On Friday evening, over 100 activists, New Haven residents and Yale students came together to protest the recent arrests of local citizens Tyeisha Hellamns and Jeffrey Agnew.
The rally took place at Beverage Boss, a liquor store on Whalley Avenue. Six days ago, Hellamns and Agnew were arrested after refusing to leave Beverage Boss, which had requested Hellamns and Agnew provide a matching ID and credit card — something they did not display. Agnew, a 27-year-old New Haven resident, said he initially cooperated with police but was handcuffed then beaten and sprayed with pepper spray by three members of the New Haven Police Department. He has been charged with disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer.
“They were arrested by the police for trying to purchase liquor legally,” one protester said to the crowd. “I don’t like being beat up. I don’t think anyone does. It doesn’t feel good when you’re attacked by the people who have sworn to protect you. It makes me feel less safe to be here.”
Despite the persistent drizzle and unseasonably cold weather, the attendees carried signs and circled outside the liquor store for more than an hour and half, chanting sayings like “How do you spell guilty? N-H-P-D” and “No justice, no peace. No racist police.”
Groups present included Black Lives Matter, two local chapters of Show Up for Racial Justice, People Against Police Brutality and a handful of Yale organizations including Next Yale, Yale DOWN Magazine and the Dwight Hall Social Justice Network. On a list of 30 sponsors, just seven were unaffiliated with Yale.
The NHPD were also present, instructing the protesters to clear the driveways that flank Beverage Boss and to avoid protesting on the liquor store’s land. The demonstrators complied, moving to a smaller L-shaped patch of sidewalk.
“We are not allowing violence to happen here, on the streets of New Haven,” Leah, a protest organizer who declined to provide her last name, told the crowd after they shifted to the sidewalk. “We paid for this sidewalk we’re on.”
“Whose streets are these?” she called to the crowd, which responded “Ours.”
An April 30 NHPD report presented a different account of the arrest than did Agnew. According to the report, police arrived after Agnew began threatening the occupants of the liquor store and its clerk. The report said Agnew “fought with [police] and violently resisted arrest … Agnew was warned he’d be pepper-sprayed if he didn’t comply. He didn’t and was pepper sprayed.”
The report also noted that Agnew has been arrested eight times since 2009, and he has been released on bond.
Activists and residents alike noted the unprecedented turnout of Yale students, who comprised more than half of the demonstrators. One organizer said though it is sometimes difficult to engage with Yale students given the brevity of their stay in New Haven, he appreciates student support and hopes it will remain consistent.
Yale students said they heard about the protest either from an email, which went out to several sponsoring groups, or on Facebook, where a photo containing the date, time and location urged Yale students to attend in solidarity.
“There’s a sign over that says ‘The system is guilty.’ There are a bunch of names on that sign: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner,” one protester, a New Haven resident, told the crowd. “I thank God Jeffrey’s name isn’t on that sign … he was this close to being murdered and we’ve been talking about that here in New Haven for a long, long time. This police department under [Police Chief Dean Esserman] wants to tell us that they are a friendlier police department than we have in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and that could never happen in our city because we have community policing … that’s a bunch of bulls—. This police department is as brutal as any other.”
Cars driving east along Whalley Avenue slowed to honk at the throng of protesters, and some rolled down windows to take a handout bearing Hellamns and Agnew’s description of events as well as a list of demands.
These demands include: that the State’s Attorney drop charges against Agnew and Hellamns; that Mayor Toni Harp and Esserman suspend the officers involved and open an investigation into the incident; that the Board of Alders adopt the Malik-Dawson proposal for granting subpoena power to a Civilian Review Board of the NHPD; and the Connecticut legislature rewrite the law for interfering with an officer.
Black Lives Matter activists closed the event by reminding attendees that Agnew’s court date is May 16 and Hellamns’ is May 19, and exhorted people to call Harp and encourage her to suspend the officers involved.
Clarification, May 7: An earlier version of this article did not fully describe the circumstances in which Hellamns and Agnew were arrested.