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.”