What many had hoped would be a peaceful vigil for a teen killed by police in East Flatbush ended with dozens of people arrested Wednesday night.
It was the third night of demonstrations in the neighborhood, prompted by the death of 16-year-old Kimani Gray and sustained by a deep-seated frustration with the New York City police department.
Gray was shot shortly before 11:30 Saturday night. Police say the teen pointed a pistol at two plainclothes officers. Commissioner Ray Kelly said the department has three “ear witnesses” who heard officers tell Gray to “freeze” and “don’t move” before firing 11 shots.
On Wednesday, the New York Daily News published an interview with the only civilian eyewitness to come forward in the case. Tishana King claims to have watched the entire scene unfold from her window. She told the Daily News she is “certain [Gray] didn’t have anything in his hands” when he was shot.
An autopsy of Gray’s body was released Wednesday, revealing he was struck by seven bullets, including three that entered his body from the rear. The report was inconclusive as to the order in which the bullets hit, making it difficult to determine if Gray was first shot with his back turned or if he was facing the officers when the shooting started.
Many in the neighborhood question the department’s version of evidence, and multiple witnesses claim to have heard Gray begging for his life.
At approximately 7:30 Wednesday night, mourners began to gather at a makeshift memorial for the teen, located at 55th Street and Church Avenue. Within in an hour the crowd had grown substantially, approaching roughly 300 people, many of them Gray’s teenage friends.
Young people in the crowd accused the police of brutality and yelled at the officers present. Others simply screamed Gray’s nickname, “Kiki.” By virtually all accounts, Gray was a highly popular and well liked figure in his neighborhood — “just a kid,” residents repeatedly told the Voice.
“Ain’t nobody understand how we feeling,” one young man said.
A divide emerged early Wednesday night, with some mourners advocating for silent march, hoping to prevent a repeat of Monday night, when dozens of teens ran into a Rite-Aid pharmacy, assaulted the manager and hit a customer over the head with wine bottle. Anti-stop-and-frisk activists from outside the community argued the young people of Flatbush should be able to express their anger in any way they see fit.
The presence of the outsiders frustrated some, including city council member Jumaane Williams, who believed the activists were irresponsibly putting emotional young people at risk of arrest. Williams had been in communication with Gray’s parents and said they were strongly opposed to anything that would resemble the scene Monday night.
Williams later tweeted: “Furious at adults from OUTSIDE the community who incite our angry young people!!! You do not help and not wanted if you bring destruction!”
“Please stay the HELL out of our community if will only agitate our kids. It’s dangerous and counterproductive. Be responsible or STAY away!” he added. “Response is needed the violence is not. Please help us channel the youths anger not exploit it.”
Franclot Graham, the father of Ramarley Graham — a 19-year-old who was killed, unarmed, in his Bronx home last year by street narcotics officer Richard Haste — did what he could to reason with an increasingly agitated group of young people and outside activists Wednesday night.
“We are all feeling the pain,” Graham said. But, he added, “They want us to get out in the street and fight.”
“We have to do things the right way to get justice,” he said. Graham’s mother, Constance Malcolm, began breaking into tears as she spoke to TV reporters, imploring the commissioner to do more to rein in the police by working with community members.
“When are they going to start protecting us and stop killing our kids?” Malcolm said, her voice cracking.
Moments later, those who had hoped to march and confront the police did so. Roughly 200 people took off at a fast pace, heading in the direction of the 67th Precinct. flanked by riot police on scooters and on foot.
“Slow down, guys. Slow down,” a white-shirted officer said to the crowd via megaphone. Nobody appeared to listen.
The police attempted to head off the march by pulling scooters up onto the sidewalk near 54th Street. The crowd pushed up against the police, marking the first of many confrontations.
“Anybody pushing forward, you’re going to get locked up,” the white-shirted officer warned. Little could be done to stop the momentum of the crowd, though, and young people moved onto Church Street itself, and the police on the sidewalk fell back.
Young people sprinted through the streets and over the roofs of cars, in what would play out as a multi-hour game of cat and mouse.
