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.
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!”
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.
“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.
While the lefty Internet was busy devouring itself, other rumors were flying: The NYPD had effectively declared martial law in East Flatbush, one insisted, establishing a “frozen zone” in the neighborhood, locking it down and preventing journalists and anyone from outside the neighborhood from getting in. Breathless bulletins on the frozen zone, heavy on the exclamation marks, zipped through social media networks, buttressed by links to newsy-sounding—if unsourced—reports on websites. As it turned out, the rumor was false. The frozen zone existed only in the imagination of its critics.
The mainstream political metabolizing of the Kimani uproar was also underway. Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio visited East Flatbush to appeal for calm. John Liu, another mayoral candidate, stridently called for a public investigation of the shooting, telling New York magazine, “We cannot rely on the quick reassurances that officers acted within guidelines when there are many unanswered questions. That this teenager was shot in the back is disturbing and demands answers.” Both candidates were implicitly positioning themselves in relation to presumed mayoral frontrunner Christine Quinn, who as speaker has prevented City Council from passing meaningful police reform and hinted she’d keep Ray Kelly as commissioner if she’s elected. Pushed by reporters for her own comment on the Flatbush shooting, Quinn released a statement calling on New Yorkers to “work collectively to end gun violence.” (She has since let it be known she might agree to an Inspector General for the NYPD—a new stance for her.)
City Councilmembers Williams and Barron held nearly simultaneous press conferences Thursday afternoon, each politician having secured one of the dead boy’s parents to take part. Dressed head to toe in black, Carol Gray appeared next to Barron in his district office as they spoke to reporters. Sitting next to her in a Nehru jacket, under a portrait of Malcolm X, Barron distinguished his message from those simply calling for calm. “Our call is for justice,” he said. “The best way to stop violence in our community is that we get justice. No pleas for peace is gonna do it.”
Blocks away, Jumaane Williams held his own press conference, backed by clergymen and community leaders. Kimani’s father stood behind Williams, allowing the councilman to speak for him. “He’s not happy with what’s happening,” Williams told the cameras. “He’s not happy with the violence that’s occurring. He’s not happy with us destroying ourselves.”
Williams had sent a conciliatory text message that morning to Jose LaSalle, the Harlem-based anti-stop-and-frisk activist who was one of the primary targets of the councilman’s angry tweets from the night before. “We both know that we both are going to do what we are going to do,” he wrote. “Please give me a call anyway.” It didn’t have the desired effect. A few minutes into Williams’s press conference, with cameras rolling and journalists from every major outlet in the city on hand, LaSalle hijacked the event. “This is a police brutality issue,” he shouted over Williams, as reporters’ heads and cameras whirled to find him in the crowd. “It’s not a community issue!” Williams struggled to reclaim control, but when the evening news stories came out, they focused on the interruption, and even The New York Times devoted much of its story to the ensuing free-for-all.
Patrons of a nearby West Indian restaurant shook their heads when NY1’s report on the press conference came on the television. All over 30, they agreed that the nightly youth disturbances were unwise, bad for the neighborhood, and certain to make no impact on the police. But they also believed that Gray didn’t have a gun when he was shot, that the revolver he was supposedly carrying was really an NYPD “drop gun,” produced afterward to justify the killing. That belief is common among people of all ages in East Flatbush, as is the rumor that there is a yet-to-surface video shot by a neighbor that shows the real circumstances of Gray’s death.
On Thursday evening, a crowd of a couple hundred once again gathered on Church and 55th in anticipation of a fourth night of protest. Many of the neighborhood kids arrested the previous night were still locked up, but a steady stream of visitors poured in. Walking from the subway past the gold-buyers and beauty-supply stores of Church Avenue, two young men wearing backpacks urgently discussed the role of the petty bourgeoisie in propping up capitalism. A peculiar pre-game air of anticipation hovered over the corner at 55th Street, as police, media, and protesters of every stripe shuffled in the cold, waiting for something to happen.
