By Ana Arellano
“Hopeless. That is what we felt in 2009 when our six-foot tall priest was arrested. If he could be arrested for no good reason, what would that mean for the rest of us, who are far less privileged than him, some of whom are the most vulnerable?”
This was the beginning of the speech Angel Fernandez-Chavero gave at the Annual Meeting of the National Council of La Raza, (NCLR) the largest Latino civil rights organization in the country. Fernandez-Chavero had just won the Graciela Olivarez Award from the NCLR.
Standing next to him was the same six-foot tall priest, the Rev. James Manship of St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in New Haven, who was also honored for his role in this civil rights case.
Video Arrest Starts Massive Change
The arrest that Fernandez-Chavero described was prompted by a 19-second videotape Manship made on Feb. 19, 2009, of two East Haven police officers removing a collection of license plates from the wall of a Latino store located in nearby East Haven. A parishioner had alerted Manship to the police action because of an ongoing pattern of harassment against Latinos in the community.
Manship, who had taken to carrying a video camera with him as he investigated alleged racial profiling of his Latino parishioners, witnessed what he thought was harrassment by police officers who entered the store. He took out the camera and began taping what he saw.
Manship was arrested but those charges were later dropped when the arresting officer’s police report contradicted what was on the videotape. The police officer, David Cari, reported that Manship approached him and he felt “unsafe” when Manship refused to identify an object he was carrying in his hands. The video, however, shows Cari asking Mansfield, “Sir what are you doing? Is there a reason that you have a camera on me?” Manship answersed, “I’m taking a video of what’s going on here.” Cari told Manship, “Well I’ll tell you what, I’m going to remove that camera.”
Legal Clinic Gets Involved
Outraged at the priest’s arrest, Fernandez-Chavero and other parish leaders invited Yale Law School legal aid interns to hear stories from parishioners that following Sunday about their own experiences with police harassment. They believed East Haven police were deliberately singling out the Latino community for harassment and abuse. They invited Latino parishioners and members of the community to tell their stories.
More than 100 people came to the church that day – all eager to share their experiences. And the stories kept coming for the next several Sundays. Another 100 Latinos who had heard about the meetings at the St. Rosa de Lima Church with the Yale Law School interns made their way to the parish to make sure their stories about police harrassment in East Haven would be heard as well.
The action of Manship and his parishioners led to a letter of complaint being filed with the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2009 by the Yale Law School Legal Aid Clinic. The incidents reported through these meetings led to the release of a letter on Dec. 19, 2011, by the U.S. Department of Justice saying that the East Haven Police Department “engages in a pattern or practice of systematically discriminating against Latinos in violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.” The police chief resigned.
This was followed on January 18, 2012, by the arrest of officers John Miller, Dennis Spaulding, David Cari, and Jason Zullo on charges of conspiracy to “injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate various members of the East Haven Community.” The East Haven mayor’s now infamous “I think I’ll have tacos for dinner” response to a question from a reporter about what he would do next after the arrest of four of the town’s officers, catapulted the story to national news.
Manship is modest about his role in the civil rights case. He says the series of events that led to the indictment and conviction of these officers did not emerge from his initiative alone, but by his entire parish.
Church Fights Profiling
In 2008, when Manship first heard of the alleged profiling, he conferred with the parish leadership. They in turn spoke to individual parish members, and a decision made by the community as a whole to address the problem. They first, chose to wait and see if the situation improved, but this changed in January 2009, when a young Latino was taken into police custody and placed in a holding cell. A single police officer went in, grabbed him and repeatedly banged his head against the wall. The young man said, “I thought he was going to kill me … I thought I was going to die.”
After this horrific event, the parish decided to document incidents of police mistreatment of Latinos. Manship, as a member of the community, was part of this effort. His fortuitous videotaping of the incident when the police were removing the license plates from the wall at the Latino grocery store not only served as undeniable proof of a serous contradiction of an official police report, but also became the impetus for action by a Latino community who knew it had to speak up to protect itself.
A Victim of Bullies
Ironically, Manship had planned not to take action himself and instead let others in the parish take the initiative when the church community decided to address the perceived harrassment problem together, But his restraint did not arise from lack of conviction. “When I was a kid, I was big, and I was awkward. I became a victim of bullies. I identify with folks who can’t defend themselves. Also, the values my parents held, about fair play, they were very influential.”
This upbringing, and on the advice of other family members and friends, led Manship to develop an interest in leading a public life of faith which eventually became the reason he entered the priesthood. While in seminary, he and a group of classmates were visited by Father Tom Geckler, a missionary. Geckler said to the seminarians, “Look around the room.” The seminarians were all middle class whites. “The church doesn’t look like you any more. Do you know anybody that looks different from you? Who’s not at the table?”
“This was not racism,” said Manship. “This was awareness of race.” Influenced by Geckler’s talk, Manship went to Puerto Rico. His parish at that time had a mission in Mayagüez. While there, he became acutely aware of the role of culture in the expression of faith.
At St. Rosa de Lima, Manship encourages his parishioners, with origins in 20 different Latino cultures, to discover the ways they are called to act in light of their faith. Taking on the initiative by himself “would be like pushing a rock up a hill, even though many would come to my aid,” but he says the parishioners would miss an opportunity to “create a web of relationships among themselves.”
Manship explains that the Sunday mass is not simply a way for the community to survive life’s trials; it is a means to impel them “to transform the world.” He adds, “You can’t change the whole world. But you know what? If there’s a drug house on my street—somebody’s selling drugs in my building, maybe there’s something I can do there. Make a little testimony. This is not right – so this is what needs to happen.”
Photo by Victor Eng
By Ana Arellano