It was 7:18 p.m. on the evening of Jan. 16, 2010, and Jewu Richardson was driving under the influence. With a beer in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, Jewu reached the end of his joyride on Spring Street, when a cop noticed a busted light on his blue Acura and pulled him over less than a mile away from the Yale School of Medicine.
Thirty years old with a troubled history and a hopeful future, Jewu seemed to be in the midst of an earnest attempt at recovery after a stint in jail on charges of drug possession. The New Haven resident has been described as “gentle,” “soft-spoken,” and “really calm,” but as Officer John DuPont waited for backup to arrive, Jewu stepped on the gas and drove away. During the chase that followed, Jewu struck two cars, one of them a police cruiser. Multiple cruisers pursued him to a gas station on Whalley Avenue, at which point two officers hopped out and began approaching Jewu’s car on foot. The cops then recall that a panicked Jewu rammed his vehicle into one of the officers, who then shot Jewu through the windshield, lodging a bullet in his chest. The officers later determined that Jewu’s blood alcohol level was over the legal limit.
Although this seemed to many like an open-and-shut case, groups such as the People’s Art Collective (PAC), maintaining Jewu’s innocence, pointed out the inconsistencies in the police account. Recent Yale graduates Diana Ofosu ’12 and Kenneth Reviez ’12 founded PAC in the September 2012. On its website, PAC describes itself as “a group of artists and activists collaborating to address social, racial, economic, environmental and human injustices in New Haven.”
The PAC operates the Free Skool, located at 212 College St. It’s a community center of sorts where New Haven residents can meet to plan activist projects and take free classes in a variety of subjects. On the light pink walls hang the iconic image of Ché Guevara in sunglasses, a diagram asserting that capitalism is a pyramid scheme, and a poem asking that we elect a “dyke president.”
Yet, for all the fanfare on the Free Skool’s walls, Ofosu, Reveiz, and other PAC members don’t exactly fit the stereotypical image of left-wing activists. They exhibit neither the chaotic theatricality of Abbie Hoffman, nor the austere militancy of Malcolm X. Their generally nonchalant demeanors offset their underlying determination and enthusiasm.
This enthusiasm became evident as Reveiz discussed Jewu’s case. He vigorously disputed the officers’ accounts, insisting that “[the police officers] decided to try and assassinate him. It was an illegal pursuit.” He elaborated, “Jewu was surrounded by police officers in his car, which was immobile, with his hands up. Someone jumped on the hood and shot him through the windshield. [The bullet] hit his chest, inches away from his heart. He spent the next four days in jail without receiving medical attention.”
According to Reveiz, officers on the New Haven police force have a history of harassing Jewu, who is African-American. It started when they allegedly planted narcotics on him to blackmail him into becoming an informant. When he refused, they beat him and put him in prison on charges of drug possession.
After Jewu was released, he filed a civil suit against the department, but officers continued to harass him. He claims that he fled from police in his car because the officer who pulled him over took his gun out of his holster. Given his past run-ins with the NHPD, Jewu thought that the officer was going to kill him. Ofosu shares Reveiz’s belief that this was an assassination attempt. “Jewu has a history of speaking out against police brutality in New Haven. I feel like they have cause to get rid of him because he’s outspoken.”
For someone sitting in the defendant’s chair, Jewu was oddly calm. Bespectacled and dressed in a dark suit, he appeared professorial. Even though he could receive up to 30 years in prison, Jewu showed no signs of anxiety as he heard police witnesses testify against him. In fact, he was nearly still. In the gallery sat around 20 people, all supporters who maintained Jewu’s innocence. They glared disapprovingly at the prosecution and cheerfully nudged each other when Jewu’s attorney cornered the police witnesses on cross-examination. The young cohort was here as part of an effort to “Pack the Courtroom,” an initiative intended to express solidarity with Jewu and to ensure a fair trial. Every day throughout the three-week-long trial, the group People Against Police Brutality (PAPB) sat in the courtroom with this goal in mind and encouraged their supporters, such as PAC, to do the same.
