A few weeks ago, roughly 200 New Haveners took to the streets to protest Donald Trump’s discriminatory and unconstitutional immigration policies. State and local police both responded to the protest. Things soon turned hostile. By the end of the protest, state police had intimidated the protestors with dogs and pepper spray and aggressively subdued some of the protest’s leaders. One protestor sustained a concussion, and a 66-year-old activist was pepper-sprayed multiple times in the face.
As with any controversial event, there were many perspectives on how the day unfolded. The police assert that when protestors blocked Route 34 — the highway off-ramp leading to downtown — at least one ambulance with a critically ill patient was delayed from reaching the hospital. The protestors disagree, and video footage shows protest organizers stating their willingness to move for emergency vehicles multiple times.
State police charged Norman Clement — the 66-year-old protest organizer who was repeatedly pepper-sprayed — with inciting a riot when they aggressively arrested him. If you watch the video of the protest, which is posted online, the events that unfolded were pretty clear. Clement was standing on the sidewalk — not in the street — leading a chant. A state trooper pointed at him and said, “See him right there! He’s the 37! He’s got the microphone! You’re under arrest!” Multiple state officers, as well as at least one police dog, charged in his direction. (The state trooper who initiated the charge — and allegedly pepper-sprayed Clement multiple times — is currently being sued in federal court for allegedly beating a Stratford man during a separate arrest in 2014.)
Police aggression in response to the protest was shameful. Protestors who engage in civil disobedience should be prepared to face legal consequences, including arrest, for their actions. This has been true of all the great practitioners of civil disobedience, from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. and beyond. But there is no reason for police to use dogs or pepper spray on nonviolent protestors, or to charge into a crowd to arrest a peaceful protest leader.
The response to the protest differed vastly from the productive manner in which many recent demonstrations have been handled — largely because of the involvement of the state police.
The New Haven Police Department, in general, works closely and collaboratively with protestors and does not deploy dogs and pepper spray when dealing with nonviolent crowds. In contrast, state policy allows such tactics. But just because their actions were consistent with policy doesn’t make the actions of state officers acceptable — and the New Haven Police should have stepped up and taken control of the situation.
Though there were a handful of Yale students at the protest, most Yalies were unaware of the event and the aggressive police response that followed. But we should have known — and we should have been outraged. Over the past few years, Yalies have exercised our right to protest liberally and productively — as we should. But each time we’ve gathered on Cross Campus or in Battell Chapel or in front of University President Peter Salovey’s house to protest issues from divestment to renaming to campus climate, we’ve had the privilege of protesting free from fear of an aggressive or violent police response. We need to realize that that’s a luxury that New Haveners aren’t afforded — and be part of the push for institutional reform.
What are the next steps? First, both the local and state police departments are conducting investigations into officers’ conduct at the protest. Activists and journalists should keep the pressure on both departments to investigate the incident thoroughly, mete out discipline where appropriate and establish procedures to prevent this incident from happening again.
New Haven’s city charter mandates a Civilian Review Board that can evaluate complaints of police misconduct. Theoretically, it could investigate why and how local officers deferred to state officers and their more aggressive tactics. Sadly, the Joint Public Safety and Legislation Committee of the Board of Alders, tasked with creating a new civilian review board for this purpose, hasn’t even held a public meeting for over a year and a half. This, too, will require public pressure to fix.
In a day and age where our president publicly belittles detractors and scorns the media to create his own truths, the rights of dissenters to protest — even disruptively — need to be protected more fiercely than ever. When you’re operating in a post-truth political world, civil disobedience often becomes a necessity. New Haven Police should send a strong message to state police that their violent tactics are neither necessary nor welcome in our city, and establish procedures to make sure city police take the lead when both city and state officers respond to protests. And Yalies should fight to make sure everyone in our city has equal access to free assembly and speech that we so liberally exercise on campus.
Fish Stark is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .