Everybody Wants a Piece of Kimani Gray

How a boy's death became street theater in Flatbush

Lit by camera flashes and the spinning lights of a patrol car parked nearby, Barron warmed to his theme. "Don't come to our neighborhoods to police while we're unemployed," he said, "while we in poverty, while we on welfare, while we on food stamps, while we can't get to college, and expect us to be cool! It's time to be hot! It's time to raise the temperature! We need to grow this and shut this city down. Shut it down!"

East Flatbush was quiet early the next evening, with little indication of just how hot things would get in a few hours. On the block where Gray was shot, flowers and candles propped up against an iron fence and a pair of New York Times reporters knocking on doors were the only indication of the violence of a few days before. A half-dozen local teenagers stood around in an alleyway off the block where Gray was shot, leery of the press that had parachuted into the neighborhood in the wake of the killing. The media were getting it all wrong, painting Gray as a hardened gangster, they told a Voice reporter who approached them. "He was always happy," 18-year-old Nia McFarlane said, cradling a baby in her arms. "He was smiling."

A friendly-looking, middle-aged white man with a graying goatee approached. "It's fucked up!" he exclaimed, by way of greeting. He was from the Revolutionary Communist Party, a regular presence at anti-stop-and-frisk protests for the past year. Criticized for its cult of personality around Maoist thinker Bob Avakian, the group believes the only answer to curbing police brutality is "Revolution, nothing less." The man was giving out flyers, and he wanted to show the teens a Revolutionary Communist Party video on the miniature laptop he carried. Gray's killing, he told the teens, is proof of the need for revolt. As Avakian started talking through the tinny computer speakers, Nia McFarlane walked off, in apparent disgust.

The protests drew a diverse and sometimes divergent crowd, including communists, anarchists, Occupiers, anti-police-violence activists, and residents of East Flatbush.
Alan Chin
The protests drew a diverse and sometimes divergent crowd, including communists, anarchists, Occupiers, anti-police-violence activists, and residents of East Flatbush.
Clergy called for a community meeting Thursday night, though many protesters skipped it and headed for the 67th Precinct.
Alan Chin
Clergy called for a community meeting Thursday night, though many protesters skipped it and headed for the 67th Precinct.

"Kill my bro and think it's gonna end easy, nigga?" The boy, who looked to be about 16, wasn't addressing anyone in particular. He walked fast down Church Avenue. Police were pepper-spraying the crowd, and he was scattering with the rest of them, looking for the next place to go. With all the pepper spray and the nightsticks, the cops shoving a reporter into walls, the teenagers in rip kiki sweatshirts running through the streets, over the roofs of cars, hurling bricks through police windshields, Wednesday night looked something like the stirrings of Avakian's wished-for revolution. Neighborhood teens were fucking shit up on a cinematic scale, accompanied once again by a wide assortment of radicals, activists, and journalists. By the end of the night, police had made 46 arrests, almost all of them young people from the neighborhood.

A few years ago, the militant protest and heavy-handed police response might not have garnered much attention outside of East Flatbush. But the outside activists had brought their heavy artillery with them: livestreamers, armed with smartphones transmitting the action to Internet audiences in real time. Nick Isabella, a boat captain and amateur meteorologist, and Matt Hopard, a web developer and composer—media fixtures of the New York street-protest microclimate—both had well-developed followings from their months of streaming Occupy Wall Street actions. Social media drove tens of thousands of viewers to their feeds as the night went wild, turning the chaotic streetscape into a national spectacle. The #BrooklynProtest hashtag began trending nationwide.

But the images being beamed back into radical bedrooms made some observers squirm. "Saw one dude with occu-insignias on display," tweeted Tim Fitzgerald, a thoughtful longtime OWS-er, who was tracking the protest on his computer. "Feel like that may not be a great look. Don't know if E Flatbush needs/wants occu-connotations." Other tweets were more direct. "I don't want to hear anyone say 'occupy' in East Flatbush unless they from East Flatbush," Camille Raneem wrote. "I am frankly disgusted by some of the white savior and insurrection elitist attitudes I'm seeing in my social streams. . . . East Flatbush is already an over policed community. Support and solidarity is your only appropriate role as an outsider. Don't make it worse."

Jumaane Williams, the City Councilmember who represents East Flatbush, was also taking his frustrations to Twitter. "Furious at adults from OUTSIDE the community who incite our angry young people!!!" he wrote. "You do not help and not wanted if you bring destruction!"

Williams's outburst enraged radical circles. Activists fired back with a barrage of tweets, posts, and YouTube videos painting Williams as a co-opted agent of police interests. "Clowns like Jumanee [sic] Williams and Charles Barron are part of the system," read a post the next day from the revolutionary Fire Next Time Network. "They are spreading lies about who led the rebellion. Soon Williams and Barron will say the Haitian revolution was caused by outside agitators, that Watts in 1965 was caused by outside agitators, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was orchestrated by white outside agitators. These clowns are in the way of revolution."

On Facebook, the photo-meme machine was in high gear, with images quickly disseminated across Twitter. One post, captioned these are the real outside agitators, showed police in riot gear. Another image, showing Williams talking with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, bore the text So you'll be bad cop, Ray? Doesn't matter to me, we're both cops.

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