|Laurie Sweet's banner, which attendees held up during the rally and then marched with to Hamden City Hall. Lucy Gellman Photos.|
Some came out for Stephane and Paul. Others wanted to talk about Rello. Some drew out all of the names, just to show the sheer weight of all of them in one place. Everyone had the same list of demands, ready to hand-deliver to the mayor in a sea of bright, new activist artwork.
Monday afternoon and evening, over 50 New Haven and Hamden residents gathered, designed, rallied, and marched from the Miller Memorial Library to Hamden City Hall in the latest action for Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, as well as Jarelle “Rello” Gibbs, a 26-year-old Hamden resident who died last year after a car chase from Hamden police ended in a fatal crash on New Haven’s Quinnipiac Avenue.
The action marks almost two weeks of communal support for Washington and Witherspoon, the first of whom was hospitalized after Hamden Police Officer Devin Eaton and Yale Police Officer Terrance Pollock opened fire on their car in New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood in mid-April. It was organized as a collective action among Hamden Action Now, People Against Police Brutality and Black Lives Matter New Haven.
“There’s a human disconnect that’s been happening in our community for 280 years,” said Rhonda Caldwell, a member of Hamden Action Now who is working on a documentary about the protests. “We have to humanize these issues.”
|Elizabeth Larkin: Too many names.|
The action centered around presenting Hamden Mayor Curt Leng with a list of demands that includes the immediate firing of Eaton, a fully independent internal investigation, a series of community conversations, appointment of a permanent police chief, and creation of a Hamden-based Civilian Review Board with subpoena power. Last Friday, Leng announced that the Hamden Police Department would be launching an internal investigation; the most recent demands come in addition to that.
Before they marched, community members gathered to make posters, spreading out across the library’s broad entrance. In the front, organizers had draped a huge banner by Hamdenite Laurie Sweet, chronicling the names and locations of people of color killed by police in the state of Connecticut. Further back, attendees sprawled out with markers, breaking off into groups. A few, in the front with sidewalk chalk, began writing out “Black Lives Matter” on the curb in big, sky-blue letters.
People brought their kids, pausing for cheek kisses as they drew out signs that read "Black Lives Matter" and "Justice For Stephanie and Paul." Sweet rocked a fussy baby, then returned to sign making. Friends formed groups and talked about the merits of a Civilian Review Board and the use of red marker over pink to get the message right.
"I think it [art] provides the community a different lens to see and connect with this narrative around police violence, and the calls to help a community vulnerable to this violence," said organizer Kerry Ellington of the banner, and the sign making activity. "You see art affirming these experience and telling this story in a different way."
"To see those names on a map ... we're getting the image that Connecticut isn't the peachy state that everybody thinks it is," she continued. "I don't think people understand that it's just as volatile here as other places are for people of color. It's [the work] visceral, it allows people to connect, engages people. It's a wider lens to understand the narrative."
|Hamden Action Now members Rachel Liu and Rhonda Caldwell.|
For some, like organizer and Hamden Action Now member Rachel Liu, the protest was also personal. A photographer, mom, and Hamdenite, Liu said she brings all of those identities to her work, which has recently included both documenting actions and making sure there is time—and energy—to gather and create at them.
“I have a Black son and I feel fear for him and worry for him in the culture that we currently have of racism and violence and white supremacy,” she said, signs multiplying in the background as she spoke. “Particularly the way police show up in communities and schools. That feels really, really scary. But I’m also here as a member of the community to come and to show up when this huge injustice has happened.”
Briana Wiiliams, a 22-year-old student of social work at Gateway Community College, said she had come out buoyed by the idea of artmaking—and rallying—with other members of the community. Born and raised in New Haven, Williams moved to Hamden in January. She spent last weekend wrapped in protest: first Friday’s rally in downtown New Haven, then Sunday’s benefit concert for Washington and Witherspoon at First and Summerfield Church.
|Artist Laurie Sweet and artist, student and curator Briana Williams.|
For her, art constitutes the “really healing and moving” part of protest—a part that she considers necessary. Outside of school, she is an assistant and part-time curator at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art, where she has begun sculpting performances around the idea of resistance. As she thinks about bringing more of those events into the center, she said she's also been showing up to protests feel a sense of community.
“Today, I’m here to gather, to be here as a Hamden citizen,” she said. “I don’t necessarily feel too safe being a member of Hamden. I would love to feel safer here. I would like to feel like the police won’t get away with murdering me.”
Just minutes later, she was moving into her groove with a red marker. The sign beside her urged no one in particular to “Love louder/Love better,” the first O replaced with a bright heart.
|Hamden City Council member Justin Farmer left with a new piece of work.|
Nearby, a group that had come from Youth Continuum arranged themselves in a circle, markers passing between them every few words. On one sign, outreach case manager Elizabeth Larkin drew out a long list of names in black marker, each a life taken or compromised at the hands of police .
They read like a horrible index: Stephanie Washington, Paul Witherspoon, Anthony Vega, Malik Jones, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin. Too Many Names, a series of blocky red letters read at the bottom.
Across from Larkin, Youth Continuum's Taneisha Swindell worked on a smaller sign, where the words “Black Lives Matter” bloomed along the front in a shimmering, translucent gray. Beside her, Hamden transplant Lonnie (he declined to give his last name) started in on a sign.
|Taneisha Swindell: It should be equal across the board.|
While he said he supports the idea of a Civilian Review Board and greater sensitivity from officers, “those should just be morals that people just have, rather than you have to go through training to be human,” he said.
“I feel like it should be equal across the board,” Swindell added as she worked, noting that the “it” she referred to was both the law, and the disproportionately violent treatment of bodies of color versus their white counterparts. “You know what they say. Be the change you want to see in the world.”
As she and Larkin spoke, Rev. Jack Davidson circulated a letter to Leng outlining protesters’ demands. Several names had already been scrawled in support across the bottom. As he walked among the work, he ignored a library patron who exited his car and urged protesters to "get a job!" as he walked into the library.
“We don’t want halfway measures but lifesaving measures, amen,” Davidson said of the petition.
As 5 p.m. drew closer, those who had gathered cleaned up their markers and chalk and assembled by the front of the library. Leaning in to hear a series of remarks, they lifted their signs high. Sweet's banner stretched out, in front of the library, demanding #JusticeFor with a cascade of names that knocked the breath out of onlookers. Then they were on their way to City Hall.
To read more about protesters’ meeting with Mayor Curt Leng and to listen to his full response, check out Sam Gurwitt’s piece in the New Haven Independent here.