Angela Xiao

Over the past week, protests have erupted in New Haven consistent with a nationwide outcry over police officers’ use of deadly force against black people. 

On Sunday afternoon, over 1,000 protesters chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “No justice, no peace” as they began their march from downtown New Haven. In the Elm City, this week’s protests were partly organized in response to a viral video showing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, for nearly nine minutes –– resulting in Floyd’s death. Activists, mourning the death of Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, more broadly denounced instances of police violence across Connecticut and demanded sweeping changes in New Haven police practices.

Individuals marched and delivered speeches from Broadway to City Hall before continuing on to shut down parts of the I-95 highway, where they sat down on the road and held cardboard signs emblazoned with slogans condemning police violence and supporting movements including Black Lives Matter. Protestors then proceeded to the steps of the New Haven Police Department, where prominent city activists spoke in front of a line of silent NHPD officers. The activists stood separated from the officers by a yellow chain link. 

“When [police] see a black body, they think it is their right to assault that black body,” People Against Police Brutality activist Kerry Ellington said, pointing to the chain. “There is symbolism in this moment. The symbolism is that there is a barrier between the people, between the community, and the place we pay taxes for. New Haven prides itself, the police prides itself, they brand themselves as community police officers. Does this look like community policing?” 

Amongst the key demands of the protestors is to end the “triple occupation” of New Haven –– referring to the fact that the city has seen police intervention from the NHPD, the Hamden Police Department and the Yale Police Department. Last April, an HPD officer and a YPD officer opened fire on an unarmed black couple, Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, while they were driving in a New Haven neighborhood. Last year, New Haven resident Jarelle Gibbs died in a vehicle crash after being pursued by Hamden police. And earlier this year, New Haven teenager Mubarak Soulemane was killed by state troopers after a high-speed car chase.

Protestors also criticized the city for its protracted progress in creating a civilian review board –– a body of New Haven residents appointed to investigate police misconduct and accountability. Legislation officially establishing the parameters of the board passed last January by the Board of Alders. However, its actual implementation has stalled for months as the city struggles to decide which nominees to confirm as members — only seven of the 13 to 15 available seats have been filled so far.

“The mandate for black people in this time is to avenge the suffering of our ancestors,” the crowd repeated after Black Lives Matter New Haven co-founder Ala Ochumare as she stood in front of Campus Customs on Broadway. “We ain’t going nowhere until we’re free.” 

Tensions ran high when protestors approached the line of officers outside the NHPD headquarters and attempted to enter the building to speak to New Haven mayor Justin Elicker. In a tweet earlier in the day, Elicker said that he was “monitoring the situation” from inside the NHPD. Protestors stated that they had a right to go inside the headquarters as it was funded by taxpayers. 

In a live video posted on Facebook by the Connecticut Bail Fund, NHPD officers are shown pepper spraying protestors and physically pushing them away from the entrance of the building. Protestors can be seen attempting to soothe their eyes with milk and water as they continue to chant. 

Over six hours into the protest, Elicker emerged outside the NHPD building to speak with protestors after releasing a public statement. 

“I’m glad to share that so far, the protest has been mostly peaceful, and the New Haven Police Department has shown great restraint,” Elicker said. “I also stand ready to talk collaboratively with the protestors and the community at large to better understand, to listen and to begin to address racism. But we must have these conversations respectfully, collaboratively and peacefully.” 

As darkness fell, some protesters were still standing on the steps outside the NHPD when officers declared that the remaining individuals were “unlawfully assembling” and were in violation of Connecticut General Statute 53a-182 –– disorderly conduct. Officers announced that unless the protesters vacated the steps outside of the NHPD officers, they would be subject to arrest and police action including the use of force.  

“They didn’t care that we were unarmed, that we were peaceful,” said Connecticut Bail Fund organizer Vanesa Suarez in a video posted on Facebook. “They sprayed us, and they beat us, and they pushed us down the stairs. That’s what they do.” 

According to a Monday morning statement from police spokesperson Anthony Duff, no protesters were ultimately arrested on Sunday after the protestors decided to disperse. 

Activists have also protested the arrest of a black New Haven resident suspected of shoplifting at Walmart on Wednesday night. Released police body camera footage shows NHPD officer Paul Vitale macing the man and tackling him to the ground. Multiple other officers are shown helping Vitale to hold the man down. According to NHPD chief Otoniel Reyes, the man was charged with assault on a police officer, interfering with a police officer, fifth degree larceny and possession of a controlled substance. 

In an emailed statement, Reyes said that the use of force was appropriate as the man was attempting to evade arrest and was suspected of walking out of the store without paying for his shopping cart of merchandise. Reyes also said that the man was found with a quantity of illegal drugs. 

“The officers did an excellent job and used the amount of force necessary to overcome the resistance of the man who refused to be arrested,” Reyes said. 

In response, around 70 protestors chanted outside the mayor’s lawn on Friday night in a five hour long rally demanding the mayor to drop the charges, fire Vitale, and “stand down or step down.” Activists also called for an end to over-policing and mass incarceration, according to another live video posted by the Connecticut Bail Fund. 

Protestors also asked for an explanation of the death of Desohn Wilson –– a man who died in NHPD detention in April –– and asked why another man was hospitalized after an encounter with police on Blake Street on Friday. They expressed their grief for a number of recent killings of black Americans throughout the nation –– explicitly naming Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Jason Negron, and Zoe Dowdell, among others. 

“The same violence that we respond to nationally is happening right here,” Ellington said. “We know that the brother yesterday in Walmart should not have been brutalized. We are trying to grieve the black death and brown death that we see around this country and this globe. And these police officers show up in this neighborhood, to protect these white people, to beat us down, to gun us down, and kill us in jail cells. And that is all police violence.” 

On Friday, the protesters did not allow Elicker to respond to them after he came outside to his driveway, and Elicker eventually returned back inside. In the morning, Elicker released a photo to the New Haven Independent of a sign taped to his child’s bicycle with the words “Elicker you are racist”. According to the Independent, while Elicker agreed it was an important time to protest, he did not believe some of the actions of the protestors on Friday had been conducive to dialogue. 

Elicker also posted a public video statement on Saturday expressing his “outrage” over the video showing Floyd’s death, and committed the city to treating all residents fairly and with compassion.

In a press conference on Saturday, Reyes gave a statement outside the NHPD headquarters condemning police violence. Behind him, lines of masked police officers stood holding a sign that read “Police Against Police Brutality.” The officers raised their hand to take the oath of office and said that they were renewing their vow to protect New Haven. 

“This message needs to be echoed by every law enforcement officer,” Reyes said. “Today the New Haven Police Department wants to call out every single law enforcement officer around the country to stand with us and stand against police brutality.” 

On Twitter, Connecticut State Police expressed approval of the NHPD’s declaration and stated that they, too, stood against police brutality. 

However, many activists were unconvinced by the department’s declaration. According to Ellington, the move was a “PR stunt” and unsupported by the actions of the department, especially given the use of pepper spray against protestors just one day later.

“In New Haven, it is open season on black and brown people by police in this city,” Ellington said on Sunday. “Yes, we are here for George Floyd. Yes, we are here in solidarity for Minneapolis and across the nation. But we have demands right here in New Haven.’ 

The New Haven Police Department is located on 1 Union Ave. 

 

Meera Shoaib | meera.shoaib@yale.edu