Less than three blocks from the NYPD’s 67th Precinct, the crowd came head to head with a police squad car slowly moving toward the station house. Young people beat on the trunk of the vehicle with their fists and kicked the doors. The officer inside stepped out of his car as the crowd passed; he began pepper-spraying the area in wide arcs before pulling out his collapsible baton.
For a period the police allowed the mostly teenage crowd to hold the street, following them with a seemingly endless line of squad cars and an NYPD chopper hovering overhead. That came to an end at the intersection of 48th and Church, where police blocked the crowd with their vehicles and proceeded to make at least five arrests, throwing several young men to the ground and pinning their heads to the concrete.
On one corner of the intersection teenage girls wailed, screaming that they had been pepper-sprayed on the sidewalk. A 16-year-old girl, who appeared to weigh approximately 90 pounds, had been tying her shoe moments before the spraying started. Her eyes watering, she said she was sprayed, accusing the police of making arrests without cause.
“They locking people up for no reason,” she said. The New York Post reported that 50 people were arrested throughout the night.
The crowd splintered into smaller groups following the arrests at 48th and Church, but remained in the street, taking off in different directions.
“Kill my bro and think it’s gonna end easy, nigga?” one young man said.
Later in the night and further down Church Avenue, at the intersection of 55th Avenue, the crowd threw bricks and bottles at the police. The department told the New York Times one of the bricks struck an officer in the face, and another was hurled through the window of a police vehicle. (By the end of the night police had placed large X’s of masking tape on the windows of the vehicles to prevent them from shattering.)
At one point Gray’s sister, Mahnefah, attempted to cross a street and was put into a squad car. According to The New York Times, she was released with a summons.
“Some of the protesters shouted, ‘That’s the sister,’ then started throwing bottles when the police would not release her,” the paper reported. “Someone hurled a chair. Screams could be heard as skirmishes broke out on side streets.”
The police used an orange kettle net to arrest at least five people on the sidewalk at Church and 55th, most of them young women.
City Council member Williams was attempting to reason with outside activists when Nkeva Daley yelled, “Why they lock up my kids?” She added, “My daughter was coming home from work.”
With her nine-year-old daughter holding her hand, Daley told the Voice her 22-year-old daughters, Rickeva, 21, and Tiffany, 20, had been arrested in the kettle net. Daley said Rickeva had called her moments before it happened.
“She said, ‘Mommy, there’s a lot of crowd. I’m coming home,’ ” Daley said. Rickeva soon called back and said, ” ‘Mommy, they arrest me and I don’t do anything.’ “
Standing with Daley was her twin sister, Nkena, who was holding the hand of her eight-year-old son. She said her 20-year-old son, Delroy, and her her 22-year-old daughter, Rickena, were also arrested in the incident.
“Enough is enough,” Daley said.
For much of the night, young men stood on sidewalks, face to face with the police, some of them taunting the officers.
“You like your job?” said a young man.
“You shoot first and ask questions later?” asked another. Others simply stared at the police and said nothing.
Redoneva Pheath, a mother of four boys and a resident of the neighborhood for the last 27 years, said she could understand where the young men were coming from.
“They’re frustrated because it keeps happening,” she said. “It’s a cycle.”
Pheath said two of her sons want to be police officers. “I would never let it happen,” she said, arguing that the NYPD is “corrupt.” Instead, she said she carefully advises her boys on how to manage interactions with the police: “Be calm, be respectful.”
When asked if the police cause her to worry about the safety of her sons, Pheath said, “A lot. Every day.”
Still, some in East Flatbush were dismayed at the unrest Wednesday night and worried it would ultimately cause more problems for youth in the neighborhood.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Shonette, who declined to give her last name but who has lived in the neighborhood for seven years. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
“It gives them an excuse to shoot another innocent child,” she added.
Mark King, 22, said he came down to Church Avenue Wednesday night after seeing his neighborhood on the news on “every channel.”
“This isn’t necessary,” he said. “This is too much.”
King added, “They just added fuel to the fire and it’s not alright.”