In the wake of the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson ten days ago, in addition to what many contend is a lack of transparency in the official investigation of the killing as well as an excessively violent and militaristic law enforcement response to peaceful protesters, Yale students organized a solidarity march to express unity with the residents in Ferguson. Although classes have not yet begun for the fall semester and most students are off-campus, nearly 200 Yale students and New Haven residents congregated on Beinecke Plaza at noon yesterday to march to nearby New Haven Green, and then engage in a collective moment of silence.
Those I interviewed said they found out about the rally primarily through word-of-mouth and social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.
Following the reading of a brief statement, protesters embarked on the less than half-a-mile march to the New Haven Green, which serves as the centre of New Haven city life, chanting “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “Murder is Illegal” as they walked. After about a ten minute walk, the protesters arrived at the northeast corner of the New Haven Green where they sat in a circle with hands silent raised for about 15 minutes before ending the protest with promises of more direct action events. The New Haven Green is the same site chosen by several other populist movements such as last year’s Occupy Movement.
A muted police presence was visible throughout the protest; in particular, four uniformed officers were on-hand at Beinecke Plaza prior to the start of the march in addition to two or three officers on bicycles, although most in the former group did not appear to accompany the protesters on the march to the New Haven Green. Yet, the protest appeared to emphasize peace and unity over rage; when an unruly passerby spontaneously yelled out “fuck the police!”, one of the rally organizers loudly cried out in response: “No, no, no.”
The rally was organized by a racially diverse group of Yale students who declined an interview, and was attended primarily by a multi-racial — if predominantly non-Black — gathering of predominantly (if not exclusively) Yale students. The city of New Haven is 42.6% White and 35.4% Black, but Yale’s student population is far less evenly split with 62% of students identifying as White whereas only 8% identify as Black.
Most in the crowd expressed to me that they were attending the rally out of a desire to express solidarity with people of colour affected by systemic racism. Many protesters bore signs that read “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and the names of local and national victims of police brutality, including that of Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, and 21-year-old Malik Jones, a young unarmed Black man who was killed in a 1997 shooting by East Haven police.
“The people who are here are people I want to be in a community with,” said one protester who identified himself as Steven. Steven says that he heard about the protest through Twitter and decided to attend with two friends.
For some of the African American students who chose to attend, the events in Ferguson were symbolic of larger structural iniquities that they hoped would become more visible in the wake of nearly two weeks of national outcry. Yale student Mariah Harris expressed empathy with the the Brown family and the residents of Ferguson, noting that yesterday’s protest was the only direct action she had opportunity to attend. New Haven did not have a local event participating in last week’s National Moment of Silence series of coordinated protests.
“I feel anger,” Harris said, “but mostly sadness. We are supposed to be protected by police. What happened to Mike Brown, but also the aftermath involving the police, is just devastating.”
“I’m here for solidarity, but also for a sense of transparency,” said Jonathan Majors, a student in the Yale School of Drama, “The world now knows what’s going on. We’re primed for a different kind of civil rights.”
“An issue like [Ferguson] is only one step towards [addressing] bigger issues… including institutional racism and police militancy,” said Leland Fowler, also a student in the Yale School of Drama.
When asked whether they were optimistic that protests surrounding the events of Ferguson might trigger systemic changes regarding these larger structural issues, some protesters saw peaceful protests like this one as an important symbolic act.
“Democracy is about putting your body on the street. If we can do that, we can make sure something like this doesn’t happen in New Haven,” explained Steven.
However, Leland Fowler was more measured. “Protests are helpful, but there are other steps that need to be taken. I’m standing here in solidarity, but it’s only one step towards a larger solution.”
Other protesters advocated even more radical action. “It’s going to take revolution. This will not stop until there is a revolution to a whole new system, ” said Stan, a Japanese American New Haven resident who was at the protest handing out leaflets for the Revolutionary Communist Party. He linked the events to larger structural issues and emphasized the need for a broader understanding of America’s problems.
“This system has nothing for this generation — Black, Latino, youth, men and women. This is a slow genocide; and with the illegitimate arming of [police] forces, it can quickly become a fast genocide,” he said.
Common to all attendees was a sense of political voicelessness among the nation’s youth, and a fear over what the future might hold for the nation’s young people, African American or otherwise.
“Young Black men, young people — we’re being targeted,” said Majors. “An entire generation of people with X’s on our back. That shit don’t fly.”