Kerry Ellington — a representative from the New Haven chapter of Black Lives Matter — screamed into the microphone as a sea of students, community members and spectators crowded around her this past Monday evening on the corner of York and Elm streets. “Justice for Stephanie and justice for Paul!” she fervently chanted, her voice growing higher in pitch and intensity each time.
The crowd repeated the words after her, needing to believe that what she said would finally come true. We needed to believe that the firing of Yale Police Department officer Terrance Pollock and Hamden officer Devin Eaton was not just an option, but an impending reality. We needed to fight the injustice that surrounded us, using our voices to scream for the victims of police brutality.
I don’t know if Stephanie Washington or Paul Witherspoon’s family members were in attendance, but I do know that everyone left that rally feeling a deeper connection to the couple, who were in their car when police shot at them repeatedly. Everyone left feeling the burden to obtain justice for Stephanie and Paul, as if they were our sister, brother, uncle or aunt — as if they were our own relatives and members of our personal community.
That profound connection and understanding is something you can’t completely experience by watching the news coverage from a dorm or viewing the rally-related pictures on social media. It’s something you can’t entirely grasp from just talking or even writing about it. Yes, words are powerful, but if actions fail to follow, what good are they? Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. was an exceptional orator, but even he knew the power of a protest.
In order to strive toward this level of political engagement, we must learn to sympathize with those who are in need around us. I’d hate for my Yale peers to succumb to a world that accepts that “a retweet is often the most sympathy” that victims of political discrimination deserve, as Dereen Shirnekhi ’23 so wonderfully wrote in her recent opinion piece for the News. Actions have ripple effects. It’s our duty as privileged Yale students to fight on behalf of those within the New Haven, Hamden and Connecticut communities not just from our dorms or smartphones, but out on the street, with signs in our hands and passion in our hearts.
After all, this is our shared community. We may come from different backgrounds, we may have different interests, but we are all here in New Haven together. We all need to ask ourselves frequently, “How do my actions impact the people who actually live here, who will continue to live here long after I graduate? Am I continuously supporting efforts to obtain racial and economic equity for the people who call this city home?”
These are the questions I’ve found myself pondering more and more on campus. Yale students are often known for their inclusivity, for their ability to promote diversity and inclusion in all parts of their lives. And Yale faculty have similarly made comfort for all students a priority in their classrooms. Yet I still find myself wondering if we’re all doing enough beyond the confines of Yale.
My intention here is not to be cynical about this institution and its inhabitants. In fact, I’ve enjoyed all of my classes, the new people I’ve met and the many things that make Yale so special. But there needs to be more. Our education here should not only occur in the classroom, but also in how we engage with the world around us and the people that inhabit it.
Issues like unfair policing are happening now — they will not wait until we have finally gotten our degrees. We must act as students — today. Protests and rallies are demanding immediate action, and we need to answer that plea.
What I’m calling Yale students, and even myself, to do more often is to support causes that may not directly affect us or our education on a day-to-day basis. Because if the end goal is a united campus and society, it is important to care for the people outside of our own individual circles. This university may be equipping us with the proper tools to be the leaders of tomorrow, but today, we must learn how to be leaders, too. Nothing should be hindering us from taking a stand for social, political and economic justice, for Yale students and New Haven residents alike.
Of course, I am not saying Yale students aren’t already doing this — many of us have proven that we are willing to fight for these crucial causes. But there’s always room for improvement.
Most importantly, we are not here to take over these advocacy spaces, many of which have been built by local residents, but rather to uplift, respect and contribute to this community that we are all now a part of. Sometimes, being a leader can mean letting others who know more take the lead.
Toward the end of Monday’s rally, Ellington shared that there would be another protest at Hamden City Hall, which happened this past Wednesday. She said that she hoped that Yale students would make the effort to show up just like the community members that came to the protest on Monday did at Yale. When she said this, I thought about the privilege we have at Yale, and the importance of acknowledging what it means to be here. Moreover, I also recognized the importance of never acquiring an elitist perspective towards these communities, many of which have had to reshape and readjust their lives around our presence.
Our impact should stretch beyond the classroom and beyond Yale, as we work with Connecticut residents not only to obtain justice for Stephanie and Paul, but also to better the community we all have a responsibility to.
ZAPORAH PRICE is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .