You take the M train to Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn to reach the Bushwick-Hylan Housing Project where Kenny Gamble and Ricky Lewis lived until they were shot to death by police from the 83rd precinct early on the morning of Saturday, October 18.
From the el platform you can see the Bushwick-Hylan Houses almost immediately across the street, Borinquen Houses to the left, the Thompkins projects behind them. On a fair day, the sun reflects off the sheet metal that covers the windows of row upon row of abandoned tenement houses; there is little else.
It is not a pretty place to live and it is not an easy place to survive, but within the ugly scheme of things Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble did all right. Lewis, 24, was the more successful of the two. He had finished night school at Eastern District in Brooklyn, was trained in construction work by Bronx-based Black Economic Survival, landed a construction job on Bushwick Avenue, and went to work every day. Several years ago his father gave him a 1976 red two-door LTD — the car he was killed in. Ricky Lewis had no criminal record. In fact, everyone in the Bushwick-Hylan Houses called Lewis “Civ,” short for “Civilize,” because that’s how he was, that was the effect he had on the people around him.
Kenny Gamble, 18, dropped out of Eastern District high school in 1979, something that is not surprising for black kids in New York City, particularly in poverty-level communities like Bushwick. What was surprising was that in the fall of 1980 Kenny Gamble dropped back in, intent on graduating. Apparently school was going better for Kenny. In October he brought some school work home to show his mother; his grade was 88.
Kenny had been arrested twice, once at 16 for allegedly loitering in the lobby of his aunt’s apartment building at the Thompkins project and again at 17 as the result of a scuffle in the subway station at Delancey Street. At the time of his murder, Kenny Gamble was on three years probation on the second charge.
On Sunday, October 18, The New York Times ran an article headlined, “2 Dead, 2 Hurt, 3 Arrested After Shootout in Brooklyn.” According to the Times story, which carried no byline and quoted only police sources, plainclothes detectives Joseph Esposito and Fred Falcone were driving past The Garage, a social club on Cedar and Evergreen streets, when they heard shots and stopped to investigate. Officers Falcone and Esposito approached a group of young men outside the club, who fired at them with a shotgun. The officers returned fire and the men jumped into a car and sped away, with the officers in pursuit. They were soon joined by two other cops in a patrol car, Michael Cohen and Gaspar Cardi. According to the Times the chase ended 12 blocks later on the corner of Bushwick and McKibbin avenues, where the car was forced to a stop and more shots were exchanged. When the shooting stopped, Kenny Gamble and Ricky Lewis were dead. Of the four other occupants of the car, two, Gary Jones and Lemuel Thompson, were wounded, Thompson critically. Miraculously, two others who were in the car, Jackie Thompson and Kevin Young, escaped unharmed.
According to the survivors of the shootout on Bushwick and McKibbin and eyewitnesses to the incident, however, something very different than what the police and The New York Times say happened occurred on the morning of October 18.
Late on the night of Friday, October 17, Ricky Lewis gave 18-year-old Gary Jones a ride to the Bushwick Garage social club on Evergreen Street, about 12 blocks from the Bushwick-Hylan Houses where both lived. Gary was on his way to pick up his 14-year-old sister, Jackie “Black” Thompson was already at the club, having arrived early with his older brother, Lemuel. Also at the club, a recycled garage used as a disco on weekends, were Kevin Young and Kenny Gamble. All six lived in the Bushwick-Hylan projects and knew each other. All were unarmed.
“I was sittin’ outside in Ricky’s car and some guy came out of the club and pulled a gun on another guy,” said Jackie Thompson. He swung at him with the gun, the guy ran and he started chasin’ him and shootin’.”
When the shooting started, everyone in or near the club panicked. Some tried to get back inside, others ran for cover near the building or down the street. In the melee, Kevin Young injured his leg and Lemuel Thompson was shot as he ran to the car. Ricky Lewis offered to take Thompson and Young to Greenpoint Hospital. It wasn’t until the car began to pull away that Jackie Thompson and the others realized that other gunmen had also been firing. They were later identified as plainclothes cops. “They didn’t say anything,” says Jackie. “I didn’t even know they were shootin’ at the car until they shot out the back window.” As Ricky Lewis prepared to pull off, Jackie Thompson, Kevin Young, and Lemuel Thompson were in the back seat. Gary Jones and Kenny Gamble, the last to get in, sat in front. At that moment, the two gunmen ran around the corner and reappeared moments later in an unmarked car. At no time, say Gary, Jackie, and other witnesses, did the plainclothesmen identify themselves as cops.
“We went up Evergreen and made a left on Myrtle,” says Jackie, “and they was still shootin’ at us, at the driver’s side. Their driver would pull up beside us and the other guy — he had half his body out the window — was shootin’ at Ricky’s side.”
The six young men crouched down, trying to avoid the bullets hitting the car. Lemuel Thompson, already wounded, curled into a ball in the back seat, along with his brother Jackie and Kevin Young. As the two cars sped up Myrtle, other marked patrol cars joined the chase.
“There was an unmarked car and at least two police cars on Myrtle and more cars were comin’,” says Gary Jones. “There had to be at least nine or 10 cops. See, nobody knew they [the two men in the unmarked car] were police, they didn’t say anything, they just came out and started shootin’.”
“After we got up Myrtle and made a right on Bushwick,” continues Jackie, “another car bumped us off on Bushwick and McKibbin and we hit the johnnypump and stopped, but the cops kept firing.” Ricky Lewis’s car had come to a stop in front of the RC Supermarket at Bushwick and McKibbin, across the street from P.S. 147, the elementary school all six had attended.
“Before Civ crashed he said get down and everybody got down. Lemuel was saying, ‘Don’t get out of the car.’ The cops got out of their cars and kept firin’. I don’t know how many shots were fired because I kept my head down; I just heard a lot of shots.”
“I could hear them still shootin’ at the car,” recalls Gary Jones.”Half my body was still in the car — my legs were stuck — and the upper half of my body was layin’ out on the sidewalk. That’s when I got hit.
“I was layin’ on the sidewalk and I looked up and saw the police comin’. They was runnin’ and firin’ away at the car. I just seen a big clump of smoke, I could see the fire jumping out the barrels, oh, man. They was stepping through the smoke and kept on firing. I didn’t expect to live. I thought they were killing everybody in the car.
“The police laughed and said, ‘They all dead,’ ” remembers Gary Jones. “I was bleedin’ from the head and one cop said, ‘This one’s dead’ and stepped on my face and then started draggin’ me out of the car. Hey, after the car bumped us I was gonna get out and put my hands up, but they was shootin’ so bad, even after I got hit in the front seat.”
Gary Jones and Jackie Thompson estimate that after the car hit the johnnypump and stopped the cops continued to fire at the car for at least 30 seconds, maybe a minute and a half. This was when Ricky Lewis’s head was blown open in the driver’s seat. Lemuel Thompson thinks he was hit at least once, maybe twice, in addition to the wound near his spine that he had received outside the social club. And Kenny Gamble had disappeared.
Gloria Yournet, who lives with her husband and three daughters across from the RC Supermarket in the Borinquen Houses, saw what happened to Gamble.
Sometime around 12:30 on the morning of the shooting, Gloria’s girlfriend, sitting in her living room window smoking a cigarette, called her to “come, look out here,” gesturing out the window. “All of a sudden there was a red car coming down Bushwick,” says Gloria Yournet, hugging her arms around her as if she is cold. “There was a squad car behind the red one and an unmarked car next to it. As they were approaching McKibbin, the squad car drove onto the sidewalk by the school and the unmarked car continued to chase the red car. By that time there was a second squad car behind the red car. As the red car approached Bushwick and McKibbin, one guy jumped out with his hands up in the air. All of a sudden the cops started shooting at him, and he fell. Around five cops jumped on him, handcuffed him, then started kicking him all over.”
A neighbor of Gloria Yournet also saw what happened to Kenny Gamble. “I woke up around 12:40 and saw a whole lot of cops beating up on one dude,” says the woman, who was afraid of what the police might do if her name were used. Like Gloria Yournet, her apartment in the Borinquen Houses faces Bushwick and McKibbin. “There were more than 10 of them. They picked him up and hit him against the car and the ground, then they threw him in the car.” She stares out the window as if she can still see it happening. “I guess he was beaten on his head or something. They was kicking, punching, beating him with nightsticks. I heard a lot of people screaming.”
Cary Ann Stewart has lived in Bushwick-Hylan Houses for 21 years. She and her husband, who works for the Transit Authority, have raised 11 children there, including eight sons. She is a tall, brown skinned, fast talking woman, still attractive after bearing so many children. As we talk, she moves around the stove and sink in the kitchen, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, casually making lunch or coffee or giving instructions in an off-hand way to the children who come and go, kissing her husband a warm goodbye as he leaves for work. On the morning of October 18, Mrs. Stewart was looking out the window of her first floor apartment facing Bushwick Avenue. Earlier that evening, she had an argument with her 15-year-old son because she had refused to give him money to go to the Garage. From her window she saw a car speed past, going up Bushwick toward Greenpoint Hospital, followed by a police car. As the police car passed Moore Street, another police car appeared from the opposite direction.
“Then all I could hear was shooting, 25 or 30 shots. Police cars started coming from every direction, then there was more shooting.”
Because Mrs. Stewart is the sort of woman who gets involved, because she has lived in the community for 21 years and knows just about everyone, and because she has sons and was afraid maybe one of them was in trouble, she pulled on her raincoat and slippers and walked down to Bushwick and McKibbin to see what was going on.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, that’s Ricky Lewis’s car.’ I saw three boys laying on the ground, hands cuffed behind them, laying on their stomachs. I walked over and looked at each one of them, Kevin Young, Gary Jones and Lemuel Thompson, and I said to the police, ‘You got the nerve to have handcuffs on him [Lemuel] and he’s shot.’ And the way he was shot — the bullet had ripped away his clothes, you could see the hole in him.” She shakes her head rapidly.
“The cop said, ‘Lady, get away from here, you don’t know him.’ I said. ‘What do you mean? These are our boys! What have you done to our children?’ The cop said, ‘This is my fuckin’ job, I did what I had to.’
“There was blood everywhere. The seat of the car had been torn out and there was even blood under it,” she says in disbelief. “You could see the way the car was shot up that a lot of shots had been fired. The way it looked, that cop must have pulled out his gun right then and there and shot into that car.
“They were fine boys, beautiful children,” says Mrs. Stewart of Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble. “I don’t have anything bad to say about any of those young fellows.”
For the police of the 83rd Precinct who were involved in the shooting, Mrs. Stewart and many others in Bushwick have nothing but a building rage. “They don’t go cruising around in now white neighborhoods, standing and waiting for something to happen, so why was they up there [at the club] anyway, that’s what I want to know?” she asks. “They were out looking for trouble, going into black neighborhoods and doing this nonsense. These boys were like mine, I seen them grow up, that’s what makes me so angry about the whole thing.”‘
The events of the night of October 18 still haunt the people who witnessed them. For Gloria Yournet there is a recurring dream. “I dream about it almost every night,” she says bitterly, hugging her three small daughters to her as she looks down at the junction of Bushwick and McKibbin. “Sometimes it’s my brother who jumps out of the car with his hands up, sometimes my husband or someone else I know, And then the cops just kill him, BANG, BANG, BANG!”
For Yournet’s neighbor down the hall, the horror is that of not believing her own eyes. “I seen dudes being messed with, you know, beat up by cops before,” she says, “but never anything like that. It was like something on TV, like it wasn’t real.” But this time it was and she knows it. Nothing can erase the image of 10 cops beating an already wounded Kenny Gamble to his death.
By the time the shooting stopped on Bushwick and McKibbin, Ricky Lewis, Lemuel Thompson, and Kenny Gamble were at least critically wounded. Lewis may already have been dead. Gamble, who eyewitnesses say jumped out of the car with his hands up in surrender, was beaten for several minutes and then thrown into the back of the unmarked police car, which then drove off. Police have yet to explain why the car made a U-turn and took Kenny Gamble to Wycoff Hospital, a 15-minute ride, when Greenpoint, the neighborhood hospital, was only six blocks away. (Gamble was pronounced dead at four o’clock the morning of October 18.) This remains one of the many peculiarities of the case.
