Yale, NHPD history of harassment means Lolade Siyonbola is not first

In a viral Facebook video, Yale Police Department officers are seen harassing Lolade Siyonbola, a Black graduate student in African Studies at the university, after a white graduate student named Sarah Braasch called police on her. Siyonbola was committing no crime: She had fallen asleep after 1 a.m. while working in the 12th-floor common room in the Hall of Graduate Studies, surrounded by a laptop, papers and books.

In addition to the videos showing Braasch taunting Siyonbola, responding Yale police officers also harassed her. They repeatedly told Siyonbola, “We need to make sure you belong here,” even after she opened the doors to her apartment with her own keys. “We need to make sure you belong here” is racially coded language at that institution, which has a long history – continuing to the present day – of racism and discrimination going back to the founding of Yale itself. Elihu Yale was a slave trader. Until recently, a college at Yale was named for John C Calhoun, former U.S. Senator and Vice President who defended slavery vehemently on the Senate floor. That college’s name was only changed after mass struggle by students and community members in New Haven. It is now named after pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper.

Yale officers continued to harass Siyonbola over a misspelling on her identification card, while she repeated that she needs to get back to working on the paper she had fallen asleep while writing in the common room.

This is not nearly the first recent incident of racist harassment in New Haven or at Yale. Siyonbola herself recalls that Braasch physically blocked and then called police on a friend of hers – a Black man – for getting lost in the building. While she’s been outed as defending hate speech and defending racist “burqa bans,” the story isn’t really about Sarah Braasch. In 2015, the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow was held at gunpoint by campus police officers because he supposedly fit the description of a burglary suspect. Later in 2015, Yale students took to the street to protest a number of racist incidents, including a Black girl being denied entrance to a “white girls only” party at Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and administration downplaying or outright defending racist speech on campus.

These incidents are all part of the larger epidemic of racism in the United States, as seen in viral videos of police and other racists harassing, targeting and attacking people of color

YPD is deputized and militarized

The terror of the Yale Police Department is inextricably linked to the terror of the New Haven Police Department and the racist history of Yale University itself. While Yale and its affiliated property management companies continue to buy up land in New Haven with the encouragement of the Mayor and city government under the guise of “economic development,” poor and working class New Haven residents are pushed out of their neighborhoods. Black and Latino residents as well as students face harassment and brutality at the hands of both police departments.

In the case of the son of Charles Blow, a major part of the outcry was that the officer held his son at gunpoint. The Yale Police Department officers are deputized by the City. They have all the powers of the City of New Haven’s municipal police department, including the power to detain, arrest and shoot people. Because Yale is not on a separate campus but is instead located in the heart of downtown New Haven, lines are often blurred – or entirely nonexistent – about where the Yale PD has jurisdiction. They can often be seen driving around in residential neighborhoods adjoining school properties.

Fight for a real Civilian Review Board!

The New Haven community is currently engaged in a long battle with the Police Department and City Hall to implement a powerful All-Civilian Review Board. The CRB would give people with complaints against the police a venue that is not Internal Affairs, where the police “review” themselves. The struggle for the All-Civilian Review Board was started in 1998 by Emma Jones, whose son Malik was killed by police down the road from her home. The current proposal, modeled on Emma Jones’ original MALIK proposal, calls for the Board to have three key components, as stated on the website:

  1. Independence. The CRB must be independent of the police department and internal affairs. The CRB must have its own staff of investigators who are neither current nor retired police officers.

  2. Subpoena power. The CRB must have the power to subpoena witnesses, including police officers. In New Haven, the Board of Alders will exercise subpoena power on behalf of the CRB until we get statewide legislation passed to empower any city in Connecticut to create a Civilian Review Board with Subpoena Power.

  3. Power to discipline & sanction. If the CRB finds an officer to have committed misconduct, the board will recommend appropriate disciplinary action. The board must also have the power to sanction officers who refuse to come and testify.

Though New Haven residents voted in a 2013 referendum to create a Civilian Review Board, the city’s Board of Alders has dragged the process on for five years. Many groups from Yale and New Haven have been deeply involved in this process to build the people power to win a strong, effective and independent CRB.

Lolade Siyonbola said to police officers in her video: “I deserve to be here, I pay tuition like everybody else, I am not going to justify my existence here.” All progressive and revolutionary people should stand with her and with all victims of racism and police terror!

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