A former member of Black Students for Disarmament at Yale reflects on its trajectory over the past year and a half.
In early June, Instagram stories were filled with blacked-out screens and never-ending instructions on how to be “a good activist.” Yet while students scrambled for ways to get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, Black Students for Disarmament at Yale (BSDY) continued what they had been doing for the past year—marching on the streets of New Haven for justice and accountability with community organizers. On June 13, BSDY joined eight other organizations and over 600 students and residents in a march on the Yale Police Department, in connection with the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, but more specifically to call out Yale for the shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon in April 2019. Created in response to the April shooting, the organization was still standing a year later to protest with the New Haven community amid a pandemic.
Tiegist Tay ’22 stood in the sea of socially distanced activists who filled the streets outside of the YPD. Articulate and confident, Tay spoke through a megaphone to the crowd, despite the fact that she, like many Yale students this summer, was new to organizing. As an international student from Kenya, she was uncertain about her position in the movement; moreover, she admitted to feeling only part of the Yale community, and not New Haven, in her previous years. She was nervous and felt she didn’t know how to approach New Haven organizers. But within moments of meeting them, Tay felt overwhelmingly safe and cared for.
“It felt like I had six mothers…I found a community of black people that felt real and tangible to me, and it was the first time I had been a part of that since I left home.” said Tay. “When I joined Yale they [painted] New Haven as if any time I step out of Yale’s campus it’s some danger to me… but I have seen nothing but love and care and attention…I am sorry if for even a second I bought the racist and classist lies that were fed to me when I joined this institution“.”
By listening to and learning from New Haven Community organizers, BSDY is setting a new precedent for organizing at Yale, one that centers the voices of dedicated organizers, recreates their spaces of love and care, and challenges Yale’s responsibility to their entire community. BSDY follows the lead of New Haven organizers and passes on the knowledge and language they have gained from entering “into community” with New Haven.
Ala Ochumare, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter New Haven, and an organizer in New Haven since 2012, holds ideas of care and family at the center of her organizing. “I see in the African tradition, the diaspora of us and our culture, that, in our best instances, we move very familially.” Ochumare continued, “Community is made up of the people that I love and like and know and the people that I struggle with and don’t like and don’t know.”
Ochumare sees organizing as a way of recreating the spaces of care that she remembers growing up around. When Ochumare was young she “saw black moms, women coming together, due to social economic reasons. We’d all go over to one another’s houses, the cousins, all the family’s kids, the extended family’s kids, and we all thought we were just having fun.” Ochumare began to laugh. “But in the kitchen these black women were coming together to do what we now call mutual aid—one person brought the chicken, another brought the rice, another brought the vegetables and they made it work. They fed their kids and everyone had leftovers for the next day.”
Her organizing language was not learned from just growing up black ––it came from great personal sacrifice and a willingness to learn. When Trayvon Martin was killed in the summer of 2012, she saw the toll that type of injustice took on her young son, who announced to her that he no longer wanted to be a police officer. When she started the New Haven chapter she recalled, “I didn’t wanna keep showing up hurt and harmed and further perpetuating that hurt and harm on other black, brown, queer, differently-abled, and poor folk.”
She began with CEIO, a year-long educational program on the history of community organizing. She credits her learning to not only this program but also to the organizers she met in the classroom. An avid reader, Ochumare sourced a massive list of book recommendations from organizers like Kerry Ellington, who works with People Against Police Brutality, Norman Clemente and Chris Garaffa, from Connecticut Bail Fund, Rhonda Caldwell and Justin Farmer who hold public office, and others from around the state that would be important relationships for her years of organizing to come. Eight years later and Ochumare is still attending educational programs and has created her own anti-rascist workshops.
Something that motivated Ochumare to dedicate so much time to education was encountering the important distinction between “activist” and “organizer”. When we spoke, Ochumare identified with motherhood, magic, healing, and queerness just as much as she did the title of “organizer,” explaining that “activism and organizing are two different lived experiences that are dependent on each other.” She described activism as the first step, like attending a protest, calling a local representative, or writing about an issue; all of this is being, in some sense, activated.
“Organizing is the next step past activation, it’s galvanization—the sharing of education, creating small spaces, sharing language, recreating language, doing the one on ones, the phone calls, the interviews, et cetera,” Ochumare continued. She noted that this distinction does not separate the activist and the organizer, but instead calls attention to the sacrifice organizers make in the fight for social justice. They not only organize others; they educate themselves, and they are constantly at work in the background of every movement.
