Jessie Cheung, Contributing Photographer

New Haveners participated in a surge of protests in May 2020, mirroring the nationwide outcry against the use of deadly force by police officers targeting Black individuals. 

These protests were partly sparked by a viral video depicting Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Demonstrations in New Haven began with over 1,000 protesters congregating in downtown New Haven on June 1. The march commenced with chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “No justice, no peace.” Activists, grieving the loss of Floyd and other Black Americans who have been killed by the police, decried instances of police violence throughout Connecticut and demanded comprehensive reforms within the New Haven Police Department.

The protesters marched down from Broadway across the New Haven Green to City Hall, where they delivered speeches, and then proceeded to shut down sections of Interstate 95. Sitting across the highway, they held signs condemning police violence and expressing support for Black Lives Matter. Eventually, the march reached the New Haven Police Department, where prominent activists stood before a line of silent officers, separated by a chain. 

Kerry Ellington, an activist from People Against Police Brutality, argued the chain was a symbol of New Haven-NHPD relations. 

“When [police] see a Black body, they think it is their right to assault that Black body. There is symbolism in this moment,” Ellington said. “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?”

Among the key demands of the protesters was the cessation of the “triple occupation” of New Haven, referring to the involvement of the New Haven Police Department, the Hamden Police Department and the Yale Police Department in policing the city. The demand arose from past incidents, such as the shooting of an unarmed Black couple — Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon — by officers from the Hamden Police Department and the Yale Police Department, as well as the death of New Havener Malik Jones in 1997. Jones, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by an East Haven police officer following a high-speed car chase.

Additionally, the protesters criticized the delayed establishment of a Civilian Review Board in New Haven. Although legislation the city’s Board of Alders passed legislation defining the board’s parameters in January of 2019, its implementation was stalled due to the city’s prolonged deliberations on which nominees to confirm as board members. Consequently, only seven out of the available 15 seats had been filled by November 2019. The board held its first official meeting in December 2020.

During the protest on June 1, 2020, tensions escalated when the protesters approached the line of officers outside the NHPD headquarters. They sought entry to speak with New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, who had been monitoring the situation from inside the building. The protesters argued that they had the right to enter the headquarters because the building was funded by taxpayers. 

A live video posted on Facebook by the Connecticut Bail Fund depicted NHPD officers using pepper spray and physical force to repel the protesters. After the altercation, Elicker eventually emerged from NHPD headquarters, acknowledged the peaceful nature of the protest and expressed his willingness to engage in collaborative and respectful conversations to address racism.

Some protesters remained on the steps of the NHPD for hours, prompting officers to declare their presence as an “unlawful assembly” in violation of Connecticut General Statute 53a-182, which pertains to disorderly conduct. The officers warned that failure to vacate the steps would result in arrest and the use of force. However, no protesters were ultimately arrested, as they chose to disperse.

Protestors also voiced concerns about the arrest of a Black New Haven resident at Walmart, which was captured on police body camera footage. The footage showed an NHPD officer using pepper spray and tackling the man to the ground, while other officers assisted in restraining him. The man was charged with assault on a police officer, interfering with a police officer, larceny and possession of a controlled substance. NHPD Chief Otoniel Reyes defended the use of force, drawing protests in response.

Throughout the protests, activists also sought answers regarding the death of De’Sohn Wilson, who had died while in NHPD detention in April 2020. The protesters also mourned the deaths of several Black Americans at the hands of police, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Jason Negron, and Zoe Dowdell.

“Now is absolutely the time to protest,” Elicker told the New Haven Independent in an interview. “Many of us in the community feel very angry about what happened with George Floyd. I feel very angry about the injustice and the inequity in our community, especially that impacting brown and black communities.”

While Mayor Elicker acknowledged the importance of protesting, he said that he thought that some of the protesters’ actions in a May 29 protest outside his home hindered meaningful dialogue. He released a photo to the New Haven Independent showing a large cardboard sign taped to his child’s bicycle, reading “Elicker you are racist.” 

At a press conference the next day, NHPD Chief Reyes condemned police violence while officers standing behind him held a sign that read “Police Against Police Brutality.” The officers behind Reyes then symbolically took an oath “renewing their vow to protect New Haven” and called upon law enforcement officers across the country to stand against police brutality. The Connecticut State Police expressed their approval of the NHPD’s stance on Twitter and also denounced police brutality. 

Many activists remained skeptical, calling the move a “PR stunt,” particularly as officers deployed pepper spray against unarmed protesters a day later.

NHPD is headquartered at 1 Union Ave.