Woog's World: Westport's Jesup Green a popular spot for rallies, protests

In the 1960s, Jesup Green was a contentious place.

It was one of Westport’s go-to destination for anti-Vietnam War rallies. In 1969 and 1970, there were many rallies and spots that hosted them — Main Street in front of the old YMCA (now Anthropologie), Town Hall across the street (now Don Memo), the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge (before it was named for the United Nations activist). Yet somehow, everyone always ended up at the lawn sloping down to the river from the police station.

Pro-war rallies were held there too. They were smaller affairs, but still loud and raucous. And when the Memorial Day parade ended on Jesup Green — as it did for many years — at times even that sacred ritual was disrupted by political battles.

The area gained a bit of notoriety in the ‘70s too, when it served as the transfer point for the Minnybus system. Somehow — in the shadow of the police station — it became the most popular spot in Westport to sell drugs. But that’s another column.

In the 1980s, the green was the site of other protests, including by those advocating a ban on nuclear weapons.

For a couple of decades, Jesup Green was relatively silent. When the library moved there from across the Post Road in 1986, it became a place of contemplation. The biggest action came every July, when the library’s book sale took over for a week (and trampled the grass).

Now Jesup Green is back in Westport’s consciousness. It became a gathering spot of sorts last August, when Hurricane Isaias disrupted power all over town.

The library’s free WiFi drew hundreds of residents. They camped out on the newly designed steps, and spilled over onto the grass. It was a time of disease, fear and social distancing and the green offered a communal space, even as we kept our distance and sweltered in the sun.

A couple of months earlier, Jesup Green had stirred with righteous protest, as the Black Lives Matter movement rocked the community. A few rallies — both impromptu and planned — drew more than 1,000 people of all ages to the most natural gathering spot in town.

A green is by nature a place where people come together. It’s where voices can be heard, in a contained space. It’s where, once upon a time, militias trained and British subjects debated how to become a free nation.

Because our green sits just a few yards from the police station, the Black Lives Matter protests carried even more resonance. Police Chief Foti Koskinas, his deputies and officers did not hide in the brick building. They came outside. The chief addressed the crowd. It was a symbolic — and historic — moment for Jesup Green.

Several months later, the green was the site of another protest. This one condemned violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Speakers addressed national and local issues. Non-AAPI residents stood in solidarity with their friends and neighbors. The pain was real, but so was the sense that — by joining together on town ground — we could also find common ground to make things better.

Less than three months after that, one more group massed on Jesup Green. This time the cause was antisemitism. Recent violence in the Mideast spawned a rise in attacks around the United States, including the tri-state area. Clergy and Westporters of all faiths — and none — massed yet again. Wearing yarmulkes and Sikh turbans, sporting Chai necklaces and crosses, they sought solutions and found solace on a bit of grass in the heart of downtown.

Last Saturday, another rally was held. The issue was again social justice but the mood was different. The anger and emotion of Vietnam is long gone; everyone admits the war was a mistake, and everyone admires and respects our veterans. The fierce fear of nuclear weapons has receded, even if the threat infects more places than ever.

The rage at brutality against Black Americans, the sorrow that the AAPI community has been so marginalized and overlooked, the fear that antisemitism once again rears its ugly head — all of that is still real, and important.

But last Saturday’s LGBTQ Pride rally was something the venerable green has never before seen. Singers sang upbeat, positive songs. Staples students held signs, held hands, and spoke with strength and clarity about how it feels to be openly gay. Young kids had their faces and nails painted. Same-sex couples embraced. A gay father held his 2-year-old son, as the first selectman read a ringing proclamation.

And - for the first time ever - a rainbow flag flew over Westport’s old, venerable and very beautiful Jesup Green.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.