Gary Jones, Kevin Young, Lemuel Thompson, and Jackie Thompson, the four men who survived the fusillade, insist that no one in the car had a shotgun or weapon of any kind. This is supported by eyewitnesses, who say they saw no guns or gunfire coming either from Lewis’s car or any of the men in the car at any time. “The people in the car didn’t have no weapons whatsoever,” Gloria Yournet says angrily. “The detective who went through the car didn’t find anything. Then all of a sudden he held up a shotgun, but the way he did it was funny because it didn’t come out of the red car. I know that because before he went into the red car he had the shotgun in his hand.” Drawing a breath, Yournet shakes her head in disgust, “he went to the back seat of the unmarked car and came out with a shotgun, then he went to the trunk and came out with something like a suitcase. He put the gun in there and he brought the suitcase to a blue-and-white police car that was parking and put it in the car. What they did with it after that I do not know,” she says.
According to Gary Jones, Kevin Young, and Jackie Thompson, following the shooting they were taken to the 83rd Precinct and held for nearly 24 hours. During this period they were threatened with arrest on a variety of charges, including assault with intent to kill a police officer, reckless driving, and resisting arrest. In actuality, none of the three was charged with anything, either that day or subsequently.
The only person charged with any crime who was in Ricky Lewis’s car the night of October 18 is Lemuel Thompson, who was critically wounded during the police attack. On October 20, while still in the hospital, Thompson was charged with the murder in Queens last August 21 of Yat Yeung Lam during an attempted robbery of a Chinese restaurant. (A grand jury recently began hearing evidence in the case.) Thompson, his friends, and his family insist that he is not guilty of this crime. They say that the police are trying to justify killing Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble by saying they were in pursuit of a murderer. Like Jackie, Lemuel’s younger brother says, “The police didn’t know nothing about nobody in Queens until a day after they shot my brother up.”
Since the arrest of Lemuel Thompson, who recently was released from Rikers Island on $25,000 bail, and the release of Jones, Young, and Jackie Thompson, the police have been silent concerning the events on Bushwick and McKibbin. Repeated calls to the 83rd Precinct fail to elicit answers to the most basic questions: Are there any charges against anyone except Lemuel Thompson? Where are the guns the youths allegedly fired at the police officers? What happened to the shotgun that, according to the police and The New York Times, was supposedly found at the Garage after the shooting but which Gloria Yournet says she saw a plainclothes police officer take from his car on Bushwick and McKibbin? Where are Kenny Gamble’s clothes and personal effects?
All calls to the 83rd are referred to the public information office at the NYPD and all calls there are referred to the office of Brooklyn D.A., Eugene Gold. There, Rhonda Nager, director of public information, ends all inquiries by saying, “The D.A.’s office is unable to discuss a pending investigation. I can tell you it [the investigation] involves all aspects of the incident, including wrongdoing on the part of anybody,” says Nager. When reminded of the dismal record in the city of New York and nationally involving criminal prosecution of white police officers, Nager acknowledges, with a note of apology, “There are cases in which we have obtained indictments and prosecuted cases and the jury has acquitted. It is not always within the power of the prosecution to do what’s right.” Nager concedes that residents of black and Hispanic communities “have some legitimate complaints.”
Twenty-four-year-old Vernon Lawrence lives in the Bushwick-Hylan Houses, grew up with Ricky Lewis, knew the five young men in the car. Lawrence is a success story in Bushwick. He graduated from Baruch College with a degree in accounting and hopes to continue on to business school. Like Ricky Lewis, he has a good job, a nice car, goes to work every day. Lawrence and Lewis were partners, “like brothers,” is what the people who knew them say, and maybe it was only chance or luck that Vernon wasn’t in the car with Ricky on October 18.
“My mother woke me up, she was screaming, ‘I heard Ricky was shot!’ I went downstairs and saw an ambulance pulling off. There must have been 30 police cars. When I got there the police were congratulating themselves: ‘Good shooting,’ singing, ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ and laughing,” says Lawrence, “They told one lady, ‘You don’t care about these niggers, why don’t you get out of here?’ They didn’t know everybody out there knew them. People kept telling them, ‘Leave the boys alone, why are you kicking them, why are you hurting them?’ The cops’ response was, ‘Suck my white, prick.’ A cop walked up to Gary Jones and said, ‘Goddamn, I thought I blew your head off.’ ”
Since October 18 Lawrence, in addition to working full-time at Upper Harlem Medical Associates, has worked full-time, organizing the community to protest the killing of Ricky and Kenny and the shooting of the two other men. On the Sunday after the killings Lawrence and about 7o others marched in protest to the 83rd Precinct to demand information from the police. The officers at the 83rd responded by throwing eggs on the demonstrators from a second floor window.
