Chanting “Justice for Sam See! Justice for Sam See!” 30 demonstrators waded into oncoming lunch-hour traffic on Elm Street Tuesday to protest the recent death of a Yale professor at police lockup at 1 Union Ave.
The demonstration began in front of the Amistad statue outside City Hall. Organizers gave brief speeches offering tribute to the late professor Samuel See (pictured) and expressed skepticism of official accounts of how he died. They called for an independent review of both See’s arrest on charges of violating a protective order, as well as the circumstances of his death in the lockup, which is overseen by state judicial marshals.
Marshals discovered See’s body at 6 a.m. on Nov. 24. See, an assistant English professor who was 34, had been arrested he night before in a domestic dispute with his husband. Both men had court-ordered protective orders barring them from having contact with each other. Officials have not yet released a conclusion about why or how See died; they said it appears he did not commit suicide. Police and the state judicial branch are both investigating the incident.
“I think we can’t believe a word the police say,” rally organizer Nathan Brown said as the crowd gathered in front of City Hall. Brown, an assistant English professor at the University of California, Davis, became friends with See when they were both doctoral students at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s important to recognize the political dimensions of his death. It’s not OK to live in a society when someone in a fragile state ... is thrown in jail and left to die,” Brown said. He dismissed the official police account that See suffered a head cut after both he and officers “fell” to the ground, as See allegedly threatened to kill the cops. “I don’t think that’s the way normally people receive an injury when people are arresting them,” Brown argued. Brown also cited this case of a woman who died in the lock-up last year after calling for help from marshals who allegedly taunted her about her “ass crack”; her death was ruled a suicide.
Hannah Zeavin, who studied with See as a Yale undergraduate and then went on to graduate school at New York University, said at Tuesday’s rally that she was “corresponding” with See at the time of his death about a project on the “erasure” of gays and lesbians in the media when “queer folks die.” “The possibility for justice for Sam was foreclosed when he died in a prison cell,” she told the crowd.
Among the demonstrators who came to town for the protest was national gay-rights activist Bill Dobbs (second at right in photo standing beside Yale Daily News reporter Isaac Stanley-Becker). Yale police arrested him in 1989 when he was putting up posters for a gay-rights conference; his treatment by police led to a protest march and an internal review by Yale police that proved critical of their handling of the incident. Dobbs said Tuesday that one of his keepers in the police lock-up that night in 1989 (he didn’t remember if it was a marshal or an officer,) warned him, “If I ever see you around town again, I’ll kill you.”
After the City Hall speeches, organizers led marchers down Elm Street. Brown and others initiated chants through a bullhorn and carrying signs reading, “We Demand Answers” and “Truth Now,” and “Death In Jail Is Political,” as protesters marched head-first into cars and buses, whose drivers swerved to avoid them while traveling east. The marchers walked up Elm to the Yale campus, turned left on High Street, then turned left on Chapel (eventually walking with traffic after crossing College), and finally onto State Street en route to the police station.
“Whose streets?” the marchers yelled. “Our streets!”
Although the marchers did not have a permit, police held back, avoiding any confrontation or the need to make arrests. One officer watched from a distance at the City Hall portion of the rally. No cops were visible along the Elm and High street stretches of the march. Police supervisor Sgt. Peter McKoy joined the group on Chapel Street around 12:40 p.m., driving a police van alongside the marchers, while a second officer followed in a police cruiser behind the march. “As long as they keep moving,” saidMcKoy said as the sea of marchers coursed down State Street toward 1 Union Ave., he saw no reason to interfere with the march or arrest anybody.
Jeannie Cipollini (at right in photo) drove behind McKoy. Cipollini, who lives in Guilford, said she was driving in support of the march. “I want to know what took four days for the incident to become public,” she said. Police did not release any information about See’s death until four days after it occurred, and after the Independent published an account about it. Police Chief Dean Esserman has since apologized for the department’s slow release of information in the case. He said the state’s chief medical examiner has concluded that a cut See suffered in a reported tangle with police at the time of his arrest did not cause his death. The medical examiner is waiting for results of toxicology tests before announcing an official cause of death.
As the marchers reached the police station steps Tuesday for a final rally, Nathan Brown’s chant in the megaphone had evolved into, “The cops are a hate crime.“Among the speakers at the police station was Samuel See’s sister (at right in photo). “I don’t want this to happen to another person,” she told the crowd. “I called the police for help for Sam. Now he’s dead.” She declined to be interviewed or speak with a reporter afterward.
Yale English Professor Jill Campbell, a friend and colleague of Sam See, addressed the crowd as well. “He died in this building, alone,” she noted. “We needed to respond with political feeling and political thought [to his death] ... It does give me good comfort to march with you today.”
No officers were visible outside the police station during the final rally. The demonstration ended at 1 p.m. without incident.