Tonisha Dawson was on her way home when she saw the flashing lights behind her, a cop motioning for her to pull over. Her heart began beating a little faster in her chest, throat constricting as she reminded herself: Stay calm. Obey the law. Her uncle was a detective with the New Haven Police Department (NHPD), and she could pick his brain about the incident — and more like it that she had observed — when she got home. If she got home.
The cop stepped out of his vehicle. She took a deep breath.
“Hey, your lights are off,” he said. “Just wanted to make sure they were off before I ...” she recalls him trailing off. “Just stay safe.”
Despite the niceties, Dawson found herself shaken by the event. She drove home to her three young sons; they didn’t talk about her interaction with the police. She kept moving forward.
That was until she heard about the death of Alton Sterling, a father of five in Baton Rouge. And Thursday morning, when she awoke to the news that Philando Castile had been shot four times while reaching for his driver’s license and registration. She found herself watching the aftermath as it played out on the internet and breaking down completely. In her mind: Her boys, and how she was going to keep them safe even when they did everything right.
“It’s going crazy,” she thought. “You think back to years and years before where we had prices on our head. It seems like it’s almost gone back to that.”
Thursday afternoon, Dawson joined New Haveners Julius Stone, Jr. and host Alisa Bowens for a special episode of Bowens’ weekly “Culture Cocktail” on WNHH radio to discuss the deaths of Sterling and Castile at the hands of law enforcement officers, how New Haven is responding, and where the #BlackLivesMatter movement is almost two years after the events in Ferguson, Missouri. Their conversation also happened before five Dallas, Texas police officers were shot to death and several others wounded Thursday night.
For Dawson, the shootings were especially harrowing in their nature and part of what she sees as an exhausting pattern that has become jarringly familiar.
“I’m afraid of cops, let’s just that put that out there,” she said. “I don’t like cops. A cop tried to stop me because my headlights weren’t on ... literally my heart was palpating through my stomach almost just so he could tell me that my headlights weren’t on and it was an oversight on my end. I’m so sick and tired of these scaredy-cat cops, because it’s those ones that are shooting. It’s the ones you can tell you probably weren’t that popular in high school, you probably didn’t have any friends, you had no power, you were scrawny you were small and now you have a gun in your hand and you and you use it at every opportunity that you get. I’m going to need you to work behind a desk, dress the mannequins at Macy’s, become a bikini waxer. I don’t care what you need to do, but you need to take off that blue uniform and sit behind somebody’s desk or work in the drive-through, I don’t know. It’s unfortunate that pulling out your firearm is the first thing that you do when you’re dealing with a black life.”
Part of her fear, she added, comes from the fact that she’s a mom — and a co-parent — to three young black men. That’s three lives that she’s not sure she and her husband alone can protect anymore.
“It’s hard,” she said. “You can’t protest, because then we’re inhumane…. And then if you stand back and do nothing it continues to go on. And I’m nervous. I have three boys. I don’t have daughters, I have boys…. I get nervous to send my son to go pick up the Chinese food. Because God forbid they think you’re somebody else, or that you look like somebody else, or like someone that did something. Or he’s black and he has a black hoodie on. I do know the police’s job is to protect and to serve, that is their job. For us and for society.”
Bowens agreed. “We just need to have an open conversation here,” she said at the top of the episode. “It’s sad that we wake up, for the last couple days, and we see a continuing mistreatment and just utter lack of regard for — and I’m going to say it — black lives. It’s not all lives matter anymore. It’s a blatant attack on especially the African American community, especially the African American male community…. I have a father, I have a brother, I have cousins, I have uncles and I have friends who are black males and this has to stop. We are being hunted. We are being killed. We are being basically lynched and destroyed and it has to absolutely stop.”
“What Do We Do?”
Stone pushed for the importance of both having a national conversation, and localizing it.
“A four-year-old was in the car,” he said. “Who is going to be traumatized for the rest of her life…. That’s the thing that boggles my brain. That there are these children who are being traumatized and they’re not going to get their dads back. You know, they’re not going to get back that innocence that was taken away from them. You know, that young man who was bawling, who lost his dad in Baton Rouge, crying, he probably lost his best friend. I think about it and I’m like: I don’t even know how I’d be able to react, you know, if that happened to me or happened to my father or my brother. It’s one of those things where it’s just like, what do you do? What do we do?”
“Let’s talk about the fact that when the standoff in Oregon happened and all those men had shotguns and rifles and not a single person got stopped or killed,” he added. “It’s just such a double standard in the country that is just … you get Jesse Williams who speaks out and you get 10,000 white folks who are angry about the fact that Jesse Williams spoke some truth and what baffles my brain is if you sat and you listened to what he was saying he wasn’t spewing hate speech he was spewing truth. It wasn’t like he was going off on a tangent or going off on some random made-up facts, the man was talking truth.”
He also had some advice for those hoping to be allies in what is already, to him, very much a political battle.
“If you’re an ally, listen, listen and listen again,” he said. “Stop telling us what and how you feel about and start listening to how we feel about it. We get that you’re in it with us on the struggle, but you don’t live the lives we live. You don’t live in the skin we live in so I’m going to need you to listen to us, pay attention to what’s going on, we’re not just talking just to be talking, this stuff is happening for real.”
A Mayor’s Message
The episode came as Mayor Toni Harp announced that she stood with the families of the victims, and would be working with the New Haven Police Department to maintain a good relationship with the city’s residents.
“I join the entire New Haven community in shock and sadness after the recent, deadly violence – so graphically documented – in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. Heartsick only begins to describe how I feel: this is every mother’s worst fear and I grieve for the loved ones of these men,” she said.
“Every mayor in the nation dreads a comparable incident. New Haven is fortunate to have well-trained, highly disciplined police personnel on duty, greatly reducing the risk of a similar circumstance here.”
To listen to the full episode of Alisa’s Culture Cocktail, click on or download the audio above or subscribe to “WNHH Community Radio” or “Elm City Lowdown” on Soundcloud or iTunes.