Hundreds of New Haven activists, spiritual leaders and police officers gathered in Dixwell Sunday afternoon in a heartfelt show of solidarity. Together they sent one message: black lives matter; “blue lives” — those of police officers — matter.

This weekend’s “Stand Together Rally” outside Varick Memorial AME Zion Church was the city’s latest protest in the wake of recent violence in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas. As activists all over the nation took to the streets, New Haven residents gathered in the city’s first black neighborhood and listened to a dozen speeches from figures including Mayor Toni Harp, State Sen. Gary Winfield, and Yale police chief Ronnell Higgins. Speakers emphasized that advocating for black lives does not require standing against police.

“New Haven is not Louisiana, but it can be”

The recent deaths of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, at the hands of police officers gained national attention this week, falling in a long line of highly-publicized shootings of black people at the hands of law enforcement. Speaking with a united voice, city politicians and officers reassured protesters that the local police force is deeply engaged in the community.

“We recognize in New Haven that only the community can keep itself safe. The police are, and really should be, instruments of the community. When that doesn’t happen, we see what happened in these other places,” Harp told the crowd of 200.

When New Haven recruits finish their training at the police academy, she said, they spend one year in a community getting to know the neighbors.

Harp also noted that she has charged the Mayor’s Community-Police Relations Task Force with making recommendations to current policing protocol.

Several police officers echoed Harp’s message.

“Those of us who wear this uniform, those of us who are honored to wear this badge…We are not from the community, we are of the community,” Higgins said.  

While some speakers praised New Haven’s model of community-based policing, Scot X Esdaile, president of the state’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, acknowledged that racial profiling does exist in Connecticut  — a remark that brought nods from protesters.

Esdaile added that the “blue wall” of silence — which refers to officers not reporting their colleagues’ errors — must be addressed, and that doing so requires “speaking truth to power.”

New Haven is not immune to racism, Eldren Morrison, a pastor at Varick Memorial AME Zion Church and one of the rally’s organizers, said in an interview. He added that the event aimed to make the public more vigilant, in an effort to avoid similar police brutality in New Haven.

“New Haven is not Dallas, not Louisiana, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be. We are not exempt from this,” Tyra Pendergrass, a member of Varick Memorial AME Zion Church, said in an interview.

Looking beyond prayers

Tragedies can bring confusion, anger and pain, Morrison said, adding that he hoped the rally would provide an avenue for people to express their feelings.

Indeed, many took the opportunity. Throughout the one-and-half hour rally, emotions were running high and speakers and activists alike shed tears.

“It’s too much,” religious leader Todd Foster told the crowd. “The only reason I’m here today is because we’ve gotten to the place where it’s absolutely too much.”

Foster reminded his audience of the spiritual side to the killings. The “demon spirit” can get into “racist, ill-trained” cops and cause harm, Foster said. His fiery rhetoric won cheers and applauses from protesters.

Winfield began his address by confessing that he does not know how to cope with events from the past week. The chant, “Black lives matter,” means nothing when black men are “assassinated” on streets, Winfield said, his voice shaking.

“If being strong for a person like me is sometimes founded in crying, I’ve been very strong the past few days,” Winfield said.

Thoughts and prayers are valuable, but what comes next? That was the question at the heart of many speeches during Sunday’s rally.

Both Winfield and Valarie Wilson of Urban League, a nonpartisan civil rights organization, found the answer in voters’ economic power.

“We talk about people buying politicians — buy some for yourself,” Winfield appealed to the protestors.

He said voters can use their collective power to shape legislation. If a politician does not represent the people, Winfield said, voters should “put their money together” and remove that politician from office.

Winfield noted that Connecticut last year passed an act concerning excessive use of force by police. The legislation mandates efforts to recruit minority police officers in minority-concentrated neighborhoods, as well as an investigation into officers’ using deadly physical force.

Voters have to fight to make sure that similar legislation is passed at the federal level, Winfield said.

“I’m tired of marches,” Esdaile said. “We must pray, and work after the prayer?. There has to be action after the vigil. There has to be action after this rally.”