New Haveners mourn Tyre Nichols, challenge police violence
Rally attendees engaged in speeches, chants and poetry while decrying police violence and advocating for reforms.
Nathaniel Rosenberg, Contributing Reporter
Dozens of New Haven residents gathered on the Green Sunday evening to mourn the murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police and to call on the city to better prevent police violence.
The rally, organized by the Connecticut branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, was in response to the Friday release of video footage showing five Memphis police officers severely beating Tyre Nichols — a 29-year-old Black man who later died from his injuries. At the rally, members of several New Haven area activist groups called for the city to put an end to police violence. Activists also linked Nichols’s killing to the paralysis Randy Cox suffered at the hands of New Haven police last July.
Leighton Johnson, a Black man who attended the rally, told the News how saddening and exhausting it was to see another Black person killed by police.
“Every time I walk out of the household I could be subjected to that type of police brutality, which I have,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in the system. I’ve been harassed since I was a child. I’ve been brutalized. When I saw that video it tore my heart apart to see that young man screaming for his mom.”
2022 was the deadliest year on record for police violence nationwide, with law enforcement killing at least 1,176 people. The rally called for bold responses to the country’s escalating crisis of police violence.
As dusk fell, rally goers held signs demanding “End Police Terror” and calling to “Abolish The Police.” In between speeches, the crowd stayed engaged with chants of “no justice/no peace” and “no racist/police.”
“I’m not going to wait for the blood to come to my doorstep,” said Javier Villatoro, a member of the immigrants rights group Semilla Collective, at the rally. “I’m gonna be talking to people to tell them we are stronger.”
Mourning Tyre Nichols
While speakers prompted discussion over police reform, the main purpose of the gathering was to mourn and pay tribute to the life of Tyre Nichols.
Sun Queen, a cofounder of Black Lives Matter New Haven, delivered a visibly moving poem at the rally paying tribute to the passions Nichols had, as well as the ways that police repeatedly brutalized “Black bodies.”
“Tyre, snatched away from his son, skateboard and sunsets,” Queen read. “A Black mother left to cry and mourn her son. She was proud he tatted her name on his arm. And at the last moments he screamed and cried for his Black mama.”
Queen brought a small skateboard with “TYRE” painted on it to the rally. Nichols was an avid skateboarder.
Greta Blau, a cofounder of the Hamden Tenants Union and member of the Connecticut Democratic Socialists of America, echoed Queen’s grief in her own speech. Blau also noted how Nichols was a photographer, a father and a lover of sunsets.
“He wanted his mom. I don’t know how to process that as a mother,” Blau told the crowd. “It’s just cruelty. I guess we’re encouraged to be cruel to each other.”
Gursey described feeling a mixture of outrage and familiarity with the release of the video documenting Nichols’s murder.
“I shouldn’t be used to such news,” he said. “This ought to be something extraordinary. It’s becoming routine, and that’s very sad.”
Visions of policing
Jamarr Farmer, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and one of the rally’s organizers, said he sees Nichols’ death as part of a larger pattern of police violence that includes the New Haven, Hamden and Yale police departments.
Last June, Randy Cox was left paralyzed after suffering severe injuries in the back of a NHPD transport van. In 2019, Yale and Hamden police shot at Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon during a traffic stop, causing Washington to be hospitalized.
“The death of Tyre Nichols is deeply disturbing and is a concern to me as a Police Chief and as a citizen. The actions of the Memphis officers are a betrayal of the trust that the community places in law enforcement,” New Haven Police Chief Karl Jacobson wrote to the News. “I recognize that trust must be earned each day as we strive to exceed the community’s expectations at every call and every interaction.”
Alex Guzhnay ’24, alder for Ward 1, said that while the city had made some changes after Randy Cox’s case last June, there remain more steps to be taken. Specifically, Guzhnay advocated for the passage of a “Medical Miranda Rights” bill, which would require police to contact emergency medical services when someone in police custody experiences a medical emergency.
Farmer advocated for strengthening New Haven’s Civilian Review Board, an oversight agency tasked with investigating police misconduct. Over the last few years, the CRB — which began operating with subpoena power in late 2020 — has not achieved many of the sweeping goals of accountability and oversight that some of its supporters had hoped for. The Board has been plagued by vacancies and questions over its jurisdiction.
Multiple people at Sunday’s rally also called for the demilitarization of police.
“The police are too armed,” said Yusuf Gursey ’75, a member of Greater New Haven Peace Council. “They’re like walking tanks. In some countries, ordinary policemen do not carry firearms.”
At the same time as he argued for greater reform, Farmer maintained that such reforms would be futile without ending the overarching capitalist structure.
“I know for a fact that under the capitalist system, that police’s racism, police brutality comes from slave-catching, comes from union busting, from a 200-year-old system that has been modified and militarized,” Farmer told rally attendees.
He called for a holistic vision of violence prevention that extended beyond police reform and targeted affordable housing, access to healthy food and poverty alleviation.
All five police officers in Nichols’ case have been charged with second-degree murder.
Update, Jan. 30: This article has been updated to include comments made by New Haven Police Chief Karl Jacobson.