It’s around 6:30 p.m. on Friday evening and Broadway has been made into a graveyard.
The tombstones-protest signs held by the “die-in” demonstrators lying in the street in front of rush hour traffic-read “The System is Guilty”, “Ferguson is Everywhere”, and “Police Brutality and Murder Must Stop”, among other slogans.
And like the ghost of Eric Garner saying what were his last words before an NYPD officer’s chokehold killed him, shouts of “I can’t breathe” ring through the air repeatedly over the angry horns of gridlocked motorists.
Just over a week had passed since a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, and the anti-police brutality activists that took to the streets of New Haven, as well as other cities throughout the nation following the verdict, were dealt another blow: there would be no criminal conviction against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Garner in a chokehold after confronting him for selling unlicensed cigarettes on July 17 on Staten Island.
“I was not surprised with Michael Brown,” said Barbara Fair, a New Haven activist with the organization My Brother’s Keeper. “I had a little bit of hope for Eric Gardener, so I was stunned when they said they didn’t indict.”
She’s standing outside the Yale Law School at 127 Wall Street where at least 300 Yale students and other New Haven activists are standing elbow to elbow in a mob that is about to organize into a human chain. The chain will be long enough to stretch from the building to the court house on Church Street.
The 12 p.m. silent protest is separate from the one that will start at 4 p.m. and end only after traffic at four intersections is halted and turned back, but in technicality alone-the Garner verdict has sparked outrage not only in multiple parts of the country, but of New Haven.
“We’re protesting between two symbols: the Yale Law School, which produces lawyers who are supposed to uphold the law, and the courthouse where citizens are supposed to be able to seek justice,” says Jordan Bryant to the crowd through a megaphone.
And their own die-in, the other symbol, is to emphasize what activists see as a connection between Garner, Brown, and others killed by police-law enforcement practices of racial profiling backed by systemic impunity.
It’s a little after 4 p.m. and ANSWER Coalition activist Norman Clement is standing exactly where he and 300 other people were last Tuesday-a day after the grand jury in Ferguson announced its decision. And once again, the corner of Church and Chapel is packed for another pre-march rally.
“I said we’d be out here again in the street [after the Garner verdict],” Clement tells the crowd. “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to be.”
Kerry Ellington was at last week’s protest too. During that march she shouted out names of those killed by police. Today, she has another one to add to that list, and she’s visibly frustrated as she speaks to her fellow activists and community members through the megaphone.
“Black people have no protection in this system,” Ellington says. “What do we do when we live in a system that treats us like this?”
“Shut it down!” someone behind her shouts.
The march moved up Chapel and turned left onto College Street. The first stop was the intersection where Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard becomes Frontage Road, and the protesters flooded it.
Next was Broadway, where demonstrators laid down in the street in “die-in” solidarity with those killed by police.
The march finished where it began, and they “shut down” that intersection too. By the time the last of the traffic blocked by the human chain was rerouted back the way they came by New Haven police, the protest chant had been altered slightly to highlight the symbolic intention of the tactic.
“We can’t breathe, you can’t breathe,” the group shouted.
But the activists want to go beyond symbolism, and they want to continue working to push for reform both in police practices and how the justice system holds law enforcement personnel accountable.
“It’s going to take more of these sustained movements,” Fair, who attended both demonstrations, said at the Yale die-in. “Not just coming out when something happens.”
They’ll start with a December 14 “community” meeting that will be held at 1 p.m. at 211 Park Street. All are invited to share ideas, they said.
“I’m asking myself if this is going to change,” said protester Lincoln Mitchell during the rally held before the march. “And I say to myself, ‘I’m not sure’, but without hope, why are we here?”