In the intersection of Edgewood Avenue and Dwight Street, Kerry Ellington stopped and looked at the group around her-a fraction of the estimated 300 or so protesters that flooded New Haven’s streets in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury’s not guilty verdict regarding Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
Holding a megaphone, she looked back at the rest of the march, which-in joining protests held nationwide following the announcement-stretched several blocks back and would soon stop traffic along the busier Chapel Street going towards downtown.
“You still with us?” Ellington shouted back to them.
Then she began to recite the names: Michael Brown, and then some of those that went before him.
“Shout ’em out!” Ellington told the group.
Its been almost 18 years since he was chased into Fair Haven and fatally shot by East Haven Police Officer Robert Flordquist. His mother, Emma Jones, won $900,000 in a racial profiling suit against the East Haven Police Department before a Federal appeals court reversed the decision. A half an hour ago she was standing in the middle of the group of demonstrators when they gathered at the corner of Church and Chapel in a pre-march rally because for her, the Ferguson case and its outcome is too familiar, and she’s not alone in that thinking.
Malik has a brother who did not attend Tuesday’s rush hour rally, but his reactions to the grand jury’s verdict-announced the night before-came through an email he sent his mother shortly after the decision.
“He said, ‘my brother is gone’,” Jones tells the crowd. “‘There are so many brothers and sisters who have proceeded him and who have gone after him. All I can say today is I hope and pray I do not get killed today because I am black’.”
Hands up, don’t shoot. That has been among the rallying cries trademarked by the nationwide protests in cities from Ferguson to New Haven. The protesters chanted it with arms raised in a gesture of surrender as they made their way-escorted by police officers riding beside the march on motorbikes-from the lower green to Broadway, and then down some backstreets leading to Chapel.
Among the conflicting narratives in the Ferguson saga is that Brown had raised his arms in surrender before Wilson shot him. Other versions claim that he attacked the officer, reaching for his weapon-a claim that has been disputed by media coverage stating that Brown was shot at a further distance from Wilson than the Ferguson Police Department initially reported.
Then there’s the alleged convenience store robbery. Earlier accounts implied that Brown had stolen a box of cigars, but later coverage cited store surveillance video that appeared to show him paying for them. Wilson had attempted to stop Brown for jaywalking, not even aware of any accusations of theft, according to news reports.
But “Hands up, don’t shoot” is bigger than Michael Brown, activists say. It’s a response to a larger, reoccurring theme: an unarmed person of color who fits a description, and is-at best-harassed for it, speakers at the rally said.
That and a level of impunity implied by decisions such as the one handed down by Ferguson’s grand jury, said Chris Garaffa, an activist with the ANSWER Coalition in New Haven.
“Business as usual is killing our black and brown brothers and sisters,” Garaffa said. “Tonight New Haven says, ‘no more business as usual.'”
Before Maija Johnson’s father came to Yale University for research work, her family lived in Tempe, Arizona, where she grew up hearing about his encounters with police.
“My dad has been stopped and harassed by police for no reason,” Johnson says. “I should not have to worry about waking up and finding out one of my friends or my father has been killed by police.”
As the demonstrators moved down Chapel and back toward Church Street, motorists didn’t seem to mind being held up, honking in approval. At least one driver stuck a raised fist outside his window in a show of solidarity. But the march didn’t stop at the lower green. It proceeded a little further down Church and to the Amistad statue outside City Hall where, a little less than a year ago on Martin Luther King Day, the local “Decarcerate” group held a protest against mass incarceration.
Here, Jones and ANSWER Coalition activist Norm Clement attempt to organize next steps. Jones, who announces that she will be going back to the U.S. Supreme Court with a petition-her first one was rejected last year-asking them to hear her case, wants President Barack Obama to declare a State of Emergency regarding police brutality. She invited activists to meet her at the New Haven downtown library on December 14 to discuss that.
Clement suggested rallying around the issue of the city’s civilian review board, which has taken criticism from New Haven residents who say that its scope of power is to narrow.
“Don’t just ask for what you want,” Clement said. “Demand it.”