support here in Woodstock, then I believe there is not a single town in Connecticut where racism cannot be challenged. We are the least dense town in the state, a rural white community, and challenging racism here means it can be challenged anywhere.
EG: You helped build a defense for the rally by organizing marshals. Can you talk briefly about how and why you thought it was important to do this?
KS: As someone who has spent significant time organizing for the last four years, I would say this is one of the times I’ve been most concerned about the safety of a rally. I remember racists countering our protests in neighboring towns with much less of a heads-up, and being aggressive and intimidating. It was important to me that the first-time experience of having a protest would go safely for a group of high school students, so they would have the confidence to continue the fight in the future. I decided to reach out to socialist groups and union members for help, and our call was answered with significant support.
EG: What happened at the rally with the far-right intervention?
KS: An individual sat amongst us as a scout to call the counter-protest when our numbers were smaller. A small group of counter-protesters then showed up when the crowd thinned, with Blue Lives Matter [signs] and American flags. They circled us multiple times, and blew smoke in the faces of children standing up for racial justice. They did this to try and intimidate, but our numbers were still significant. They brought dash cams and weapons. They sat on high ground for quite a while, I’m assuming to intimidate. They passed us one more time very slowly and loudly. My belief is that they were hoping to provoke an altercation so they could start a fight and hurt someone.
EG: You have the unique perspective of being both a veteran and a union member. Can you talk about why both groups should participate in the fight against police brutality?
KS: Well, as a veteran we all swear to defend the people of this country. We want our families and communities to be safe no matter what, and that is what is in our hearts when we enlist. If the police can kill people whenever they feel like it, then our community is not safe, and our job as veterans continues. If systematic racism continues, then our communities aren’t safe either. Most of this fight means talking with and educating friends and family members on how racism works and why we need to be allies in the fight.
As a union member, it is critical to fight racism because the bosses use racism as a tool to keep our wages and benefits low. Racism divides, and if there are racist union leaders, then why should anyone trust them? If there are racist union members, why would anyone want to take a stand with them? If we can eradicate racism in the workplace, then union workers can have a much more successful fight against the bosses and more easily improve the lives of people in their community as well as lead a fight to end systemic racism.
EG: Any final comments?
KS: The success of this event was so huge that it totally renewed my optimism and drive to make the world a better place. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Racism was dealt a massive blow on this day and I’m very proud to have participated in that.