“We are here for four years…there are people who have been here before us and will be here after us, so the number one thing we can do is listen to them and support them…”
As students, the role of organizing comes with its own set of difficulties. As Zoe Hopson, an organizer and junior at Yale, explained: “You need to plan out every single detail of a protest, even if you have an exam the next day. If we can’t figure out how to get people to x, y, or z, there’s not gonna be a presence or a protest. Organizing would be a lot easier if we knew why Yale was saying no; it’s really frustrating to be doing all this work, and [there’s the] potential for Yale to ignore it and just be waiting us out.”
Some people view Yale as a closed ecosystem, saying that the University rarely has to answer to the New Haven community despite its position as the largest land-owner and employer in New Haven and the owner of the Yale Police Department, which has jurisdiction over the entire New Haven area. “If Yale is gonna have such a huge presence in New Haven and such an intrusive presence, the community needs to have more of a say in what’s going on and have more access to the resources and things that we students have,” Hopson said.
This relationship between Yale and New Haven further complicates the role of activism at the University. “I think Yale students were really good at forcing help on New Haven and not asking what they needed.” said Hopson. “Disarmament was something that was voiced by New Haven. We are using our privilege and our resources to get that need met. This is an organization where we get all our energy, all of our ideas, all our collaboration, all of our power from the New Haven community and we do what they want.” She added that when planning actions like their recent online teach-ins, or the protests in June, BSDY reached out to organizers to plan and collaborate.
For BSDY board member and Yale junior Issac Yearwood, there is a clear reason why these organizers should be centered in the conversation: “We are here for four years… there are people who have been here before us and will be here after us, so the number one thing we can do is listen to them and support them and do everything in accordance with what’s best for them.”
As BSDY heads into the new school year, Hopson says the organization is looking to collaborate with other college campuses in Connecticut and national organizations to form coalitions. It is also working to finalize multiple written reports, including a proposal to the Yale administration explaining how their new demands could be implemented. Jaelen King ’22, another board member, is excited to take to the streets with New Haven now that school has resumed. “With COVID-19, of course our first priority is keeping people safe, so we really have to get creative. But the goal is to keep pushing and providing pressure.”
Hopson, Yearwood, and King have all been involved in BSDY since its founding last April and as rising juniors, have taken on leadership roles. Over the past year, they have learned from New Haven community leaders and grown as organizers themselves. King, who serves as the executive director, centered the idea of person-to-person connection.
“Sometimes principles and ideas get lost, but at the end of the day we are fighting for this individual person to be able to live and be happy,” he said. King also said that he has learned how women of color and queer/trans folk of color have led the movement both nationally and in New Haven. “It’s really powerful to watch black women especially be centered and the leaders of this movement,” Hopson added. “I want to mirror that on campus—where black women’s voices are being heard and listened to and respected.”
“New Haven organizers have taught me how to love and how to love unconditionally in the face of absolute rejection,” Yearwood said. The action chair of BSDY, Yearwood has taken what he has learned from organizers and combined it with his experience in Yale’s Educational Studies program, organizing online teach-ins open to Yale students, New Haven residents, and anyone following BSDY on social media.
He said of these events: “The most beautiful part is seeing the passion people put into research—you see people owning this information making it personal, making it their own so when they give it to someone else they can do that as well.” As conversations around police abolition and defunding enter mainstream conversation, he sees education becoming an increasingly important part of BSDY and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole.
Callie Benson-Williams ’23, the finance director of BSDY, is excited for what’s to come. “I feel like 2 months ago no one would have thought defunding the police was a realistic idea at all,” she said. “Police abolition is something I learned from the New Haven activists we worked with. Even before the recent push for that, New Haven activists were talking about police abolition, prison abolition.”
Yet as much as the BSDY is looking towards the future, its founding as an organization is inextricably tied to recognizing the work of organizers that came before, specifically the work of black women and black queer folk, both at Yale and in New Haven.
After the shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, Kerry Ellington came to the Afro-American Cultural Center and recounted her own long fight against an unjust act of violence over two years prior. In 2017, fifteen-year old Jayson Negron was shot four times at point blank range by Bridgeport Police officer James Boulay. Despite a year of intense organizing and fighting by Kerry Ellington and the Connecticut organization People Against Police Brutality, the Bridgeport police cleared the officer of all charges. Ellington connected the feelings of outrage BSDY had to the shooting of Stephanie and Paul with her lived experience as an organizer.
On the student level, BSDY benefited from the experience of student organizers involved in NextYale back in 2015, an organization of primarily black and POC women of Yale who organized in response to the actions of what some POC on campus called the “Racepocalypse.” In 2019, NextYale organizers Nia Berrain ’19, Erika Lopez ’19, Maya Jenkins ‘19 and alum Eli Ceballo-Countryman ‘18 led BSDY’s initial conversations in the Afro-American Cultural Center. “This is how I’ve seen the class of 2018, 2017, 2015 do things, and I know exactly the language they used to get people together,” Berrain recalled.
