Braving the frigid autumn air, over 100 people gathered on the West Haven green Monday night to protest police brutality and support the family of Gary “Chris” Tyson, who was killed in a West Haven police chase on September 23, just three weeks after his 18th birthday.
Three community groups organized the event in response to Tyson’s death, which protesters called the most recent incident in a national epidemic of police violence against black men.
“We have once again in our community lost one of our children,” Malik organization founder Emma Jones told the crowd, which included about 15 Yale students.
Tyson was hit by a car as he ran across Interstate 95, fleeing police officers who chased him from the scene of a reported fist fight. Tyson’s family contend that their son ran onto the freeway to escape a dog that the police had turned loose on him.
Standing on the stage last night, Tyson’s sister held a poster that read, “In 1702 we were hunted by dogs. In 1802, 1902 the same. Now in 2002 we are still being hunted and chased by dogs!”
Speakers demanded a thorough investigation into the events that led up to Tyson’s death, as well as the suspension of the officers involved pending the outcome. In particular, Jones and others questioned the need to use canine force and stage a prolonged manhunt in response to a breach of the peace complaint.
“You don’t turn a dog loose on anything that’s not indictable,” said Sgt. De Lacy Davis, the founder of Black Cops Against Police Brutality. Davis traveled from East Orange, N.J., to attend the rally.
Tyson’s father, West Haven rev. Charles Tyson, shared the story of his son’s death and his trouble extracting a straight story from police.
“Why did they pursue him like there was some murder, some assault?” he asked the crowd. “I am not going to stop until I get the answers to why my son had to die on the highway that night.”
Carol Brown, co-founder of the West Haven Black Coalition, said in an interview that Tyson’s death is part of a deep-seeded trend in West Haven and national law enforcement. She emphasized the need for a constructive working relationship between city residents and the police force, which has only seven black officers and detectives on a force of 115.
“We need to send a message to the city and the police department that we will not tolerate violence of any sort where our people are concerned,” Brown said. “Gary ‘Chris’ Tyson’s death is the icing on the cake. It has been coming. It’s just been a matter of time.”
Some of the Yale students in attendance said they think the time is especially ripe for police abuse of power, as the country focuses on impending war and the fight against terrorism.
“With the war in Iraq, I think that the increasing militancy of the police is only going to get worse,” said Kristina Weaver ’03, a member of the Student Legal Action Movement, which organized rides to the rally. “It is starting to target other communities as well — even people who fit the profile of the typical white Yale student. It’s becoming our issue as well.”
Fellow SLAM member Julian Perez ’02 agreed. “The idea of cracking down on crime has mushroomed since September 11,” he said en route to West Haven. “Now it’s more black and white, right and wrong. It’s no longer an issue of legality and justice.”
New Haven resident Shelton Tucker also questioned where the war on terror was leading domestic law enforcement.
“Afghanistan is kind of far away, but I could drive home tonight and get shot on my way,” Tucker said. “Let’s fight terrorism right here in this country.”
The rally drew members of several local and national community groups, including the Nation of Islam and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It was organized in part by the Interfaith Ministerial Alliance in New Haven. The protests against police abuse of power cut across racial lines, with a minister from the Hill district in New Haven expressing the Latino community’s solidarity with the Tyson family and one man describing police brutality against a white friend in Vermont. But speakers focused on the ongoing harassment of African Americans.
“The life of black males particularly has been devalued in law enforcement,” Davis said, describing the internal dynamics of contemporary police departments.
Domenic Vinci, a West Haven Police Department public information officer, defended the department in an interview Monday. The incident, he said, is being investigated by city and state police.
“There’s nothing being whitewashed or hidden,” Vinci said. “It’s a terrible tragedy that a young person like that was killed — But the way we look at it now there was really no violation of law or violation of our policies.”
Vinci said the officers involved remain on active duty.