Conn. vigil remembers slain youth

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. - On Martin Luther King Day, young people here organized a candlelight vigil to remember the 34 people, most of them youth, who were killed in 2011, and to highlight the link between joblessness and violence. The youth groups involved in organizing the vigil were The Newhallville Rising Dream Team and The New Elm City Dream, which includes members of the Young Communist League.

Latoya Agnew started The Newhallville Rising Dream Team in her neighborhood of Newhallville.  Newhallville was once the home of the Winchester Repeating Arms Factory in New Haven, which historically was one of the largest industrial employers in the region.  During World War II Winchester employed over 30,000 people, and most of them walked to work from their homes in the adjacent Newhallville and Dixwell neighborhoods. When the union was organized at Winchester during the same time period, the factory became a steady source of middle-class union jobs. Over the years, there were also many strikes and examples of Winchester workers and Newhallville residents standing up for a decent way of life in New Haven.

As manufacturing declined in the Northeast, the Winchester jobs disappeared, leaving workers and the neighborhood of Newhallville in increasing economic hardship. In 2008, Winchester closed its doors for good. Today, Agnew and other youth are fighting to end the frequent violence they face in Newhallville and in New Haven in general that results from extreme unemployment. Agnew holds the Newhallville Rising Dream Team Meetings twice a week. She and her group led the organizing for the Jan. 16 "Words Never Said" candlelight vigil, held inside the auditorium of Lincoln-Bassett School in the neighborhood.

"Our mission is to unify Newhallville and New Haven together, so we won't be separate neighborhoods with separate issues. We want to build a huge family so that we are all for one and one for all," said Agnew.

Over 80 people attended the vigil.  Newly elected Alderwoman Delphine Clyburn of Newhallville helped the young people secure the school building for the event, and arrived early to help set up.

She was accompanied by new Alderpeople from neighboring wards, including Jeanette Morrison and Brian Wingate, who have both been active in supporting youth issues in the city. Clyburn, Morrison and Wingate are all union members and were supported during their election campaigns this past summer by a huge labor-community alliance.

In addition to the elected officials who were present, the New Elm City Dream, a citywide youth coalition fighting for youth jobs, helped run the program and spoke from the stage.

Also, Principal Kermit Carolina from Hillhouse High School was on the speaking program. He emphasized that "self-love" and "staying in school" were critical for healing the black community in times of crisis. Kevin Edwards from New Haven's Street Outreach Worker Program also spoke, as did Rev. Scott Marks, a leader in the aforementioned labor-community coalition.

Rev. Marks, the grandson of sharecroppers in the South, spoke about his early experience of seeing his grandfather scared for the first time when the Ku Klux Klan came to his family's neighborhood. He emphasized that there is a "new Jim Crow," that being the racism-laden criminal justice system that intentionally shuts every door to so many young men of color in the United States. "When you get a record, and you are thrown off the housing list, barred from the job market, and in some states even barred from receiving food stamps, what do we expect people to do? What do we expect people to do?" said Rev. Marks.

Nollysha Canteen from the New Elm City Dream emceed the event. She introduced each speaker with confidence and clarity.  At one point in the program, she, Agnew and 10-year-old Jackie Marks performed a skit to explain to the audience the different youth groups who were involved in planning the event. Canteen led the program with a solemn tone that allowed for audience members to reflect on the magnitude of loss that New Haven experienced last year. She spoke, during the "open words" section of the program, about an intelligent friend of hers who used to help her with her homework in history class. Canteen testified through tears that she lost her friend due to violence. Other youth shared testimonies and poems throughout the evening.

At the end of the program, Latoya Agnew lit the 34 candles at the front of the stage. Each candle included a nametag representing one of the people lost. Agnew asked people in the audience to come forward and take a candle, and then led the group outside to lay the candles in front of the school.

In the midst of the ongoing crises that youth in New Haven face, they are creating strong community alliances across neighborhood lines and with the labor movement. They are also setting real goals for moving New Haven into a hopeful future. Martin Luther King's insistence on relating racial injustice with economic injustice is a model for the youth organizing here.

Photo: Lisa Bergmann/PW

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