On Thursday evening, one day after NYPD officers shot and killed Saheed Vassell on a busy Crown Heights thoroughfare, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered to mourn the loss of a familiar neighborhood figure, and to protest what some said is a pattern of police violence carried out against the city’s most vulnerable residents.
The demonstration began with a sorrowful vigil at the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue, where Vassell, 34, was shot and killed by four NYPD officers on Wednesday afternoon. According to authorities, the cops were responding to three 911 calls about a man brandishing a silver object, which some callers believed to be a firearm, and pointing it at passersby. When police arrived at the scene, Vassell was allegedly holding the object in a “two-handed shooting stance,” prompting the officers to fire ten shots at him. That object was later revealed to be the metal pipe from a welding torch.
At Thursday’s rally — and during the march that followed, which shut down Empire Boulevard for blocks — family members, neighbors, and former classmates remembered Vassell as a warmhearted and generous fixture of Crown Heights. He suffered from bipolar disorder, according to his father, and according to the New York Times had been categorized by police in previous encounters as “emotionally disturbed.” But local residents say that he was known for his contributions to the community, not as a danger to it.
“He helped every old lady on this block. If you needed him to clean anything, he’d clean it,” Luis Irizarry, a martial arts instructor who went to middle school with Vassell, told the Voice. On most days, Vassell could be found hanging out on the corner where he was killed, though he also picked up odd jobs, like sweeping hair at the nearby Kev’s Barber Shop. “He was so loving and caring and always asked about my family,” recalled Irizarry.
“He was my lifelong neighbor who’d offer to walk me home if I was coming home late,” echoed Maya Paul, who lives next to the house that Vassell shared with his son, brother, and parents.
— Emma Whitford (@emma_a_whitford) April 5, 2018
In the view of many local residents, Vassell’s long-established ties to the neighborhood make the circumstances of his death even tougher to accept. “The reason we’re here is because we all know who he was,” said eighteen-year-old Amandre Taylor. “If the cops actually stayed in the neighborhood, it’d be more personal and they wouldn’t have shot him…but it’s these random police coming into the neighborhood ready to shoot.”
While Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly touted neighborhood policing as a core philosophy of his administration, those in attendance on Thursday say the reality of those reforms falls far short of what has been promised. Pointing to scores of Community Affairs officers huddled at the edge of the rally, Crown Heights resident Jay Davis told the Voice, “We never see these guys, never. I don’t know why they have that commercial on TV [where] police are out there talking to people. The police aren’t out here talking to no one.”
As of Friday morning, the NYPD had not released the names of the involved officers, three of whom were plainclothes. No footage of the shooting has been released, and none of the officers were wearing body cameras, NYPD Chief of Department Terrence Monahan said. Though the mayor initially promised that the 911 recordings would be made public, his office later backtracked, saying that it would only share partial transcripts. On Thursday afternoon, hours after New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced an investigation into the killing, the NYPD released a video with some of the promised evidence. That video features excerpts of 911 calls — “he looks like he’s crazy but he’s pointing something at people that looks like a gun” — and some surveillance footage showing Vassell pointing the metal object at pedestrians.
Many at the rally decried this apparent lack of transparency, calling on the city to release the names of the officers and the full 911 recordings. Hortencia Peterson, aunt of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man killed by an NYPD officer in 2014, also implicated gentrifiers for their role in police violence. “You are visitors in our communities,” she told the crowd. “Stop calling 911. Blood is on your hands.”
Implicit bias training, another of the mayor’s signature policing reforms, also came under scrutiny, with several residents speculating that Vassell would still be alive right now if he were white. Marlon Peterson, a lifelong Crown Heights resident, drew comparisons to recent killings of other unarmed black men, including Stephon Clark, who was fatally shot by police in Sacramento, California, a few weeks ago while holding a white iPhone. “This is what [police] tell us — whether it be a wallet, skittles, a pipe, a cellphone — ‘we made another mistake.’ ”
“How we look is the weapon,” Peterson added.
Others, meanwhile, saw parallels in the killing of Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old bipolar woman who was killed by an NYPD sergeant in her Bronx apartment in 2016 for wielding a baseball bat and acting in an “irrational manner.” That sergeant was acquitted earlier this year, and has since returned to work. “It’s heartbreaking that people who need love and care and attention aren’t getting it, and their lives are ending,” noted Claire Draper, 24, whose sign read: “I have bipolar disorder. But they would not have shot me. Because I’m white.”
At around 8 p.m., the marchers arrived outside the 71st Precinct, where they chanted the victim’s name, as dozens of police officers lined barriers set up to keep the protesters at bay. The crowd began to disperse about an hour later, with many of the demonstrators heading home, while others returned to the memorial outside Kev’s, and the stretch of Utica Avenue that Vassell had enlivened for so many years. At least one protester was arrested across the street from where Vassell was shot; NYPD officials could not immediately confirm the charge.
— Emma Whitford (@emma_a_whitford) April 5, 2018
A few hours earlier, Vassell’s family had released dozens of white balloons from the spot where he died. Marcus Vassell said he last spoke with his older brother fifteen minutes before he was killed. The older Vassell had asked to borrow a pair of socks.
“At the end of the night, I used to tell him I loved him, bro,” Marcus recalled. “He just wanted to do him and live life. I never saw him hurt nobody.”
Marcus added that he hadn’t been inspired to actively participate in the Black Lives Matter movement until yesterday. “For Saheed, something must give,” he said. “Something must give.”
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