Stark forum reaction to #WhiteLivesMatter flyers

The "#White Lives Matter" flyers scattered anonymously in the middle of the night on local properties over the last week failed to achieve their apparent goal, Westporters told a forum called on the racially charged messages Sunday.

About 100 people turned out at the forum organized by TEAM Westport at the Westport Library for a candid discussion about the flyers and the broader context of racial and diversity issues that have arisen nationally during the last months.

"To me it was pretty clear that these were not an innocuous prank," said Westport News columnist and 06880 blogger Dan Woog, who helped guide the discussion. "This was definitely a racist flyer."

Woog explained that similar flyers scattered in Milford last month had links to racist websites. "It was very clear that this was done by the same people," he said of the flyers that have been tossed into driveways around town in plastic bags weighted down by stones on at least two separate evenings. Similar flyers were distributed in a Fairfield neighborhood as well.

"It was done in a cowardly and frightening fashion," said Liz Kaner of Westport, expressing a sentiment shared by several others who spoke.

Andrew Tartaglia of Milford, however, voiced a different view. "I'm not sure I understand the racially charged motive," he said, rhetorically asking if the flyers had referenced Hispanic lives or Jewish lives, would a similar public forum have been convened.

"Was anybody invited here to educate us about the Constitution (and) freedom of speech?" he said. "To me it was a simple statement. No one was threatened."

"The problem with it is it's scary and it's hard to name why," explained Beth Negron of Fairfield, who has black relatives. "There's a fear there of white supremacists (and) I'm not sure I can give you a logical reason."

"Every time one of my nephews gets called the N word, there's something terrifying about this," she said.

Tartaglia countered, "What about when someone of color calls someone who's white a name? It's sort of unequal all around."

"The default position in our culture is that white lives matter," said the Rev. Alison Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church, who helped lead the discussion. "It doesn't need to be restated."

Patton outlined the history of the slogan "Black Lives Matter," which she said originated with a woman named Alicia Garza following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida.

"Black lives are at the losing end of almost any disparity you care to mention," Patton said, following "layers and decades of injustice."

She called the "White Lives Matter" slogan "aspirational, but it's not descriptive because we live in a society full of racial disparities. Even with the very best intentions we end up disregarding the reality of so many, many people who have not had the experience."

Patton quoted Garza as offering "Black Lives Matter" as a motivational campaign, and said that in that context bringing up the question of white lives was like going to a cancer fundraiser and then asking about what's being done for all the other diseases.

Police Chief Dale Call, a Westport native, explained that no law had been broken with distribution of the flyers, but that at least one resident had expressed concern.

"What's most concerning to them is (someone) coming out in the middle of the night ... Why my driveway? Am I being targeted with these?" he said.

"Why would the time matter?" said Tartaglia, claiming he didn't understand why people were upset.

Tartaglia said that in December on the Post Road bridge there were demonstrators waving signs that said "Black Lives Matter," but it didn't draw concern from the community.

"I don't remember this media frenzy," he said. "Is this fair and balanced?"

Selectman Avi Kaner said he liked driving over the bridge in the summer and seeing the demonstrators there, "even if I disagree with them ... Bravo to them for doing that."

"The difference is this was thrown in people's driveways," he said. "At least one resident called the police. They were frightened."

The forum sponsors, which in addition to TEAM Westport included local clergy and other groups, said in a joint statement: "... We are united in declaring that these flyers have no place in Westport, which aspires to be an inclusive community that values a diverse population.

"We affirm the principle that all lives matter equally. However, there is much more work to do before our nation achieves genuine equality across race and ethnicity. In circumstances where this equality is not upheld, we affirm our commitment to support and pursue constructive efforts to redress institutional and cultural racism which tears at the fabric of our nation.

"In the next several months we will organize a number of opportunities in Westport for education, discussion and engagement on matters relating to race relations in the United States ..."