A coffee mug used by Department of Public Safety Commissioner John A. Danaher III showing the Confederate flag in a Civil War battle has angered black leaders who said it was insensitive to display a symbol of hate, particularly when the state police have been under fire for complaints of racism.
The issue arose Wednesday night after the NAACP met with members of the Commission on African American Affairs to discuss how to address recent allegations of rampant racism within the state police and state Department of Correction. The African American Affairs Commission is a group of citizens appointed by the legislature to improve and promote the well-being of African Americans in the state.
After the meeting, Dawne Westbrook, the attorney for the NAACP, said she was contacted by a state trooper who was offended by the mug, which she saw Danaher drinking from when she met with him in his office over the racism issue and other problems within the department. Danaher has written a letter of apology to the trooper.
The mug incident fueled concerns about racism that were raised after state police Sgt. Andrew Crumbie filed a complaint in June with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, saying derogatory words were used about his race by high-ranking state police officers. Crumbie, who is black, had been chief of staff to former Public Safety Commissioner Leonard Boyle, and then director of the state police forensic laboratory. He said he was removed for political and racial reasons. He also said the state police had a history of unfavorable treatment of minorities.
Then in July another black trooper came forward with offensive e-mails that were sent among troopers at the state police forensic laboratory. One was a still photograph of a black man lying on the street surrounded by watermelon rinds and chicken bones. The headline on the e-mail read "fatal overdose?" Another e-mail had a video attachment of a tow-headed white girl with a lisp sitting at a kitchen table in a yellow shirt and spewing racial slurs with the encouragement of two adults.
While Danaher has sent the letter of apology to Master Sgt. Theresa Freeman, and said he has taken the mug home, he said it depicts an artist's rendition of the third day of the battle of Gettysburg, with the beaten Confederate soldiers retreating.
Danaher said he has used the mug for seven years since his sons bought it for him as a gift when they visited Gettysburg.
"There are pictures of soldiers on horseback in retreat having lost," Danaher said. The flags were the "size of a postage stamp," he added.
He said his sons, who were 9 and 12 at the time, wanted to buy him a souvenir because he always bought them ones. He said he explained that to Freeman and she seemed satisfied with the answer.
"I wrote her a letter saying we discussed this and that I explained its origin," Danaher said, adding he also said that he took the mug home once he learned it had bothered her.
"I've removed it from my office and apologized for the misunderstanding," Danaher said. He said he fully understands the symbol of the flag. Danaher said he is continuing to meet with black troopers to discuss their concerns about racism.
But black leaders said Danaher should have been more sensitive about the symbol, particularly when he was meeting with a black trooper. Gov. M. Jodi Rell at the state police graduation last week said racism within the state police "will be rooted out and eliminated." She said "unequal treatment, harassment of any kind will not be tolerated."
But Wednesday night, several troopers, former troopers and correction officers met with the NAACP and then went to the African American Affairs Commission meeting. They requested a public hearing be held on the issue of racism in the state within the next several weeks, along with a meeting with Rell.
Black leaders said there needs to be more understanding about racially sensitive issues such as display of the Confederate flag.
"If this is true I find it very hard to believe someone of such a high position of power wouldn't recognize the significance of the symbol," Westbrook said. "It's been a symbol of racism and hate."
The Confederate flag has been controversial around the nation, particularly in the South, where it reminds some of the South's attempt to keep slavery legal during the Civil War.
"It's associated with hate groups nationwide," Westbrook said. "For someone in a position of leadership who heads public safety, what does it say about the issue of race relations and insensitivity?"
Westbrook said she does not know Danaher and has only heard good things about the him, since he was named commissioner in March. But she said that even if he is a history buff, and considered the mug a souvenir, "why would he want to memorialize that?"
Westbrook's comments came after Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut state conference of NAACP branches, urged the commission to join forces and hold a public hearing about the racism issue.
"If it's true that needs to be dealt with immediately," Esdaile said. "There is a deep history of pain and suffering under that flag and we need to have a zero tolerance."
Contact Tracy Gordon Fox at email@example.com.
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