Chris Garaffa, one of the founders of PAPB, pointed to the police’s destruction of key evidence, namely Jewu’s car and the assaulting officer’s weapon, as a blatant miscarriage of justice.
Garaffa went on to claim that, two weeks into the trial, there had been no witnesses from the scene of the incident who testified to seeing Jewu hit the officer. One of the witnesses, according to Garaffa, said that “Jewu’s car was being rammed by the officers and came to a stop. One of the cops got out of his car, ran like he was Superman, and jumped on Jewu’s car hood and shot him. Those were his words: ‘like he was Superman.’” And this was a witness for the prosecution.
Garaffa sees Jewu’s trial as representative of a long-standing trend. Asked how long he thinks police brutality has been an issue in New Haven, he responded, “As long as there have been police. The abuse of power as a means to control people by the wealthy and the propertied has been an issue as long as there have been social classes.” In Garaffa’s view, the police are only in New Haven to “protect and serve the banks and corporate interests.” He referred to other cases of New Haven Police blackmailing and beating citizens. His comments echo Ofosu, who noted that the NHPD is known for solely protecting New Haven’s privileged communities, while ignoring or even instigating conflicts among the rest of the population.
The PAC supports the PAPB by offering the Free Skool as a place for PAPB members to teach the community about how to deal with repressive police officers. Instructors advise their students to check the accuracy of warrants and avoid physically resisting police officers. PAC has assisted specifically with PAPB’s “Justice for Jewu” campaign by hosting a “FUN-raising” party to raise money to pay for Jewu’s legal fees. “It’s pretty ridiculous how much money you need to exercise your right to trial,” Reveiz commented.
PAPB members also use the Free Skool as a place to meet and organize the effort to acquit Jewu. The PAPB held one such meeting late on the night of April 4, 2013, two weeks into Jewu’s trial. There were six members in attendance along with Reveiz, all of them New Haven residents. Many PAPB members are themselves victims of alleged New Haven police brutality, or know someone who is.
During the meeting, members discussed their perceptions of the trial. They seemed cautiously optimistic, picking apart the officers’ testimonies. One member noted that the police seemed rehearsed. Others were pleased to report that the past of one of the assaulting officers — who served as a guard at Guantanamo Bay — came out in witness testimony. Another expressed concern that the police would “rough up” a citizen to come in and testify on their behalf. The group then made plans for the rest of the trial, discussing the possibility of scheduling another press conference and holding more fundraising events. There was a sense that, though they had put years of work into Jewu’s case, there wasn’t much they could do now that the trial had already begun. Jewu’s fate was now largely out of their hands.
The group reconvened days later on April 10, a day after the trial’s closing arguments. For just over an hour, approximately fifteen people surrounded Jewu on the courtroom steps. The protesters, some of whom looked no older than fifteen, held signs with slogans like “Internal Affairs: Police Protecting Police,” or “Constitutional Rights Denied.” The atmosphere was tense, especially as two NHPD officers in a police cruiser conspicuously watched the proceedings off to the side. The participants, undeterred, took turns stepping out in front of the crowd to give short speeches.
One protester accused officers of falsely imprisoning her because of her sexuality. Another woman provided an account of how officers invited themselves into her home without a warrant and arrested her husband. She noted that his trial could occur anytime from now until 2020, which is problematic mainly because her husband will have a harder time finding witnesses who will clearly remember something that happened back in 2011.
The most moving speech came from Emma Jones, the mother of 21-year-old Malik Jones, who was killed by East Haven police officers in 1997. Jones, who plans to take her case to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the officers resorted to racial profiling, emphasized the fact that police brutality affects even those with clean records. Jewu spoke as well, expressing his disappointment that “nobody ever stepped forward and took ownership for [their actions].” The rally ended softly, trailing off as the speakers discovered they had nothing left to say. Protesters embraced each other and offered optimistic smiles. They knew that within the next few days, Jewu’s story would be one of triumph or defeat.
