New Haveners of all ages showed up to march against police brutality on Friday afternoon, but the protest, which drew thousands, was organized by and about the city’s young people.
With chants of “money for schools, not the police,” young Black and Latinx organizers from the Citywide Youth Coalition made clear that they see reinvesting money from the city’s police budget into education, housing, and job opportunities for young people of color as being essential to ending police violence.
Hundreds of activists began gathering on the New Haven Green at around 3 p.m., with young people taking charge. Organizers estimated that most of the main leaders of the march and rally were between the ages of 15 and 18.
The teen leaders explained to the crowd their demands were to “disinvest, disarm and dismantle” the New Haven Police Department, and they then took their place at the front of the line to march down Elm Street.
As the protest turned onto State Street heading south toward police headquarters, the crowd of masked marchers stretched on for blocks and blocks, filling the entire street from at least Crown Street to Elm.
Between calls of “No justice, no peace,” “Black lives matter” and “Money for schools, not the police,” protesters also repeatedly chanted the name of Breonna Taylor, who was awoken from bed and shot by police in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky, in March of this year. Taylor’s birthday was Friday; she would have been 27.
Dayne Bell was one of the many young people in the crowd who decided it was worth risking their health during a pandemic to march against police violence. The Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School junior said, “I worry that one day, once -- if this all settles down, I’ll go back to school ... and I’ll find out I lost one of my classmates or one of my friends to police brutality.”
A number of white coats dotted the crowd, holding signs that said “Mask Coordinators.” These medical professionals, associated with the organization Need Masks Today, distributed free masks provided by Yale New Haven Hospital.
“We saw all the protests going on, and we knew that protesters need to be able to go out and practice their constitutional rights,” said Dr. Sumit Kumar, one of the doctors distributing masks. “But we have taken care of patients with COVID-19, and we have seen what it can do for people. It can obviously kill people, and Black and Brown communities have obviously been more impacted by that. So we said, we need to use our voices as doctors to give masks to folks.”
Among the thousands who joined Friday’s protest, there appeared to be near-universal mask usage, in contrast to the demonstration the previous Sunday, in which a larger portion of protesters didn’t wear masks.
Unlike the mass protest the Sunday before, when protesters arrived at the front of the police department, they weren’t greeted by a line of officers in uniform. Instead, protesters climbed onto the steps to the building and filled Union Avenue, gathering around a circle in the middle of the street where a series of young people took the bullhorn to make speeches.
Young leaders read off the names of Black men and women who have been killed by police, including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Eric Garner. And speeches, mostly by young people in their teens or 20s, highlighted systemic inequities that people of color face in New Haven.
“As I look into the crowd today, I ask: What’s next for the fight for equality?” asked Charlie Delgado. “Here in New Haven, even when you don’t hear about someone dying from COVID or getting harassed by the cops, thousands of people go to bed hungry every night. Life expectancy in Newhallville is 11 years less than Westville. Why is that?”
Referring to Yale, Delgado continued, “How can that be when we have a $30 billion corporation that owns half the city?”
Youth organizer Mellody Massaquoi told the crowd, “I am tired of being seen as a criminal everywhere I go. I’m tired of going to school and being criminalized when I’m just trying to get an education. I'm tired of seeing all of my Black friends work so hard and can’t get any opportunities because of this school system. I’m tired of the fact that I know the police get all the money in the city and yet we get nothing.”
Youth organizers told the crowd they are calling for “the complete abolition of policing as we know it.”
“Our main focuses are around our local demands,” said Citywide Youth Coalition organizer Jeremy Cajigas. “We really wanted to push our local city government to dismantle, disinvest and disarm the New Haven Police Department. We want SROs [school resource officers] outside of schools. And not only that, we want to see a major investment in public education and housing in the city.”
Connecticut lawmakers were among those listening to the youths’ demands: U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal was in the crowd that gathered on the Green, and state Sens. Robyn Porter and Gary Winfield both walked at the front of the march photographing. New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker listened to speeches in the crowd at the police station.
After about an hour and a half of speeches, the rally turned musical. Elm City Vineyard Church Worship Minister Tina Williams led the crowd in a rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” Afro-Puerto Rican group Movimiento Cultural then invited the crowd to dance to a Bomba beat played on drums, and the rally turned into something of a dance party. Over the next hour, the crowd slowly dispersed as dancing wound down.
With protest chants turning to music and dance, organizers stressed that this rally against injustice was also about resiliency. Citywide Youth Coalition Executive Director Addys Castillo told the crowd, “Racism dehumanizes all of us, but the one thing we have as a repellent to that -- that brings us life -- is culture. All culture. And when I’m talking about culture, I’m talking about things that bring you joy.”