Rally in Manchester supports Black Lives Matter activist who was spat on by anti-vaccination protester at Capitol

Christopher Arnott, Hartford Courant

Around 150 people attended a rally Saturday afternoon held by Power Up Manchester in support of the group’s founder Keren Prescott, following an unsettling encounter the local activist had outside the state Capitol building on Wednesday.

At a demonstration outside the Capitol building to mark the beginning of the legislative session, anti-vaccination activist Yuliya Gilshteyn of New Fairfield yelled at, and then deliberately spat upon, Prescott. Gilshteyn was charged with breach of peace and ordered to appear in court Jan. 20. Prescott’s supporters believe the charges should be more severe, reflecting that there was an assault.

A video of the Capitol incident has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Instagram and other social media.

Saturday’s rally, which began at 2 p.m. in the park at the corner of Main and Center streets in Manchester, lasted more than an hour and ended with the crowd being invited to sign a giant banner reading “Declare Fascism a public health crisis,” which it was announced would be taped to the door of the Governor’s Residence.

Other signs at the rally read “Racism Kills,” “Protect Black Women,” “White Silence = Compliance” and “Justice for Keren.” There were many “Black Lives Matters” signs, banners and pins. Dozens of cars honked in support during the rally.

Asked prior to the rally how she is feeling since Wednesday’s incident, Prescott said she was simultaneously “frustrated, angry and excited.” She said that she has been receiving advice about federal and state charges that could be brought against Gilshteyn, and that she has learned there is an existing Connecticut statute that includes spitting as an aggressive act. She said that no additional charges against Gilshteyn have yet been brought.

State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, spoke at the rally before Prescott. Manchester is not in the district he represents, but the senator told The Courant he attended because “I am strongly focused on racial issues.” Anwar recalled that when the spitting incident happened Wednesday he was inside the Capitol building “taking an oath, busy with bills. But I was sent the video, and was heartbroken and very upset, so I reached out. I feel this was a hate crime. In the pandemic, this was a targeted assault.”

Turning to Prescott during his remarks to the crowd, Anwar said, “I am standing here, and if anyone is going to attack you they have to go through me.” Safety concerns had been voiced by the organizers, and a self-defense lesson was provided. Several police officers were present. There were no counterprotesters at the events. One man was asked to leave because he was talking too loudly for some of the speakers to be heard.

Prescott insisted that those in the crowd all wear masks, saying that she’d had three COVID-19 deaths in her family this year.

Malina Floyd, who was with Prescott at the Capitol on Wednesday, also spoke at the rally. She described what she had witnessed and asked “How do you just walk away from a clear hate crime?”

Prescott was the final speaker, beginning with an explanation that, “This is about Black women, protecting Black women, listening to Black women.” She spoke about how she had gone to the Capitol to try to “get the attention of the governor” and other politicians, “to tell them to declare racism a public health crisis.” She again described the altercation with Gilshteyn, which hinged on Prescott taking offense with Gilshteyn’s mention of “Black on Black crime.”

“She didn’t want my power to exist,” Prescott said to cheers, “but I’m here, baby. All she did was give me a bigger platform to stand on.” As she said that, Prescott stepped up onto the stone wall she’d been standing by, to renewed cheers from the crowd. “I’m just getting started,” she said, mentioning times of suffering in her life. “I’m not afraid anymore.”

Then, as she had on Wednesday at the Capitol, Keren Prescott led chants of “Black Lives Matter.”

Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@courant.com.