On October 2, the New Haven SWAT team raided a private Yale-sponsored party at Elevate Lounge to combat overcrowdedness and underage drinking. Students were ordered to hit the ground and threatened with punishment for brandishing cell phone cameras. Five were arrested for disorderly conduct and interference with police. A few were beaten physically, and one was shot by a taser.
This incident stands as the best known episode of “Operation Nightlife,” City Hall’s recent push to toughen up on crime in the club district downtown. It is also the newest, if least predictable, source of traction for a mutual Yale-New Haven relationship.
Since most Yalies haven’t been policed by a SWAT team before, Elevate was a test of reflexes. For some, New Haven had flouted the terms of its subservience to Yale. Pockets of self-privileged outrage fed historical, if latent, town-gown frictions. Comments on the websites of the New Haven Independent and New Haven Register ranged from “don’t come out of that school thinking that you’re superior” to “tase all the Yalies!”
In the meantime, student leaders and administrators mobilized task forces which soon achieved rapprochement with City Hall. With institutional leverage and coverage in the New York Times, it appeared that the issue would be settled quickly and cleanly.
And yet the “issue” remained unclear. Most, including Mayor John DeStefano, agreed that the SWAT intervention at Elevate was excessive. But buried beneath the headlines were problems older and weightier than our own: a chronic New Haven cycle of crime, local disparities in legal counsel across race and class and insufficient city attention to a homicide that shook the Newhallville neighborhood six days later. In New Haven, criminal injustice is not new.
On October 23, in a sudden burst of the Yale bubble, students rose above Elevate.
Joining in solidarity with members of immigrant rights advocacy group Unidad Latina en Acción and a diverse coalition of local activists, students marched for an end to police brutality throughout the city. First at City Hall and then at police headquarters, the marchers announced three demands: an end to brutality, the instatement of an independent civilian review board and an affirmation of citizens’ right to record interactions with police on video.
Steven Winter, a student leader of Citizens for Policing Reform, articulated an inclusive student response to the crackdown at Elevate. “Yale students got stepped on, but people in the city are being trampled on every week,” Winter said. “This is an issue that affects the whole city, and we’re strongest when we speak together with one voice.”
Local residents from neighborhoods across the city shared stories about their own mistreatment at the hands of police. Some, like Jewu Richardson, aired long histories of personal confrontation. In January, Richardson refused to pull over for a vehicle violation and was led on a chase which ended when officers shot him in the chest. Richardson says that the police were quick to use excessive force because of his continual outspokenness against past criminal allegations. This ongoing saga reflects broader inequities, Richardson says. “No one has had a strong support system behind them to address these incidents when they happen.”
The current campaign is cause for a new optimism, and the involvement of students may be the critical spark. As Unidad Latina organizer Marco Castillo notes, the Elevate episode “brought national attention to a problem that has plagued us for too long.”
The ensuing campus mobilization is only the latest student effort to organize around and impact the safety of local residents. In 2007, New Haven introduced the Elm City Resident Card, the first municipal ID card available to local residents regardless of immigration status. The card, a means of banking and utilizing city services intended to help protect New Haven’s estimated 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented immigrants, can only be effective if the broader population signs up for it. To that end, over twenty-five groups on campus came together to organize “New Haven Solidarity Week” in a push to enroll students. Organizers added 550 sign-ups to the existing 3,900 on the city’s rolls—a whopping 15% expansion.
That campaign was just what New Haven—a “sanctuary city” and a policy innovator—ordered. A year before the Elm City Resident Card, Police Chief Cisco Ortiz issued a general order not to question crime victims or witnesses about immigration status. In the 1990s, Chief Nick Pastore developed a nationally newsworthy “community policing” program embedding police in the neighborhoods which they serve.
But as countless stories from local residents suggest, the city still has a long way to go. These cases—including the SWAT raid of Elevate—are far from isolated. And though students are quick to organize forums and task forces, many New Haveners are not comfortable confronting the police with their concerns. In order to stop police brutality and ensure effective civilian review, residents from across the city will have to work together to build a sustained fight. “We can’t get together in one day,” said Barbara Fair, an activist with People Against Injustice and the NAACP, and “expect that in one day it will go away.”
This call for commitment rings loudest for New Haven’s notoriously temporary residents: students. If our city is to resemble any sort of sanctuary, our university bubble, punctured as it was on October 2, will have to pop. The New Haven community—blacks, whites, immigrants, Yalies and all—could seriously use it.