Compared to the protests held when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were commencement speakers at the , the protest organized by the Southeastern Connecticut Peace and Justice Network to coincide with President Barack Obama’s appearance at the academy in New London on May 18 was a quiet affair.
President Bush’s appearance drew a crowd of 400 protestors, organizer Joanne Sheehan recalled, whereas this protest boasted barely 40 people. Then again, Sheehan said, this wasn’t as much of a protest as it was an opportunity to remind President Obama of the promises he made when he was elected.
“A lot of the people here voted for him,” Sheehan said. “But we voted for promises he’s not keeping.”
The protest began with participants reading aloud a letter to President Obama signed by 234 people that organizers had paid to have printed in .
“Mr. President, we were inspired by the dream of change you championed in your campaign—from closing Guantanamo Bay, to comprehensive immigration reform, to greening America through renewable energy, to providing affordable health care for all,” read Sheehan’s son Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer of New London. “We urge you to hold firm that vision. Hold firm to requiring that all contribute generously to the general good. Hold firm to a government that upholds the rights of people more than the privileges of corporations. Hold firm to becoming a peacemaker on whom we and the people of all nations can rely.”
Pushing shopping carts to represent the homeless, wearing white lab coats to represent health care, and donning orange jump suits to remind people of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, protesters followed a route to the Coast Guard Academy with stops designed to draw attention to different social justice issues.
The protest began downtown at New London’s Parade Plaza. Standing in front of the Soldiers & Sailors, Joanne Sheehan spoke out against increases in military spending at a time when funding for education and health care is being cut. The federal budget for 2012 has earmarked $1.372 billion for military spending, she said, noting that amounts to 48 percent of the federal budget.
“Today, we’re going to visit the places where the money isn’t,” said Sheehan.
The group’s next stop was the Crystal Avenue high rise apartments, where Paul Jakoboski of St. Francis House in New London pointed out that nearly 4,000 people use emergency housing shelters every day in Connecticut and that, according to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, half of the people staying at homeless shelters today have never experienced homelessness before.
“There was an attempt to tear these housing units down and build more modern, energy efficient housing,” added Kit Johnson of Stonington, referring to the government-subsidized high rise apartments on Crystal Avenue. “A grant was applied for but it was turned down.”
At the Coast Guard Academy, Board of Education member Ronna Stuller of New London spoke about the rising cost of education. “A Pell grant helped me earn a degree,” she said. “Today, in-state students at UConn are expected to spend $20,000 a year if they live on campus, yet Pell grants are being reduced.” How many students would benefit, she asked, if the $2 billion the government plans to spend on two new attack submarines went to fund education instead?
With no sign of the President, who was inside the Academy at that point, the march continued to its next stop: the Nathan Hale statue at , a neighborhood that is home to many health care providers. “In 2008, we elected Barack Obama as our president and he promised health care reform,” said John Murphy of Connecticut Citizens Action Group. Those efforts, he said, had been stymied by lobbying from corporations that make money on health care. “Health care is a right, not a privilege,” he said.
Sandra Brindamour, executive director of Alliance for Living also took the opportunity to point out that her agency’s budget had been cut by $100,000 and that 11 housing units that provided permanent homes for people with HIV and AIDS who are too sick to work had been lost.
At a stop in front of , Frieda Berrigan of Witness Against Torture called for President Obama to make good on his promise to release all prisoners still being detained at Guantanamo Bay and to prohibit the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. “Torture is never moral, never right, and is completely ineffective,” said Berrigan.
The last stop on the march was a branch on State Street, where protestors entered the bank to present the manager with bill for unpaid income taxes. After the federal government spent billions to bail out banks, Alexandra Ferreira of Connecticut Citizens Action Group said, “It’s about time we held them accountable. They need to pay their fair share.”
Although one bank employee threatened to call the police, another manager took the whole thing in stride, listened to what the protestors had to say and gave them contact information for the bank's corporate spokesperson.
The march ended back at the Parade Plaza with a free lunch provided by the organization Food Not Bombs.