(Mint Press) – In the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., there is a real and strongly ingrained distrust and fear of the police. The March 9 death of Kimani Gray, 16, at the hands of undercover police officers, underscores this.
According to the police, Gray was with a group of young men gathered on the street at around 11:30 p.m. As the plainclothes officers approached the group by car, Gray separated from the group and adjusted his waistband. The teen “continued to act in a suspicious manner,” a New York Police Department (NYPD) statement said, so the officers got out of their unmarked car and tried to get his attention. This caused Gray to turn and point a .38 caliber revolver at the police officers.
The officers fired 11 shots into the teenager. He died in the hospital. A loaded .38 was recovered from the scene.
Police commissioner Ray Kelly stated that there was no indication that guidelines were not followed. The officers are currently on administrative duty while Internal Affairs investigate the shooting. Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I-N.Y.) offered condolences to the Gray family.
“I can promise you that we will conduct a full and fair investigation,” Bloomberg said. “I understand there’s anger in the community, but the ways to get answers is not through violence or law breaking. We cannot tolerate that and we will not tolerate that. [T]here’s nothing we can do to undo the tragedy for the family, but we’ve just got to get guns out of the hands of kids and of the people who should not have them.”
For the residents of Flatbush, this situation raised a lot of questions. Did the officers identify themselves? As they were in plainclothes, they were driving an unmarked vehicle with no immediate designation to identify themselves as officers. In an area notorious for its gun violence, being accosted by two strangers is a potentially life-threatening event. If the officers did identify themselves, why would Gray pull a gun?
More importantly, how does anyone know if the officers are telling the truth? In all honesty, according to the residents, the police could easily have planted the discovered pistol. An already-existing disdain from the community for “stop and frisk” is causing an explosive reaction in reflection of Gray’s death.
Frustration spilling over
This frustration and anger at the police have translated into consecutive nights of protest, looting and violence. On March 12, a candlelight vigil for Gray was held at Church Avenue and East 55th Street. At the vigil, city council members Jumaane Williams and Charles Barron spoke to the press about the need to stop the use of “stop and frisk,” as the controversial tactic represents a civil rights violation and is racially prejudicial in nature.
The vigil was accompanied by a second, separate gathering that congregated several blocks to the west. This group taunted the police, who maintained a heavy presence along Church Avenue, screaming inflammatory chants such as “NYPD — KKK — how many kids will you kill today?” This group — vocally aggressive but nonviolent — marched to the 67th precinct, where their route was blocked by a barricade and horse-mounted police officers.
The day before, a peaceful protest gathering was interrupted when 30 young men showed up across the street from the vigil.
“They were not coming out of the shadow. They were staying in the dark area of the street. You just knew it was going to turn into the cops trying to contain those kids who were obviously gonna go for it,” iReporter photographer Joel Graham said. “That just stopped the original intention of the night.”
When the men crossed the street toward the protesters, tempers started to flare. As community leaders attempted to calm everyone down, the young men broke away. “These kids broke loose and took off. The police were caught off-guard,” Graham said. “Those kids really know the streets, and they’re spreading out and going down side streets away from the main street.”
The young men broke glass and threw trash cans. One police officer received a gash to the face, a second was pushed off his scooter. Forty-six arrests — most for disorderly conduct — were made. A Rite Aid drug store was looted and ransacked and bus windows were broken. One man, the Rev. Mark King, was beaten at the Rite Aid.
“As a black man growing up in Flatbush, you just expect to be harassed by the cops, pulled over, arrested and now just straight up killed,” said Shanduke McPhatter, a 35-year-old former gang member who works with young men in the neighborhood. “That’s what’s happening out here. And kids are doing it to themselves … they doing the crime, too — and you got cops who don’t live here coming in here so hard, too hard. That’s how we got a situation like Kimani Gray.”
On Wednesday, March 13, another vigil turned violent as the protesters turned on the police. One officer reported being hit in the face with a flying object. A group of protesters from the 100 people attending a candlelight vigil broke away around 9:45 p.m. and directly confronted the police. Five were taken away in handcuffs.
More vigils are planned for the weekend.
A troubled history
The NYPD has a troubling history of racism and racially-biased actions. Recent reports have shown that the police makes “stop and frisk” stops to Blacks and Hispanics primarily and unproportionately to the actual population. In addition, a 2011 report showed that the NYPD has made more than 50,000 minor marijuana possession arrests for the year, in which 87 percent of all arrested were Black or Hispanic. This is despite an order from Commissioner Kelly to stop such arrests.
Possession of small quantities of marijuana has been legal in New York for more than 35 years, although public or visible use of marijuana is an arrestable charge.
“These new numbers go hand in hand with what know to be true in the everyday lives of young people of color in the targeted neighborhoods,” said Kyung Ji Rhee, juvenile justice project director at the Center for NuLeadership. “The number of requests for our know your rights trainings have shot up. Stories of illegal searches, disdainful and racist remarks, not to mention illegal marijuana arrests, continue unabated without any accountability.”
In 2011, a NYPD officer was caught on tape using a racial slur to brag about falsely arresting a Black man with resisting arrest. The officer was charged on federal civil rights violations.
“Safety should not come at the expense of our constitutional rights,” said City Council Member Letitia James. “You should not designate young African Americans and Latinos ‘suspects.’”
“For the cops, they just need to take that badge away and talk, talk to us like human beings,” McPhatter said. “We’re asking them to do that, and we’ve gotta open up and talk to them. We have to do our part, too. Otherwise, this is just going to keep happening.”