Lia Miller-Granger grew up in Newhallville hearing her parents talk about police violence in the neighborhood, but not experiencing it firsthand.
Now, she’s at the head of a local movement that aims to end it.
Miller-Granger never expected to be one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement in New Haven. But last Friday’s swell of people marching downtown against police brutality brought her — and the organization she helped start — to the forefront of the fight.
She conducted the rally and march Friday evening on the New Haven Green held in response to the shooting deaths of black men at the hands of Louisiana and Minnesota police. She kicked off a long set of impassioned speeches and chants with a call to action.
“We have to occupy these streets. We have to call these civil servants and hold them accountable. This is the beginning. Do not let the fire inside of you dissipate,” she yelled through a bullhorn to a crowd of rapt faces that encircled her.
Inside, she was nervous. As she spoke to the people, she knew she wasn’t saying everything she wanted to. She didn’t recognize friends standing feet away who had turned out to rally with her on the Green. She wanted to be in the background, organizing behind the scenes; instead she found herself in the spotlight.
“My over-opinionated self,” she said, with a laugh, days after the rally. Her headstrong nature and loud voice made it unlikely she would fade into the surroundings.
MIller-Granger, who is 31, is the president of Black Lives Matter New Haven, which she now leads with three other black women: Lauren Pittman (or Sun Queen), Dawnise Boulware, and Sy Fraiser.
A black-centered activist group organizing a diverse group for economic and social stability in black communities in the city, Black Lives Matter New Haven is intended to fill a gap among local activist groups.
The idea to start a local chapter came to Miller-Granger as she sat home in late 2014 watching the news as reports filled her screen — of unarmed black men being shot by police, of grand juries choosing not to indict the officers.
“I was pissed off, ‘beyond pisstivity,’ in my mom’s words,” she said. So she decided to get off the couch and do something.
She called Pittman, who has been an activist for years, and asked her, “Where’s the Black Lives Matter in New Haven?” Both called around and couldn’t find a local chapter. “We said, ‘That means we have to start one,’” Miller-Granger said.
In the last year, since August, they talked with community members about what the city would need from a Black Lives Matter chapter. The focus of the chapter is not primarily on police brutality; the organizers aim to offer educational initiatives for neighbors “so we can properly community build,” she said. They started a drive for hats and gloves in January. They began a continuous fundraiser to bring water to people in Flint, Michigan, whose local and state government ignored claims of a poisoned water system for years. As of Thursday, almost 1,700 people had liked the Black Lives Matter New Haven Facebook page.
Going forward, she said, they want a leadership group of five men and five women, and to build a base of supporters around the group. They are trying to raise donations; so far, they have funded all of their actions out of pocket. Many people still don’t know the group exists and is organizing in the city; Miller-Granger wants to change that.
In the last 20 years, she said, she has watched violence spread throughout the city. She recalls Newhallville as a safe neighborhood when she was young in the 1990s, where people would go who hoped for a path to upward mobility.
She said she wants more community services in Newhallville, not more community policing. Young kids hang out in the streets because they have nowhere to go. They need options for productive activities.
“Kings & Queens”
Black Lives Matter New Haven organizers are building a mentoring program called “Kings and Queens Initiative” to be offered to low-income children of color starting August 2017. They need volunteers to help write the curricula and eventually serve as mentors to students. The program will serve as an affordable alternative for families that can’t afford to send their children to costly after-school programs, Miller-Granger said.
Though this chapter is focused on education, they can’t ignore the fact that police brutality is an issue that draws a broad audience.
The first protest the chapter led was in early May, when police arrested Jeffrey Agnew and Tyeisha Hellamns outside of Beverage Boss liquor store on Whalley Avenue. The owner of the store called 911 when a dispute between the cashier and customers got heated, and the officers wrestled Agnew to the ground. He said officers hit him in the head and pepper sprayed him and that he did not resist arrest. Cops said he did. Videos did not completely clear up the matter.
They also arrested his friend Hellamns for allegedly interfering with Agnew’s arrest as she filmed it.
Miller-Granger said none of the parties in the incident was totally in the right. But police, as the ones with “force and privilege,” were responsible for de-escalating the situation, she said. “That scared the citizens of New Haven. They thought Jeff was on the sidewalk dead,” she said.
Since Friday, the Black Lives Matter New Haven e-mail account has been pinging non-stop, receiving messages from people who say they have experienced violence at the hands of New Haven police and need help taking next steps. New Haven is a “quiet” city, but police brutality happens here, Miller-Granger said.
“You’re not going to see cops beat on someone in the middle of Dixwell Avenue on Tuesday at 2 p.m.,” she said. But that could happen downtown at 2 a.m. after people flood out of the dance clubs, she said. “It’s easy to cover those kinds of things up.”
Miller-Granger said people think of New Haven as problem-free, just as they consider the northern U.S. anti-racist and safe for people of color. “It’s always been like that, no matter what point we are on in the path of social justice. There’s always been this misconception that it’s not that bad in the North,” she said. “Only because they’re not lynching you in the trees in New Haven.”
At the same time, she is appreciative of the quiet — so her 12-year-old son can grow up without seeing dead bodies in the street.
Her son, a student at charter school Amistad Middle, sees the killings on social media, but not “live-action,” she said.
Pizza Hut Lesson
In her other life, outside of organizing, Miller-Granger is an employment specialist for a not-for-profit in Hartford. Her parents sent her to Catholic schools throughout New Haven, before she went to live with a relative in Georgia for her first year of high school. She attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first historically black university to grant degrees in the country. “We lived between the Amish and the KKK,” she said. “Literally.”
Her first experience with what she calls “hard racism,” more pointed than subtle microaggressions or discrimination, happened only recently. She was working as a pizza delivery driver for Pizza Hut from August 2014 until October 2015. During one trip, a man yelled at her, “‘Get out the way, nigger!’”
At the time, she laughed at him, in part out of surprise.
She wasn’t laughing when she spoke last Friday evening to the sea of angry, sobbing protesters, many of whom said they had had violent interactions with officers or had loved ones who did. She was thinking about her son, watching her friends and family in pain.
Miller-Granger has lived at the McConaughy Terrace public-housing development on Valley Street in West Hills for the past six years,. She said her family and friends are regularly stopped and harassed by police when they visit. When she calls police for help, she worries they will arrest her, even if she is on the right side of the law.
Miller-Granger hopes for a unified coalition to fight against this fear. She worries that gender divisions are fracturing the black community. She is skeptical of the feminist movement, including black feminism, for pitting men against women in the fight for justice. “It further separates black unity,” she said. “I don’t need a black women feminist and a black men power movement. I need black unity.”
She criticized the mainstream feminist movement for staying quiet when black women were victims of injustice at the hands of police.
“Feminists should have been burning bras in the street when Sandra Bland was killed,” she said. (Bland was found hanged in a jail cell, after being arrested during a routine traffic stop in Texas last July.) She acknowledged that black feminists did in fact rally attention to Bland’s cause.
Miller-Granger has felt supported by black men in her activism in New Haven. Black men physically offered her protection as she led the march in the middle of Elm Street up to Broadway in peaceful protest Friday.
“Black men were hugging black women. We were all crying. No one made any man who shed a tear feel weak. No one made a woman that shed a tear out there feel weak. You heard men talking about and bigging up their mothers who are in the struggle,” she said. She brings her son to the protests so he can see the positive and supportive relationships, and encourage him to support black women.
“When we were on the Green down there, it was just so much black power,” she said.
Click here to listen to Miller-Granger speak about organizing for Black Lives Matter New Haven.