(Photo via Facebook)
“This is about Kimani Gray!” interrupted Fatimah Shakur, the most vocal of a loose network of organizers who have been holding nightly demonstrations in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn since the 16-year-old boy was murdered by the NYPD on March 9th. A representative from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) was attempting to tie Gray’s shooting into a larger context of police repression and economic exploitation, making the case for revolution in the United States. Shakur was not having it. “Revolution is alright,” she conceded, getting on the microphone, “but this is about Kimani Gray!” RCP members jeered. This was the impassioned tone of Sunday’s daytime demonstration—a march that started on Church Avenue in Brooklyn— which was attended by around 75 protestors, 25 reporters, and literally a thousand cops.
Daily demonstrations in the neighborhood began two weeks ago, after Kimani Gray was gunned down by two plainclothes cops with lengthy histories of misconduct, who ambushed the young man on the street. The cops jumped out of a vehicle and discharged seven shots, three into his back. The NYPD maintains Gray brandished a weapon. Many friends and neighbors, including an eyewitness, dispute this claim. The NYPD has attempted to smear Gray by portraying him as a gang member with a criminal record. Meanwhile, Gray’s school principal wrote his parents a heartfelt letter, portraying the boy as a bright, motivated student and a sweet young man. These are the kinds of discussions that follow when the police “kill you twice,” as the saying goes: once in body, once in reputation. The shooting of a young, black male by the NYPD is an occurrence so common in New York City that few could have predicted what happened next.
People started fighting back. Many friends of Gray and others from all over the city got rowdy and fought in street skirmishes with the cops. Working-class people from all over New York poured into Flatbush, finding common cause with a community seething over another young person killed by the police. While the newspapers ran awash with tears for a looted Rite Aid (and the police installed a command center outside of it, apparently believing it to be a target of special importance), in the streets of Flatbush, rebellion, a long time coming, was the real story. Forty-six people were arrested in one night, and countless more brutalized by the police. Politicians would later cry that these young people didn’t know the consequences of standing up to the police, but that just shows the distance between these politicians and the streets, where everybody knows what the cops are capable of.
Apprehensive as I am to side with the demagogic and tone-deaf RCP over the tireless activist Fatimah Shakur, these nightly demonstrations were not only about Kimani Gray. If Gray were the only issue, if police killings in NYC weren’t so commonplace, none of this would have happened, there would not have been a protest. People would read that Gray had a gun and believe it. People would believe that the cops don’t shoot first and ask questions later, and that they don’t lie, and they certainly don’t plant weapons. If this was all just about one young man on a block most New Yorkers have never been to, support would not have poured in from all over the city, from working-class New Yorkers who see common cause in the police repression of poor neighborhoods, who understand it bound up in their own economic exploitation in the age of disappearing job security, high unemployment, slashing of social services, and militarized police departments like the NYPD keeping order on the streets as the economy verges on collapse.
Unlike the outbreak of resistance, what happened next was predictable. Local politicians like City Council member Jumaane Williams spread the ages-old canard that “outside agitators” had entered the community and started fights with the police. This was repeated in the press without criticism. The collective Fire Next Time ridiculed the idea: “At some point at night, the Black militants decided to march. No white people told them to march. As the march moved through the streets of Flatbush, it was Black militants who picked up bricks, cinder blocks, and beer bottles and threw them at the police. There were almost no white and Latino or African American faces involved in this. It was largely a Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean rebellion.” When Williams went down to Flatbush that night, he was confronted by angry demonstrators from the community who wanted to know why he was portraying their courageous actions as the product of white people from outside.
I witnessed this heated encounter, and it was clear that Williams, a skilled politician with a “radical” reputation, was losing respect. Williams knew that this was bigger than Gray; for an entire week, he dropped everything to try and quiet it down. His problem was that a power greater than him had emerged in his community and threatened to get out of his control. Unlike him, they didn’t want to debate with and then shake hands with Ray Kelly at the end of the day. Along with Williams, Charles Baron, another “radical” city coucilman, and a conservative religious group called FAITH (Fathers Alive In The Hood) came out to represent the vested interest of power in the community. They faced a new power that did not recognize them as leaders. And it had to be stopped.
Ultimately the wedge that Williams forged had its effect. Publicity hound Sgt. Shamar Thomas, famous for his rants at police during Occupy Wall Street and a recent unsuccessful bid on the television show “Survivor,” rampaged through the crowd threatening the outside agitators who had come to “my community” (as the Village Voice points out, he lives in Nassau County, Long Island) and threatened a small woman for allegedly talking about killing the police. When confronted by Fire Next Time, Thomas reiterated his threats and continued to sew the myth that malevolent white folks had come to Flatbush to instigate. I witnessed the same events as Sgt. Thomas, and what I saw were white radicals standing with their hands in their pockets waiting for someone “from the community” to instigate with the police. Which never happened, partly, I’m sure, because a bunch of white nerds were hanging around taking pictures of everyone.The newspapers gleefully chronicled tension between white rabble-rousers and the peace-loving community. This version of events, from the newspapers after all, was taken up as truth by anyone who wasn’t there.
Sunday’s well-publicized demonstration was the whitest so far, and the crowd had all but become the caricature Jumaane Williams made of it two weeks ago. Various revolutionary groups enjoyed a brief respite from the dustbin of history to promote themselves to a crowd consisting mostly of reporters, with a smattering of black nationalists, and an army of police. Absent were most of the young people who had been fighting the cops the week prior. And they probably had the right idea. The police marched in the street and the protestors on the sidewalk, so that it would have resembled a triumphant police parade—which is basically what it was—had not a small crowd chanted “Tough with badges, punks without them!” Speeches flowed for hours, mostly lengthy filibusters. Bored cops stood in riot gear and texted. A white priest lectured the crowd on the importance of having honest cops. We had come to Church Avenue, and we wound up in church.
No matter its current state of disarray, the early stirrings of rebellion in Flatbush, and the (gasp!) outside support it received, point to a possible mass movement rooted in the common experience of those who feel threatened by the police. Emphasis on this particular case, because again a black teenager was shot by the police, is necessary. But nothing in this city happens in a vacuum. Neutrality is itself a political ideology, as it poses itself against “political agendas.” But as we learned in Flatbush these two weeks, there’s no such thing as neutral in matters of life and death.
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