Over the weekend, New Haven activist group People Against Police Brutality threw a party at the local People’s Arts Collective. Although surrounded by friends and supporters, the organizers weren’t celebrating: they needed money.
Long-time community activist Jewu Richardson’s trial starts March 25. After years of harassment by the New Haven Police Department, which tried to intimate him into working as an informant and nearly killed him once before, Richardson found himself in jail with a bullet in his chest and no medical care on January 16, 2010.
Accused of hitting a police officer with his car during a chase, after which he was shot by a cop standing on top of his windshield, Richardson will finally have a chance to speak before a judge and jury. However, though he will have his 16 days in court, his story will be censured—legally he cannot introduce evidence of his previous experiences with the police—and a key piece of evidence is missing.
“They claim he assaulted them with a car and a few months after they registered it they destroyed that evidence,” explains Chris Desir, a community organizer and member of People Against Police Brutality. “If he had actually hit the officer with his car, there would have been disastrous injuries compared to the minor injuries [the cop] claimed.”
To make that case to the court, though, Richardson and his supporters need an expert witness who will cost over $5000—a price that remains out of reach despite community donations, online appeals, and this last weekend’s party. The group has already raised funds to hire a private lawyer; Richardson knew the public defender wouldn’t prove his innocence after his letters urging her to protect his car as evidence were ignored.
“The more money you pay, the better lawyer you receive,” activist Kerry Ellington says. “The more you pay, the better expert witness you get.”
On this one count, the activists know Richardson is lucky. He is a well-respected community organizer with close ties to neighbors and allied activists to whom to turn for funds. Although Desir stresses that People Against Police Brutality believes all victims of police violence in New Haven deserve the support that has been rallied for Richardson, the group knows that few can even hope to pay for a private defense attorney, let alone an expert witness.
None of the activists, however, are surprised by the criminal justice system’s defects. “It’s hard to talk about the history of this problem,” explains Ellington, “because it’s just constantly going on.” Just looking back on the last few years, the activists cite case after case of police violence against people of color: the beating of Luis Rivera, of Joseph Donaby, of Horace Rawling; the murder—passed off as suicide—of Monique Hayes. They speak of the 1997 police shooting of 21-year-old Malik Jones. Last year the FBI investigated claims of police brutality in the city and arrested four East Haven cops for violently targeting Latinos.
People Against Police Brutality formed in late 2010 after police abuse of students from nearby Yale University (my alma mater) drew national attention. “People had already been organizing on a neighborhood level, and people said ‘there’s finally this mainstream attention, let’s work together and figure out to use this moment to highlight the fact that this has been going on for a long time,’” recalls activist Camille Seaberry, who helped form the anti-brutality group through her work with immigrant rights organizations.
The activists have found that the police primarily—though certainly not exclusively—target men, but much of the group’s leadership is female. “There are a lot of cases like this where people get beat up but they can’t organize themselves because they’re sent to jail,” says Seaberry. “So the people who are able to seek help for them are usually family members. A lot of the cases we’ve worked on have been women fighting—one is fighting for her husband, one for her son. One has been working for multiple sons over years and years and years.”
She’s the one, explains Desir, who is “left bearing the brunt of this.”
With less than two weeks before the trial starts, People Against Police Brutality is focused on raising funds for Richardson’s defense. The organizers know that $5000 won’t stop New Haven’s epidemic of violence. But it may free an activist essential for the fight.