The shooting of Stephanie Washington, a young black New Haven resident, by an officer of the Hamden Police Department and Yale University Police should produce grave concern and protest within the Yale student community.
Facts are still emerging, narratives are still changing, but one incontestable truth persists: Hamden and Yale University police shot an innocent, unarmed black woman.
How do we know she was innocent? The driver, Paul Witherspoon III, was released without charges, without even so much as a fingerprinting. His mother, Keisha Greene, confirmed as much during a community meeting with Hamden mayor Curt Leng and acting Police Chief John Cappiello, among other officials.
Moreover, a video taken by a neighbor contradicts the official narrative that claims the driver “exited the vehicle in an abrupt manner.” As Witherspoon’s red car is slowing down, one officer is seen exiting his car, drawing his gun, moving to the passenger side and quickly emptying his magazine into the passenger-side window. Perhaps most suggestively, the officer continues to shoot even as he runs away.
As we analyze this video, we cannot discount the fact that the officer, visibly afraid, is entering into a neighborhood that is unfamiliar and shrouded in racist symbolism. Newhallville is simultaneously one of the most heavily policed and one of the poorest communities in New Haven. Newhallville’s legacy in the public eye would not have been lost on the officer, who reacted in ways he would never have in certain, white parts of Hamden.
The whitewashed, diluted and abbreviated account initially provided to the students by the administration betrays our institution’s interest in minimizing and deflecting responsibility for its involvement in the incident.
According to the “public safety advisory” email, the Yale police officer was responding to a request for assistance from the Hamden police. Both the Hamden police officer and the Yale police officer “discharged their weapons,” and “a passenger in the vehicle was struck.” The email — laden with euphemistic language, passive voice, and equivocation—is not an advisory notice, but the first attempt at justification.
News headlines that continue to identify Witherspoon and Washington as suspects and not the victims of police brutality—or even simply Connecticut residents — are equally responsible for misrepresenting the truth. A media that relies exclusively on official narratives are servants of official narratives.
I write this article as a Yale student but, more importantly, as a relatively new, but intentional member of the Newhallville community, where the shooting occurred.
In eight brief months, I have witnessed and felt the darkening effect of Yale’s long shadow on these particular underfunded and underserved communities. The racial and economic divisions between Newhallville and Yale are palpable and visceral.
As recently as February, more than one hundred people rallied at City Hall to protest the University’s failure to fulfill the basic promise of stable employment opportunities. In 2015, the University promised to increase the employment of New Haven residents from designated low-income neighborhoods, including Newhallville, by 500 in four years — a number they missed by more than 200.
With this shooting, that fault line of distrust has widened into a canyon. This breach must be openly acknowledged and repaired.
Yale University Police are, by law, “agents and employees of Yale University.” Their oath of office commits them to use the power entrusted to them “for the best interest of the University.” Not for New Haven, not for the common good, not even for the people of Yale, but for the University.
They are tasked with policing the border between “Yale” and the New Haven community. Since it is an artificial border, Yale Police frequently crosses into neighborhoods they have not sworn to protect, at least as is indicated by YPD’s General Order 104 (“Oath of Office”).
Because of its financial resources and political clout, the University is uniquely positioned to not only take responsibility for its role in this incident, but to also include the interests of the broader community in the name of reform.
The University has the opportunity to take the steps toward racial reconciliation in front of a local and national audience. Yale can move from silence and complicity to solidarity with our hurting neighbors. One way is to commit to pressure local law enforcement to ensure a transparent investigation and a just outcome.
Other steps toward solidarity can include: 1) the issue of a public apology, 2) a commitment to terminate the employment of any responsible party, 3) a review and revision of YDP’s relationship to the broader New Haven community, and 4) a renewed, material commitment to these communities of need.
But, until the University proves itself to be a reliable partner for justice, this movement must begin with the students.
As Yale students, we must ask ourselves, “Is my safety ensured at the expense of someone else’s?” In light of this shooting, the answer should be an unequivocal yes.
Within the University’s protective bubble, we can easily ignore the uncomfortable truths that implicate our institution in injustice. We must correct our vision to include the many overlooked and under-considered people who challenge our presumption of moral superiority.
How can we be national advocates for justice if we allow the injustices in our backyard to pass unnoticed? How can we study centuries of racial oppression in our classrooms, yet not speak up when we witness it first-hand? Stephanie Washington might not have died from the bullet, but this fact in no way lightens the burden of responsibility. We must continue to #SayHerName, along with other black and brown people who have been brutalized by the police.
Students should monitor social media, in particular the Black Lives Matter New Haven Facebook page, for updates on future protests.
Joshua Cayetano is a first year at the Yale Divinity School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mentioned that a protest would be held in front of President Salovey’s house every day at 5:30 p.m. unless otherwise stated. That has since been amended to recommend that students get further information on protests through the Black Lives Matter New Haven Facebook page.