Ferguson-where protesters have been met with militarized cops sent from St. Louis in the wake of the Ferguson police shooting death of Michael Brown, a black man-might seem far away, but for Gwen Samuel, it hits too close to home.
Or, at the very least, too close to what she considers a close call.
It was during the winter-some point after one of the season’s snow storms. Samuel’s son, Elijah, was walking home from school in Meriden with a large group of students when they were passing a police patrol vehicle.
“The police pulled up to him and said ‘come here’,” Samuel told a crowd of around 40 protesters, who gathered in front of New Haven’s Amistad statue Thursday evening for a rally against police brutality. “He didn’t respond right away. There were a lot of kids so he didn’t know they were talking to him.”
The officer called him again and got his attention this time.
“He [Elijah] said, ‘are you talkin to me?’” Samuel says.
The officer got angry, telling Elijah that there was “going to be a problem” if he “made him get out of the car”, she says.
She says his backpack was searched and he was reprimanded for not walking on the sidewalk-which was covered in snow-but left the situation unharmed.
“After seeing Michael Brown on the ground, I wonder what that problem could’ve been,” Samuel says. “My son Elijah could’ve been another Mike Brown.”
Might sound farfetched, but Brown and another individual were also stopped by police for not using the sidewalk. Now that the Ferguson Police Department has disclosed the identity of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him, they have alleged that Brown was involved in a convenience store robbery. Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson has admitted that the officer did not approach Brown because of the robbery and was unaware of the allegations against him at that time.
And Brown’s death is not the first seemingly minor incident to escalate-the NYPD recently sparked an outcry over the death of Eric Garner, a black man who died in a police officer’s chokehold after an altercation over his alleged sale of illegal cigarettes.
“I’m a concerned parent,” Samuel said. “If you’re a parent-especially a parent of color-you can’t minimize what happened in Missouri. It means it can happen here.”
And it has.
Flashback to 1997. Twenty-one year old Malik Jones is fleeing police after being pulled over in East Haven-a chase that ends in Fair Haven, with him in his vehicle, boxed between multiple police cars before he is fatally shot by one of the officers.
“New Haven isn’t exempt from this,” says Julio Wilson, a Fair Haven resident. “Malik Jones was murdered in my neighborhood. I bring that up to make a point-black bodies are always a threat. That’s what we deal with every day.”
In all cases, accounts differ. With Jones, police thought he gave them a threatening look and was going to roll his car into them. With Brown, the Police Department story is that he had assaulted the officer, attempting to seize his weapon. But Brown was shot in the back, and witnesses have been reported to have said that he raised his arms in surrender but was running away. In both cases, the suspects were unarmed.
So was New Haven resident Jewu Richardson, in 2010 when police had him cornered at a Whalley Avenue gas station following a chase that started on Howard Avenue in the Hill. He and his supporters said he had his hands up when New Haven Police Officer Ross Van Nostand shot him through his windshield, but Richardson went to trial on charges that he tried to ram Van Nostrand with his car.
Last year a mistrial was declared when the jury-confronted with the fact that the officers had been called off the chase three times that night and Richardson’s shirt from that night, which has blood stains and a bullet hole two inches from the heart-decided that it could not convict him.
“They came back and retried him,” said Kerry Ellington, a protester and member of the group Justice for Jewu, which organized support and fundraising around his case. “They said we’re gonna take away your defense from the first trial, and you’re looking at 25 years. He was forced to plea.”
Richardson began a 1-year prison sentence-and the latest chapter in an alleged history of being targeted by local law enforcement-on July 7.
“I wish he was here,” Ellington said to the group. “I wish I could get him on the phone. He would tell you, if you’re looking for answers here, you’re stupid. Go home and figure out a way to resist. I don’t have the answers, but I’m working on finding one.”
So will the rest of the group-the activists plan to collaborate in the future to work on the issue. The rally-like others happening simultaneously throughout the nation-ended the way Brown’s life allegedly did: protesters, many with signs and T-shirts that read, “Don’t Shoot”, raised their hands through a moment of silence.
“It’s gonna take more than words,” said Kevin Edwards, another New Haven resident who attended the rally. “We’ve been saying words for a long time. We need some action. Gatherings like this are good, but what happens after, before the next person loses their life?”
Like Samuel, Montese Kane is a concerned parent. He doesn’t want his young son to end up on some news headline either.
“There’s going to be a point in his life where he reaches my age, and I’m gonna have to explain that he has to not only fear the streets out there, but he can’t trust the people who are supposed to protect him,” Kane said. “How do I explain that to him?”