The crowd began to argue loudly about whether to follow the wishes of Williams and head over to a meeting at the New Horizon Gospel Ministries to talk things over, or to march to the precinct once again. The disagreement got heated. Kenny Carter, a member of Fathers Alive in the Hood (FAITH), a group that was advocating for calm, had brought a megaphone, and was bellowing his own position on the question. “This guy sucks!” said Sarah Quinter, a white activist standing at the fringe of the crowd. “People keep saying he’s from Queens.” Standing next to her, Shyam Kyanna nodded in agreement. “Sometimes I really hate the left,” he said.
Both Quinter and Kyanna said they were ambivalent about their role as outsiders at the protest. “That’s why I didn’t come last night, because I wasn’t sure I had anything to offer,” Quinter said. “I think we need to try to identify community leaders who want to build up power in the community, and take their direction. And not these fake-ass community leaders who are just collaborators with the police, but somebody who actually has a genuine interest in defending against police violence.”
Suddenly, a commotion exploded on the sidewalk. Shamar Thomas, a huge man in a camouflage jacket and Martin Luther King sweatshirt, was bellowing at a pair of white twentysomethings, a small woman and a tall, lanky man, who had been talking a little too loudly about killing police. The cop-killer talk didn’t sit well with Thomas, a former Marine who gained a small measure of fame for standing up to police violence during Occupy Wall Street. He pointed a little digital video camera at the two, shouting “These are the people telling people to kill police in our neighborhood!” As Thomas brought his imposing frame close to the plainly terrified subjects of his wrath, they hastily masked up, pulling bandannas up over their faces. The stream of marchers began to snag around the conflict, people bunching around Thomas and the supposed cop-killers like kids around a playground fight. In the long column of police pacing the protesters just off the sidewalk, some of the junior officers hesitated, glancing at each other, wondering if they ought to intervene. “Let them fight among themselves,” a senior officer said.
The two white protesters skedaddled, and Thomas carried on with the march. “The little homies from around here are so excited, but ain’t nobody doing court support for them,” he said. “Ain’t nobody putting nothing in their commissary. And you’re gonna come here and incite shit? Get the fuck out of my neighborhood with that.” (Thomas, a two-tour Iraq veteran and recent Survivor contestant, is from Nassau County.)
The squabble eventually carried over into the next day, as a new Fire Next Time post called out Thomas, along with Williams and others, as “tentacles of the empire,” declaring, “anarchists and (ultra-left) communists cannot let racial pimps like Thomas bully them with reformists politics. As long as that occurs, non-Black militants will never get respect in the hood.” Thomas fired back in the post’s comment section, setting off a lengthy flame war. “Y’all on some division BS,” he wrote. “I’ll smack the shit out of y’all. And if y’all want war we can do that too. Fuck you if you oppose me. I’m around. Y’all all mouth. If y’all wanna meet and bang let’s do it. Y’all punks.”
The 67th Precinct and the church where the community meeting had been called are only a few blocks apart. After half an hour of fierce bickering, the crowd started marching together in the same direction anyway, picking up speed as it headed west. An older man from the neighborhood, walking upstream through the marchers, was bemused. “Lot of these are white people,” he said to himself. Asked by a reporter whether he thought that was a good or a bad thing, he shook his head. “It’s weird.”
The arguments about direction flared up all over again when the protesters finally reached the storefront church. “If you’re here for the community, go in the church,” instructed a clergyman allied with Williams. “Don’t believe this hype!” shouted Fatimah Shakur, urging the crowd on to the precinct. Only a handful of people, mostly older, went into the church. “All y’all that’s going to the precinct, if any of our youth go and get incarcerated tonight, y’all accountable,” warned Kenny Carter of FAITH. “What I’m saying, bro, y’all buggin’ out,” Jose LaSalle, the anti-stop-and-frisk activist, responded. “You gotta listen to the people.”
Inside the mostly empty church, the conversation was unstructured and prone to meandering and grandstanding. Outside, near the precinct on the corner of Snyder and Nostrand, the remaining activists chanted at the police from behind a metal barricade. Someone threw a bottle, but the cops didn’t take the bait. Off to the side, a handful of young black men hung back. They leaned against a wall, hoodies pulled over their heads, and watched the scene unfold.