Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
Isabel Blake has raised ten children in Hartford. She has been recognized since 1968 as a top leader of the local poor people’s movement, advocating for public housing residents and welfare recipients. Now it’s 1971, and she heads up Welfare Mothers’ Rights and the statewide group Welfare Recipients Are People (WRAP).
The group’s target is Governor Thomas Meskill, a conservative who calls the state’s welfare system “a monster” and proceeds to slash critical assistance to recipients. In just one day he vetoes tax breaks for low-and moderate-income housing, funding for vocational training in the prisons (just two months before New York’s Attica prison rebellion), and a procedure that would make it easier for welfare recipients to save for a rent deposit.
Worst of all, the legislature has established the “flat grant” payment system that will mean cuts to rental assistance. “Flat grants are lower rent standards in disguise,” says Blake. The activists draw up written demands ending with “Stop playing God. You’re no better than we are and we are all human beings.”
Isabel Blake and other leaders plan an October 13th rally at Bushnell , which borders the State Capitol. The event coincides with a demonstration against the Vietnam war. Locally, peace activists are making the connections between the war’s rising costs and the resulting cuts in domestic programs: $40 billion (in today’s dollars) in 1968 alone. “You want us to work but you won’t train us, provide us with day care, or help us get jobs. You deceive poor people,” Blake declares.
The occupation is now the state’s big news. Taking advantage of the spotlight, the protestors personally deliver their rent payments to Henry White, Meskill’s hand-picked welfare commissioner. The cutbacks planned for November 1st will make it even tougher to pay the rent. White refuses the money; the activists have made their point.
The welfare moms, backed by churches and progressive groups, spend the day inside the State Capitol to lobby legislators. “Violence in State Capitol” reads a panicky newspaper headline. “The violence is being done to families by totally unjust cuts in family budgets,” says a spokesperson for the local Basic Human Rights Coalition.
Constant lobbying and rallies soon develop into a tent city on the Capitol lawn. More than 100 people stay the night and more come by day. Meskill publicly threatens to break up the protest by force. “Are you ready to go to jail?” reporters ask Blake. “I’m ready to go to hell,” she replies.
Just before dawn on October 20th, Hartford police close in and arrest Blake and Puerto Rican leader Francesca Cruz, who alerts the other occupiers with a crude public address system before she can be stopped.
Support grows for the tent city and their demands. The state chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) occupies the Capitol over night in solidarity with the two welfare protest leaders. Nine-year old Aida Rivera delivers a devils-food cake to the Governor’s office with the words “Meskill the Blue-Eyed Devil.”
On the tent city’s sixteenth day, a judge grants an injunction against the November cuts. It’s a temporary win in a longer fight, but as community leader Ramon Quiros tells the jubilant protestors at their victory party, “this is a night of celebration.”
The jury trial of Blake and Cruz finally takes place a year after the arrests. They are both acquitted. “Will you go back to the Capitol?” she is asked. “No. Just wait and see what I do,” Isabel Blake replies.