As We Speak

As We Speak

“The right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, ratified on June 21, 1788. New Haveners have claimed these rights for at least a little longer, albeit not always peaceably.

On April 21, 1775, after learning that fighting had broken out between colonists and British soldiers in Lexington, Massachusetts, New Haven officials balked at the idea of joining the fray. On April 22, Benedict Arnold, captain of the Second Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard, protested that indecision by rallying more than 60 men to the tavern where the officials had gathered and demanding the key to New Haven’s municipal store of gunpowder. After “threatening… to break open the building and help themselves if they didn’t have the key in five minutes,” as tells it, Arnold and his men loaded up and marched north, pulling New Haven headlong into the Revolutionary War.

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Simeon Jocelyn, too, petitioned the government for redress of a grievance: the fact that a college education was being denied to black men. In 1831, Jocelyn, a white man, attempted along with Arthur Tappan and other abolitionists to found a “Negro college” in New Haven—an idea that received resounding approval from the annual Convention of the Free People of Colour in Philadelphia but later faced intense opposition at home. During a public meeting convened to debate the matter, Jocelyn “stood almost alone against literally hundreds of his neighbors, all condemning the college,” according to the pamphlet Yale, Slavery and Abolition (2001). Things turned even uglier the next day, when a mob of white people attacked Tappan’s house; months later, whites raided an integrated neighborhood known as New Liberia. Jocelyn, whose own home was attacked a few years later, stood his ground and continued to push forward despite his failure to establish the college. He harbored fugitive slaves on their way farther north; cofounded the Amistad Committee, which helped the former captives of the slave ship Amistad win their freedom; and developed an integrated neighborhood named Spireworth as well as a school for black children.

With the rise of the Industrial Age throughout the 19th century, New Haven became a hotbed of a new kind of protest, demanding better conditions for workers. According to historian Rollin G. Osterweis, “labor unrest and strikes occurred frequently, …sometimes over local situations and occasionally as manifestations of sympathy with striking workmen elsewhere.” He gives as one example a “mass demonstration and near-riot on the Green,” meant to express solidarity with railway workers during the multi-state Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Other New Haven strikes cited by Osterweis and were led by bricklayers, carriage builders and women shoemakers. According to NEHS, in 1886, 29 strikes had already happened by May 1, when The New York Times reported, “This town has picked up the reputation lately of having more strikes than any other city of its size in the country. Very likely it deserves it; at any rate the labor problem is in everybody’s mouth.”

Labor protests spilled well into the 20th century. In 1933, New Haven garment workers went on strike against Lesnow Brothers in New Haven, a “dangerous, unsanitary, unventilated and unheated” garment sweat shop at which seasonal workers earned as little as $4 for a 60-hour work week, according to NEHS. With direction from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Lesnow workers went out on strike in early April. “That began a month of police intimidation while picketing in the cold. If any strikers marched out of the line, the police hit them with billy clubs. They targeted the male leaders, but didn’t spare the women,” NEHS writes. A nationwide strike followed. On May 3, a settlement gave workers a 10 percent wage increase, health insurance and a pension. Later, the work week was shortened to 40 hours. “Within six weeks of the Lesnow strike, virtually all of New Haven’s shirt companies were union.”

Along the way, women were also actively seeking suffrage. They marched twice in September of 1916, in conjunction with the Republican and Democratic conventions. According to an article by retired Southern Connecticut State University professor Kenneth Florey, more than 1,200 women took part in the first march, on September 5, along with members of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage. A September 19 procession was held by torchlight and ended at the Green, where two hours of speeches followed. It wasn’t the first time New Haven women had marched for the vote. A May 1914 issue of the Saturday Chronicle previewed a June march, to include “decorated automobiles galore going about the city, carrying parties of women to make suffrage speeches at convenient points.” The day was also to include speeches in every ward and on the Green, and “very suffragist in the city will decorate her house with suffrage colors and banners…”

Protest in New Haven has often risen from the ranks of Yale students, who apparently got a flavor for it in the 1950s. One of their acts of resistance responded to the “chasing of vendors from the campus gate by police,” according to a caption in A Yale Album: The Third Century (2001), edited by Richard Benson. The note appears below a photograph of a bemused-looking, white-jacketed ice cream vendor surrounded by a crowd of cheering Elis in college sweaters and neatly pressed trousers. One of the two policemen caught up in the action is not quite disguising a smile. “The riot was staged near historic Central Green, scene of many riots by students in past years,” the caption continues. “Four students and two ice-cream salesmen were arrested.”

Another so-called “riot” occurred on St. Patrick’s Day in the 1950s and was “precipitated by a heavy, wet spring snow, the sort that was perfect for making snowballs. Freshmen, upperclassmen, and participants in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade were all swept up in a grand melee,” Benson writes. “Little did the participants imagine the significance that confrontations between students and the law were to assume in the coming decades.”

Perhaps the most famous local protests of the 20th century were the 1970 May Day demonstrations against the trial of nine Black Panthers accused of the murder of Alex Rackley, a fellow Panther suspected of spying for the FBI. North of 15,000 protestors gathered for two days on the Green. Despite widespread fears of rioting and looting, the event was, for the most part, peaceful. Instead of resisting the onslaught, Yale opened its dorms and its dining halls to the protestors. As Jason Bischoff-Wurstle writes for the New Haven Museum, “The crowd was a broad cross section of leftist politics calling for, in addition to a fair trial for Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, the liberation of women, a fair living wage compensation for all workers, an end to predatory racist policies, an end to U.S. imperialist foreign policy and the end of killing animals for profit and meat. … The largest conflict happened away from the Green. Just as a small indoor rally was ending at Ingalls Rink, two small bombs went off. No one was injured. The bombing is believed to have been orchestrated by right-wing factions set on disruption.” An upcoming exhibition at Artspace will recognize the 50th anniversary of the protest and the trials.

In recent years, many of the most pressing issues of our time have played out in New Haven protests large and small, addressing climate change, the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Trump presidency and immigration, to name a few. Occupy New Haven protestors lived in a small tent city on the Green from October 2011 until April 2012 in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a movement “to fight back against the richest 1% of people that are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future,” its website says. Yale’s tradition of protest continues as well—in recent years, addressing issues including the Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, the university’s investment in fossil fuels and the renaming of Calhoun College due to “John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery,” as Yale president Peter Salovey said in a press release.

Those who peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances today join a centuries-long tradition of New Haveners pressing for change—and clearing the path to a more just future.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, provided courtesy of the New Haven Museum, features a scene from the Black Panther Trials protests of 1970. Image 2 features Benedict Arnold Demands the Powder House Key painted by Morton Kunstler. Image 3, photographed by Dan Mims, features the “New Haven Notable” banner devoted to Simeon Jocelyn. Image 4, photographed by Joseph Candee and provided courtesy of the New Haven Museum, features suffragettes outside the Winchester Repeating Arms Company circa 1916. Images 5 and 6, sourced from the Manuscripts and Archives collections of the Yale University Library, feature scenes from the 1970 May Day protests.

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