Justice for the people by any means, get these racist cops up off the streets,” shouted protesters yesterday afternoon as they marched on the streets of New Haven as part of the seventh annual National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality. About 50 people attended the rally and the speeches were powerful. However, half of those in attendance were Yale students. Considering how widespread police brutality is in New Haven, why weren’t more of the people who face police harassment every day there?
One reason could be that activists often hold these events without reaching out to the populations on whose behalf the events are being organized. Many student and community organizations rely on easy outreach strategies — such as sending e-mails and postering on campus and downtown — and established networks of supporters.
Except that for this march, the coalition of students and community activists behind it recognized the limits of this type of organizing. We spent hours talking to people on the main streets of local neighborhoods like Fair Haven, Dixwell, Newhallville and areas of West Haven. We did publicity at the courthouse on Elm Street, intersections downtown where kids were hanging out, popular spots like Popeye’s, and clubs on Whalley Avenue — not Crown Street — at 2 a.m. We gave out more than 2,000 flyers and engaged many people in personal conversations. Yet still, only 25 of them came to Tuesday’s protest.
The problem is that people in the community feel powerless to resist the harassment they suffer from the police on a routine basis — and with good reason. The complaint process within the New Haven Police Department seems to have no effect, and New Haven’s civilian review board exerts no real influence. While everyday harassment goes unchecked, even major events such as the murder of unarmed black men do not see justice served.
On April 13, 1999, police gunned down an unarmed black 14-year-old, Aquan Salmon, in the streets of Hartford. That night, police responded to a report of a woman being beaten. They came across a car carrying four black males, which they could not connect to the beating, and chased it until the car stopped and the young men, including Salmon, fled. Police shouted at Salmon to stop and when he did not, Officer Robert Allen shot him in the back.
Salmon’s murderer earned himself paid temporary leave.
Almost exactly two years earlier, on April 15, 1999, 21-year-old Malik Jones was killed by East Haven police. Officers began to pursue Jones for reckless driving and chased him from East Haven back to Fair Haven, where he lived. They boxed him in between a police car and a van, and East Haven police officer Robert Flodquist approached his car. Claiming Jones backed up the car to run him over, Flodquist broke the driver’s side of the window with his gun and shot Jones, who was unarmed, four times at point-blank range. Forensics experts later estimated the car to be going 6 miles per hour.
Flodquist convinced the courts he was justified in killing Jones.
Even the four white police officers who fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo on his own doorstep were acquitted. How blatant a case of misconduct do we need to see police be held accountable for their violence?
Racial bias has been well documented by a variety of studies since the 1990s. Human Rights Watch conducted an extensive survey of 14 large cities around the country and determined in its 1998 report “Shielded from Justice” that “excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment, persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses.”
As for sentencing, black youths, according to the Department of Justice, are 48 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison for comparable drug offenses. Overall, black men are imprisoned on drug charges 13.4 times more than white men, though blacks make up only 13 to 15 percent of U.S. drug users. Furthermore, 60 percent of U.S. prisoners are minorities, and the incarceration rate of blacks is eight times that of whites, leaving one-third of all black men in jail or on probation.
Yesterday’s march was an attempt to recognize that these are not empty figures to be calculated and decried just once a year on Oct. 22. Rather, they are reflections of the lived experiences of New Haven’s poor and brown and black residents.
The issue of police misconduct rose to the fore again recently, after 18-year-old Gary Tyson was chased by West Haven police onto I-95 and fatally struck by a pickup truck. Police were responding to a call about a fight between Tyson and another black man. When they arrived, the two men fled and the police pursued Tyson. The officers who responded knew Tyson and could have picked him up later at his home where they knew he would be, but instead they chose to chase him. If two Yale students were fighting, would police hunt them down? Would they even respond? In this case, Tyson was treated as a murderer or rapist, not someone guilty of disturbing the peace.
Given the documented history of police abuse, is it any wonder that people run from the police? If they do, is that an offense punishable by death?
The New Haven march was about incidents of harassment suffered every day. We need look no further than the abuse visited upon black teenagers who ride their bikes through the campus streets. Following the recent series of purse-snatching incidents, police were seen several times chasing innocent black kids, detaining and illegally searching them, and cursing at them and treating them roughly. Furthermore, the abundance of people who honked their horns in support of the march and others who joined in to tell their own stories of police abuse make clear that police brutality is a common experience in the city.
Cops who kill and cops who abuse their power are cowards who must be exposed and held accountable for their actions. While most police serve our community well, some are motivated by racist fears. To them, a black man unarmed is as dangerous as a white with a gun. The New Haven community, including Yale students, must ensure that attention to police misconduct does not begin and end every Oct. 22. Rather, we must coordinate a long-term, multi-coalitional campaign to force police officers to exercise their authority more responsibly and to discipline those who do not.
Chiraag Bains is a senior in Morse College. He is a member of the Student Legal Action Movement.