Everybody Wants a Piece of Kimani Gray

How a boy's death became street theater in Flatbush

Everybody Wants a Piece of Kimani Gray

Sixteen-year-old Kimani Gray was shot to death by two plainclothes police officers on the night of March 9 on East 52nd Street in East Flatbush. Gray was shot seven times—in both the front and the back.

Almost everything else about that night is shrouded in uncertainty, a sort of Brooklyn Rashomon of contesting accounts: The police shot Gray, after repeatedly telling him to freeze, as he pointed a gun at them—a mean-looking Rohm Industries .38-caliber revolver, later recovered with four bullets in it. That's the police version, repeated as fact by the New York Post and New York Times. Or there's the version of witnesses: There never was a gun; Gray was running for his life when he was shot in the back; he was backing up, with his hands down in an unthreatening gesture; the police never told him to freeze; shot and bleeding out on the sidewalk, he pleaded with the police not to kill him.

Gray was a good kid, some said, too smart to be mixed up with guns, beloved by his classmates and his teachers, returning home that night from a friend's Sweet 16 birthday party. Alternatively, Gray was, even at his early age, a hardened gangbanger with several arrests to his name, photographed wearing Blood beads and appearing in online videos harassing gang rivals. In the week after his killing, each new piece of information about Gray, the cops, and the night they shot him further complicated the picture. An eyewitness came forward to say Gray was unarmed. Police countered that she told them she couldn't see the boy from her angle. She gave a second interview, telling the Voice she saw one officer standing over Gray's collapsed body, shooting. The officers who shot Gray were named and identified as decorated officers. Further digging revealed they'd also both shot people before, and between the two of them had cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in abuse suits. The Gray case fast became a classic urban Rorschach test, with Gray and his killers trading off the roles of thug and victim depending on who was looking.

Police in riot gear on March 14, preparing for another night of protest on Church Avenue.
Alan Chin
Police in riot gear on March 14, preparing for another night of protest on Church Avenue.
A group of young men taunt police.
Alan Chin
A group of young men taunt police.

But if this original event, the death of Kimani Gray, is a confusing and disputed kernel, what has blossomed from it is an even more maddeningly complex tussle over the meaning of the killing and its aftermath. The rolling protests and unrest that have roiled Flatbush for the past week have at times felt like a 21st-century Bonfire of the Vanities, a dysfunctional and tragicomic variety show, as postures of rage and ideology, solidarity and self-promotion share the stage, and moments of dark absurdity overlie stark calamity.

In a city where young black men get shot by police with some frequency, the shooting of Kimani Gray didn't command wide attention until a few days later, when, on Monday night, about 60 teenagers broke off from a neighborhood vigil outside the 67th Precinct and raged through a drugstore, assaulting the manager and knocking over merchandise and a cash register.

The incident caught the imagination of activist circles throughout the city, spreading through social media. On Twitter, people enthusiastically used the hashtag #BrooklynRiot at first, but when a second round of tweets admonished them for adopting police rhetoric, chastened tweeters changed the hashtag to #BrooklynProtest. Anti-police-violence activists Jose LaSalle and Fatimah Shakur started a Facebook group called We Want Justice for Kimani Gray, posting a page with invitations to a second night of protest.

Gray's parents tried to schedule an evening vigil for their son on Tuesday, but called it off in the afternoon for fear of more violence. About 200 people turned out anyway. Many were from outside the neighborhood, drawn to Flatbush by social-media chatter, by frustration with the police, by sadness and sympathy, by the frisson of further riot and disorder.

The police presence that night was stifling—hundreds of cops in riot gear, mounted units, and scooter brigades saturated the neighborhood, as a helicopter hovered overhead. It was a strange mix for the streets of East Flatbush—neighborhood kids, anti-stop-and-frisk activists from Harlem and the Bronx, fuck-the-police anarchists, crust-punks, and Occupy Wall Street veterans. If the goal of the resulting march was to get the NYPD's boot off the neighborhood's throat, it had the opposite effect. As residents peered out their windows and stepped out of local businesses to film the moment on their phones, the crowd marched down Church Avenue, trailing a massive train of police—hundreds of them, on foot, on scooters, in cruisers, on horses, in helicopters—through the neighborhood.

Seventeen-year-old African-American Shem Petit-Frére hopped off the bus before his stop to see what the commotion was about. "I had to get off," he said. Walking along the opposite side of the street, Petit-Frére said he understood why people were frustrated with the police. "In New York and Cali, there's a lot of police brutality," he said. When asked if the police bother him frequently, Petit-Frére said, "Barely. Mostly in the train station."

City Councilmember Charles Barron, who represents a neighboring district, was drawn to the diverse crowd, delivering a speech at the end of the night that fluently adopted the staccato call-and-response "people's mic" popularized in Zuccotti Park. "We are fighting capitalism," he said. "You want to stop and frisk? Stop and frisk Wall Street! That's where the crooks are! That's where the criminals are! You want to brutalize somebody? Brutalize Wall Street!"

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