“New Haven organizers have taught me how to love and how to love unconditionally in the face of absolute rejection.”
At the time that BSDY started, the Yale semester was also at its typically chaotic end. “I don’t remember studying for finals because most of my nights were spent in the house organizing; every other day there was another thing to do,” Hopson said. In April of 2019, BSDY collected and delivered over 1,000 complaints to YPD, marched with Kerry Ellington and other community activists, and joined Hamden and New Haven residents in demanding accountability from their own police departments and cities. “In the midst of turmoil, pain, and suffering and a lot of people going through things emotionally, mentally, and physically, we used those emotions as a rallying cry,” Yearwood recalled.
Days before the term ended, an assistant to President Salovey emailed BSDY and invited them to meet with the President’s Taskforce on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “That’s not who we were trying to speak out to,” King recalled in response. “We weren’t just trying to improve campus life for black students, we were trying to improve the New Haven community overall because the YPD are terrorizing the New Haven Community.”
The students who were part of NextYale had seen this response before. After a NextYale protest during an admitted students event in 2016, another subcommittee called the “President’s Task Force” was created and invited members from the organizing group to join. NextYale’s members recalled that this committee was quietly dissolved and no real action was taken. After the #sleepingwhileblack incident in 2018, when a white student called YPD on a black graduate student who was sleeping in a common room, Yale created another President’s Task Force.
Recent Yale Law School graduate Samantha Grayman, who led graduate and professional students during the April organizing effort, said the students in BSDY might have been blindsided, had they not known the history of Yale’s previous responses to student-led organizing. “The school will often promise certain things, students get pulled into all these meetings with the president, the president writes a letter, all these performative things, and then a year later nothing changes,” she described. “When people waste their time with the performative thing, they forget that the institution, regardless of your allegiance or attachment to it, has done, unfortunately, some great harm to the New Haven community…and has an intentional process of separating students from the community.”
BSDY declined the meeting with the President’s Taskforce and reconnected with the New Haven organizing community when school resumed in the fall of 2019. “At the end of the day the whole reason BSDY was started was to support community activists and organizers,” King said. “So as the fall came, I was trying to check in, see what people were doing, how they were organizing.” When in October, New Haven, Hamden, and Yale fell short of demands that local organizers had drafted, BSDY’s members held press conferences, attended police commission meetings, and protested alongside community activists.
Now, over a year later, members of BSDY have been continuing their community relationships, and, on a personal level, have grown them into real friendships. During their interviews, Ochumare and Tay separately recounted running into each other at Stop & Shop. There was joy in their voices as they described the warm feeling of seeing a friend in the often lonely time of quarantine.
King hopes these person-to-person relationships continue to drive the organizing, anticipating a time when community organizers can get meals with students in dining halls, or when they can meet on or off campus and hang out informally as friends as well as fellow organizers.
Ochumare also hopes students will continue to enter into the community, and she can see very concrete ways to make that happen. “Get involved in some of the work I’m doing around educational equity, go to the legislative building when we’re doing statewide work, figure out ways to create economic reparations at Yale and spread those funds among grassroots organizations in New Haven, do the flyering for our back to school drives, do membership drives for People Against Police Brutality and Black Lives Matter New Haven, and intern at places like City-Wide Youth Coalition for free,” she listed. “Do the extra labor that would allow people like me to continue to be in all the spaces that I’m in.”
At times, activism at Yale can feel the way activism on social media felt this summer—self-aggrandizing, cathartic, and ultimately in a vacuum. As a black student, I found it particularly difficult to live with the concept of the “Yale bubble”, to be around residents that look like me, in a place that should feel like home, and yet be led to believe that I am somehow astronomically different from those around me. The mirage of the “Yale bubble” has always caused internal dissonance in me and in others—and yet there’s real action we can do to challenge this concept. I believe every student who enters into community with New Haven will gain a valuable education, unique friendships, and powerful memories—all the things we hope to get out of our time in college. These community organizers deserve our support, our collaboration, and to have their own voices heard; as students, we can do more than protest with New Haven—we can give New Haveners a seat at the table they have been excluded from since Yale’s founding three hundred years ago. If the Yale bubble exists, it is only because we as students have not realized the immense power we have to not only step out of that bubble, but to destroy it entirely.
Read BSDY’s response to 21CP’s recommendations for the YPD here.
—Branson Rideaux is a member of the class of 2020.