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Digital world helps 'people peaceably to assemble'

The ability of social media and digital communication to generate mass gatherings, without the strong central control and planning that was necessary in past eras, has been on display in 2020.

Such was the case Sunday with the impressive show of support for President Trump in the form of a boat parade past Noank and Mystic. The event, which attracted a large gathering of onshore spectators, was organized by the Facebook group Connecticut Boaters for Trump. Local police estimated about 400 boats took part, while the public affairs for the Coast Guard Long Island Sound placed participation at more than 800 boats.

It was a reminder that even in blue-state Connecticut, which I suspect Joe Biden will carry easily, Trump has a large group of loyal supporters. This loyalty is also evident in the large homemade signs and other pro-Trump displays, often mixed with flags and other patriotic symbols, which dot front yards across the region. You don’t see many such outward signs of such unquestioning, devoted support for the Democratic presidential nominee.

Unlike any election I remember, and I’ve seen many, one candidate is driving the fervency on both sides of the political equation. Many supporting Biden are also fired up — by their desire to get Trump out of the White House.

I suspect many moderate down-ticket Republicans running for state legislative seats, which describes many of the GOP candidates in this area, would just as soon not see these demonstrations of Trump passion. These in-your-face displays are a reminder to Trump’s myriad detractors not to get complacent, even in Connecticut. That could be bad news for those down-ticket Republicans come Election Day.

Also showing the organizing power of social media communication were the demonstrations witnessed across our region, our state and the nation in the wake of the killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. I was struck by the grassroots nature of the demonstrations, which cropped up even in small-town, primarily white-populated communities such as Old Lyme, Preston and Ledyard.

In Connecticut, the demonstrations remained almost entirely peaceful. Social distancing was often lacking, but unlike many Trump gatherings, masks were in wide use to discourage transmission of the COVID-19 virus. What little vandalism there was largely targeted Christopher Columbus statues, the removal of which came to symbolize breaking with a past that too readily honored European expansion while glossing over the ugliness of slavery and the exploitation and extermination of native populations.

This exercising of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” resulted in real change. The City Council in New London joined other cities in declaring racism a public health crisis and to recognize, and work to end, the disparities in health and access to health care that exist based on racial, social, economic and community differences. That has been evident in the proportionately higher toll the coronavirus has inflicted on Black and poorer Americans.

Most significantly, these demonstrations and their demand for change were the catalyst that brought the General Assembly into special session to pass a massive police reform bill.

To drive change in Washington it will take votes, not just demonstrations. In June, the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill to crackdown on excessive police force, create national transparency standards and create a database to track police offenses. But it could not reach a deal with the Republican Senate, which passed a bill that would use fiscal incentives, not mandates, to promote police reforms.

If Democrats can capture the presidency and Senate, while holding a House majority, look for the House’s proposed mandates to become law.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.



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