Two weeks ago, a man’s life ended a few paces from our doorsteps. Many of us came out of our houses and assembled on the street on that cold winter night, shocked at what transpired, trying to make meaning of such a violent act on an otherwise ordinary Friday night.
New Haven’s two main daily newspapers devoted just a few lines to the homicide. There was no public outcry, no statements from city officials, nothing of consequence emerged from the individuals and institutions that represent our beloved city. It was almost as though this murder had taken place in another city.
The victim, Varnouard Hall, was a young African-American male. The shooting took place in Fair Haven, a working class neighborhood that has historically been home to waves of immigrants. We can’t help but ask — had the victim been white, or wealthy, or a Yale student, or had it taken place in East Rock or downtown, would it have registered more outrage? Or have we become so indifferent that a murder of one of our own neighbors gets less coverage than the debut of a local chocolate bar, like Chocolate Maya?
Here is what we have come to know about Varnouard Hall, known as “Nard” to family and friends. That he grew up right here in New Haven, and attended its schools as a young boy. He made people laugh and mentored young men. And he was deeply loved by his family, children and friends.
And here is what we know about our street. Our neighbors are hardworking city residents who care about their neighborhood and city, the type of folk who come by and help shovel out your driveway and walk their kids to school. We joined more than 50 of Hall’s family members and friends for a vigil at the site where he died. We watched as each person raised a finger in the air to the man that passed too briefly. We watched as police officers came, the only representatives of the city to show up.
Here is what we would like our city to recognize: That individual lives matter, irrespective of what neighborhood they come from. That one of the most basic human dignities is to live out one’s years without fear of predatory violence. In order that we as a unified community value the life that our city lost, we need to recognize, revalue and rid.
First, recognize that Hall’s death is a collective crisis even as it affects some city constituents more than others. Despite steady declines in overall homicide across the nation for white men, young black men continued to die at increasing rates. Nationally, black people are victimized by homicide six times more than whites; an astonishing two-thirds of young black men reported having had a close friend or relative murdered.
The Fair Havens of the country bear strikingly little resemblance to the environment of neighborhoods like East Rock; only 20 percent of black neighborhoods claim the levels of safety that 90 percent of white areas enjoy. And if we dropped a pin on these places, they would be areas where people struggle for a decent wage, areas with the most insecure work opportunities and the least educational resources. Catastrophic rates of violence, concentrated in few areas, have grievous effects on business patterns, mobility and even the expectations that adolescents have for their futures, features that radiate outward and affect city life. We need to recognize these inequities.
Second, revalue: Nard’s death did not mobilize widespread public concern. Without that, it is difficult for our city to begin to design policies that address the problems that have made these communities less secure against violence in the first place.
And third: rid. The city has a responsibility to provide residents security from violence. That means we need not just punishment for crime but protection from it. Witnessing extreme violence should not be a rite of passage to adulthood. Anti-gang initiatives like Project Longevity, expanded community contact with police foot patrols and limits on the accessibility of guns are already having incredible effects.
But this is not a task for the police alone. We need a serious, decades-long investment in programs that serve as buffers against violence. One example of such work is the Street Worker Outreach program, which works to mediate conflicts before they escalate. The program engages with people from vulnerable communities, helping them to become advocates for young folks in the neighborhood. It helps to build viable communities with jobs and activities for youth. We are concerned that the Street Worker Outreach program has been allowed to wither on the vine.
We live in a city with one of the richest educational institutions in the world — why must city residents who live around Yale still vie for their very lives?
Sometimes, events occur in our city that force us to wake from our stupor and face our community’s challenges. Hall’s death, and other homicides that similarly elicit little public outcry, should be a reminder of our obligation to the city and its youth.
Kica Matos is the Director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change. Vesla Weaver is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Yale.