On April 12, after the jury failed to come to a consensus, the judge called a mistrial. According to the New Haven Independent, two jury members, one of them a Yale employee, held out because they said they could not in good conscious convict Jewu, given the officers’ actions. For Jewu and his supporters, this was a rapturous triumph.
Chris Desir, one of the most active participants in the “Justice for Jewu” campaign, sees this as a momentous development, given Jewu’s race. PAPB members condemned the prosecution’s attack of the defendant’s past and character for its surreptitiously racist manner. As Desir put it, “The new Jim Crow is a rationalized racial caste system using the label of a criminal or convicted felon, which isn’t an overtly racial label. But it’s a way to make race a key factor without making it seem like it’s a factor. And that’s the kind of thing that was brought to justice in this case. Everyone was able to see that race was a key factor, which created the mistrial.” The Politic reached out to the NHPD for a comment, but they declined.
For a week in March, Bambi Sivaramakrishnan taught a class, “Meditate for Nonviolence,” at the Free Skool. Born in India, Bambi grew up in New Haven and later moved to Seattle. It was there that she first encountered the teachings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Sri Sri is a prominent spiritual leader from India and founder of a global NGO called The Art of Living Foundation. In March, as a response to the Sandy Hook shooting and the 2012 gang rape crime in New Delhi, the organization launched a “Violence-Free Stress-Free” campaign to definitively end violence in the world through meditation. Recently, Sri Sri offered to share his meditation techniques for peace in the Korean Peninsula to calm the nuclear tensions.
Bambi was trained by a close associate of Sri Sri’s in his methods and certified to teach such techniques to others. After leading stress relief programs in New Haven high schools and learning about the violence that students face, Bambi sees meditating and releasing stress as especially important for the city. She points to wealth disparity, popular culture, and substance abuse as major sources of crime and the overall culture of violence in New Haven. “A lot of [New Haven residents] don’t know how to deal with stress, how to deal with anger, how to deal with sadness,” Bambi told The Politic. “[Meditation] gives them another tool to deal with this besides picking up a gun.”
The group meditation seems like a peculiar solution to societal violence. Bambi, donning a white headband with the term “NONVIO” (short for “nonviolence”) printed on the front, gathers the group in a circle. On this particular day, eight New Haven residents attend, including Ofosu and Reveiz. They start with a warm-up, which looks like a mix of yoga, stretching, and break dancing. People laugh; some are more self-conscious than others. After 10 minutes of this, Bambi has participants sit on the floor and asks them what violence means to them. Among other things, people mention violence in music, visual violence, and structural violence perpetrated by architecture. Bambi nods in agreement and adds, “Gentrification as well: That’s another form of violence with structures.”
The group then dives into the meditation, which involves a series of breathing exercises. These exercises build off the idea that when people experience different emotions, their breathing patterns change accordingly. According to Bambi and Sri Sri, the reverse is also true; if people consciously change their breathing patterns, then they can then change their emotional states. Thus, when people are on the brink of committing a violent act due to stress or anger from harassment, they can simply use this technique to prevent themselves from doing so. As Bambi puts it, “The mind can only resort to violence when it’s in a stressed-out state. But when it’s calm, when it’s peaceful, when it’s happy, no violent thought can come.”
For residents who often feel powerless, meditation is a way to actively make the choice to be nonviolent. Bambi claims that for too long, nonviolence has been viewed as a passive negation of power rather than an assertion of oneself. Instead of passively acting nonviolent by choosing not to commit a violent act, meditation offers people a way to “commit an act of nonviolence.” In other words, meditation is an active way to be nonviolent and a way to express pride in the decision to do so.
Bambi’s message encapsulates the ethos of the People’s Art Collective. It also parallels PAC’s long struggle to exonerate Jewu. In challenging the status quo, the Collective is committed to fighting injustice through nonviolence. Whether it’s rallying to the defense of the maligned or taking lessons on meditation, the PAC has found a formula to stay relevant, revolutionary, and proud.
The printed version of this article erroneously states that New Haven police officers killed Malik Jones. It was in fact East Haven police officers who were responsible for his death. We apologize for the error.