Westbrook councilor Claude Rwaganje’s son said, “Dad, this has been happening for 400 years.” He didn’t know immediately how to respond. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Claude Rwaganje is the founder of the nonprofit ProsperityME, a Westbrook city councilor and the father of a 1-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 12 and 16. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he came to the United States in 1996.

It’s a tough conversation to have with kids. Since George Floyd was killed, it’s harder for me to convince them that we still have justice and fairness and not racism in the country because they watch it every day. What I try to tell them, what I try to help them understand, is that not every cop, not every police, is a bad person. I try to tell them that there are some isolated incidents that caused this to happen, but honestly they’re pushing back.

One of my sons, who is 16 years old, said this to me: “Dad, this has been happening for 400 years.” …. I didn’t know what to respond to that. I said, “Yes, it happened, but there is also progress that has happened in the meantime.” History has shown slavery and racism. But if you also look, history has shown things are a little bit different. You’ve seen a black president in the U.S.

They understand that, but they’re still hung up on the fact that when I said I don’t support any violence and the people should protest peacefully. They pushed back and said, “Dad, you don’t understand. They’re doing that because of the anger. They let the anger grow and grow and grow and now it’s an explosion.” This is what one of my sons said: “Maybe doing this might have them be heard.”

It looks like they’re really into it, thinking about it, watching what’s going on and meditating about it. So, the biggest issue is, are we safe as a black people? Am I safe as a black councilor? Am I safe with my family? Even the message we are sending, are we safe? That is the question we keep asking ourselves. What safety do we have, what protection do we have?

I used to not think about this issue at all as an immigrant, as a black person, knowing that the U.S. has a system in place to protect people. And I still believe we do. But I guess the issue is more about trying to look at the systematic racism that has been existing, as my son said, for 400 years. What are we doing to fix it? Are we moving forward? Are we going backwards? Is there any barrier stopping it?

That is something we are really struggling with and my kids are struggling with. Every evening we go to the news, we watch what’s going on and we always have different opinions. I try to say I support the peaceful demonstrations and ignore the minority who are doing the violence, but that we should not overlook the whole issue. That was bothering me a little bit, that some people are looking to violence and they call all the peaceful demonstrators terrorists. They ignore the side of the majority who are actually demonstrating peacefully and the claim they are asking, which is justice.

I’m happy to see that justice is working, but we just need to see what the jury will say at the end. It’s not easy to watch the video and come back and say to your kids or others that it’s fine. It’s not fine.

– Staff Writer Gillian Graham