Courtesy of Barbara Fair

The Yale Daily News has published Barbara Fair’s name for almost two decades alongside several different modifiers: “Longtime community activist,” “racial justice activist” and “a prominent New Haven activist” comprise just a few.

Fair, who is now 70, grew up in New Haven’s Hill Area, where she has spent most of her life. She has been involved in community activism since the 1960s. By witnessing her brother go to prison as a teenager, she learned about “how unjust” the criminal justice system can be. She participated in decades of organizing and protests, giving testimony and travelling around the state and country to speak about the need for criminal justice reform.

But one incident changed her activist approach to bringing about change.

In July 2017, a small group of six demonstrators who self-identified as a local chapter of the Proud Boys — a national far-right neo-fascist fraternal group — rallied on the New Haven Green. Elm City activist groups, including Showing Up for Racial Justice, organized a counterprotest during the rally. Fair said that while she played no part in organizing the counterprotest, she attended spontaneously upon hearing that two of her children were at the protest.

Fair was arrested on charges of interference with the arrest of her nephew Keith Fair, who was arrested for disorderly conduct and interference with police, according to the News. In the middle of a crowd, while three officers put Fair in handcuffs, Fair called out,“I’m not doing anything. I’m not fighting nobody.” She said that the officers twisted her arms, even though she was not acting violently. Fair’s arrest was caught on camera by a former New Haven Register reporter.

“When you see the video, there is no way in the world that you could have prosecuted me,” Fair told the News.

Eventually, Fair and her nephew’s charges were completely dismissed. Fair confirmed to the News that this January she has filed a lawsuit against the three police officers and one sergeant over her arrest. She told the News that she filed the lawsuit in order to hold the officers accountable for the harm they caused her “physically and emotionally.” She said that she has not yet heard back from the New Haven Police Department.

Fair said that the incident on the Green — which was the first time that an officer “put his hands on her” despite decades of her participation in sit-ins, protests, spontaneous rallies —  has changed her outlook on reform completely.

“My spirit wasn’t broken, but it was shaken,” Fair told the News of the incident. “It took a lot out of me, but I never wanted to get away from this work.”

For decades, Fair used activism to push for reform. But she said that the July 2017 incident made her see that reform has only produced slight shifts in policy. Now, she believes that the path to significant change is working to “dismantle the system,” rather than reforming it.

She noted how she was pushing for bail reform in 2000, which people continue to push for today.

“I look back on all those years of doing this work, and I think ‘What has really changed in all that time?’”

Fair has not organized any protests since the incident, instead focusing on “trying to heal.” She went through counselling for a short while “to get back to her baseline.” She has also been meditating, taking vacations and working out. She is still participating in city activism in ways that allow her to “feel safe,” she told the News. In addition to giving talks around the city, she has set up community meetings with NHPD officers — both to give the community the opportunity to question how policing is done and for her own healing.

Fair spoke at Yale’s 2019 Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration on Jan. 23 at Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, as a member of a panel of local organizers who “honor King’s life and legacy through their daily work towards social justice,” according to Yale’s event website. In addition, she gave testimony last November at the Yale Law School at the first training for Legal Observers — individuals who position themselves close to demonstrations in order to accurately watch and report the interactions of law enforcement with demonstrators.

She now volunteers on Saturdays with the York Debate Society, a subgroup of the Rikers Debate Project, which visits the York Correctional Institution to work with incarcerated women in the facility. She said that she goes to inspire inmates and remind them they are still women and people.

“Barbara Fair is an incredibly dedicated volunteer with York Debate Society. She exudes empathy and compassion for the women of York, and her lifelong concern for social justice in Connecticut is powerful and inspiring,” said Ann Manov LAW ’21, who started the York Debate Society, told the News.

Despite her 2017 experience, Fair said that her relationship with the community has stayed the same. She said that she loves New Haven and will continue to do work for the city.

Fair has four daughters and seven sons. Fair is a grandmother of 26 and a great-grandmother of four.

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu