Dear Friends and Partners,
Several years ago, the Perrin Family Foundation decided to relocate its office from the white, affluent suburb of Ridgefield to New Haven, Connecticut. Part of the reason we moved was to ensure that our work was grounded in and responsive to the realities of the communities we support. As an entity dedicated to supporting youth-led social change, we have been both appalled by the recent police violence against young people and inspired by the powerful community response.
New Haven is PFF’s home, and it is also my own. I started doing youth work in New Haven twenty years ago. At the time, I was a Yale undergrad working with students at Yale Law running a youth peer-education program. Our work focused on educating young people about their rights in encounters with police officers. In the years preceding the launch of that program, there were two fatal police shootings of teens in Connecticut – Malik Jones, who was murdered by East Haven cops, and Aquan Salmon, a 14 year old who was shot in the back by Hartford police. Both were young Black men, and both were unarmed.
While the work I was engaged in at the time had value – young people should absolutely know their rights – it was also fundamentally insufficient. Knowing one’s rights does not address why they are being violated in the first place. Knowing one’s rights does not change a system that uses the law as a tool to oppress, and as an apparatus to sustain and advance white supremacy by criminalizing communities of color. Knowing ones rights does not change the political and ideological math where those with power calculate which lives matter and which don’t. Indeed, for a young person of color, demanding that their rights be respected can, in fact, be dangerous. Black and Brown youth have been harmed, abused, violated, killed by police for doing far less.
Reckoning with that reality is what pushed me to evolve from a youth worker to a youth organizer. And reckoning with the refusal of those with power and resources to acknowledge and embrace that reality is why I came to work in philanthropy.
Over the six years that I’ve been at the Perrin Family Foundation, we have directed our resources towards building young people’s power to advance justice in their communities. And we have also committed to using our own power to name and challenge the ways institutional and structural racism dehumanize and criminalize young people of color. Too often, our sector outwardly treats young people of color as in need of saving, while inwardly buying into narratives that suggest they should be feared. Perhaps it is that dichotomy which makes us lose our tongues when young people are actually under attack.
Over the past two weeks, in two separate Connecticut cities, police officers have open fired into cars occupied by unarmed youth of color. Anthony Jose Vega Cruz, was shot by Wethersfield police on April 20, and died on Monday, after fighting for his life in critical care. Just days earlier, Yale and Hamden police unloaded sixteen bullets into a car in New Haven’s Newhalllville neighborhood, leaving its occupants Paul Witherspoon and Stephanie Washington, who suffered gun shot wounds to her chest and face, caught in the crossfire. Four straight days of community protest – that shut down the streets of downtown New Haven surrounding Yale’s campus and the Dixwell Avenue commercial corridor in Hamden – have led to national news coverage.
What was not noted in national news coverage, however, is that Anthony is the twentieth Connecticut resident to die as a result of police-involved shootings or fatal police chases in the past three years. Nearly every single victim has been a person of color, and the majority have been youth and young adults. Jayson Negron in Bridgeport. Zoe Dowdell in New Britain. Corbin Cooper in Bridgeport. Jarelle Gibbs in Hamden. Luis Martinez in Durham. Vincent Fowlkes in Norwalk. In some of these instances, young people were allegedly driving stolen vehicles. Even where this has been the case, it does not warrant the taking of young lives. These young people were never able to defend whether they had committed a crime or not, because that opportunity was taken from them. Still, there are those that will nullify young people’s right to due process and rationalize the actions of police officers with the mere possibility that youth were doing something wrong. Implicit in this way of thinking is the suggestion that lives of Black and Brown youth are acceptable collateral damage in a system that values property over people. Let us be clear: police should never open fire on unarmed individuals.
Those working in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors often refer to the “two Connecticuts.” The Connecticut that boasts the nation’s highest per capita income, and the Connecticut that hosts some of our nation’s highest concentrations of poverty. The pattern of police violence against youth of color in our state – and the stifling silence of the general public’s political will to address it – also exposes two Connecticuts. One that unconditionally values the lives of Black and Brown youth, and one that does not.
There is no room for neutrality here. As organizers chant, which side are you on my people, which side are you on?
As an institution that works to center the leadership of young people across our state, we stand alongside youth and community members in calling for the officers involved in these shootings to be held accountable and in calling for the long-term systemic reforms that will bring about communities that our Foundation’s vision statement seeks: communities that are safe, healthy and just, and communities whose default is to see young people not as threats, but leaders.
If you are interested in learning more about how to engage in community efforts to address these recent events, you can connect with Black Lives Matter New Haven, New Haven Against Police Brutality, and Justice for Jayson.
Yours in Partnership,