While the mood in Bushwick runs the gamut from disbelief to despair to rage, it is characterized by a unity of outrage and a commitment to struggle until some sort of justice is done. Under Lawrence’s leadership, community residents have held at least two community-wide meetings a week to discuss the killings, collect evidence, and plan strategy. The strategy focuses on methods to insure that Kenny and Ricky’s killers are brought to justice and to guarantee that in the future community residents are protected from those who are supposed to protect them — the police.
On December 24, a Brooklyn grand jury, after hearing evidence concerning the events of October 18, indicted Thompson with two counts of attempted murder of a police officer in the first degree and one count of illegal weapons possession — the shotgun police say they recovered at the social club. Still, several critical questions remain unanswered: What about Gloria Yournet’s testimony that the gun did not come from Lewis’s car but from the trunk of the unmarked police car? If, as the indictment alleges, Thompson shot at the plainclothes officers outside the Garage and then dropped the shotgun, why did the police chase the car for 12 blocks, blasting away at a suspect with no weapon? Why didn’t the police officers identify themselves?
After initial reports quoting the police as saying they either “heard shots” or were fired upon by “a group of youths,” the grand jury indicted Lemuel Thompson for these acts. How the D.A. was able to identify Thompson as the one who fired the shots at the club — something the police themselves could not do — also remains a mystery.
The evidence and eyewitness testimony compiled by this writer clearly do not support the indictment of Lemuel Thompson. Instead, the testimony raises serious questions as to the conduct of the four officers from the 83rd Precinct — Esposito, Cohen, Cardi, and Falcone — who were centrally involved in the shooting.
As the case now stands, the police killed Gamble and Lewis allegedly in the chase to capture Lemuel Thompson. According to the police version of events, that Ricky and Kenny lost their lives was simply a matter of tough luck; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Community residents have called on the U.S. Attorney to begin a federal investigation. As yet, there has been no response. For now, the people of Bushwick wait, caught between a rock and a hard place as they ask the systems that sanction the police department to investigate the conduct of some of its officers. While their mood is not one of optimism it is also not one of despair — yet. Instead, it is the limbo of waiting and hoping so familiar to black people. “If this were happening in any other ethnic community in the city there would be an outcry by your government officials,” says Vernon Mason, the 34-year-old graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia Law School who is representing the families of the deceased. “We have heard very little from the mayor when these killings occur, we have not heard any outcry from the local churches except in the black communities across the board. We have not had any response from synagogues, rabbis, the Council of Churches, from ministers throughout the city,” continues Mason, who as general counsel to the National Conference of Black Lawyers, an organization of progressive black attorneys, is familiar with these cases. “There has been no response. We have requested that the Justice Department investigate after all these killings, and there has been no response.”
“It might be a surprise to me because it’s my son,” says Kenny Gamble’s mother. A school aide for eight years, the last three at Sarah J. Hale High School in Brooklyn, Mrs. Gamble looks almost like a teenager herself. Her husband, Walter, has been a mail carrier with the post office for 11 years. “But it’s just like Luis Baez [killed in August 1979 by Brooklyn police after they were summoned by his mother whom the mentally ill Baez was menacing with a pair of scissors.] Do you mean the police couldn’t just wrestle him down? Just like Elizabeth Magnum, who wanted to stay, in her house. Next thing you know, she’s dead [killed by Brooklyn police in August 1979, after they had been called to her house to assist in carrying out an eviction order]. To this day no cops have come to me to notify me that my child is dead. Because they know they was wrong.” Mr. and Mrs. Gamble were told by a doctor at Wycoff Hospital that their son had “expired,” and that was all. Since Kenny’s death, the Gambles have received three bills from Wycoff Hospital addressed to “The Late Kenneth Gamble.” That is the extent of any official communication.
“What we intend to do is to bring a wrongful death action along with an action charging civil rights violations on behalf of the families of Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble,” explains Vernon Mason. “We intend to bring these actions in federal court and we intend to sue the police officers who did the shooting.” Mason and the NCBL are also representing the ten apartments were ransacked and who were threatened in predawn raid by FBI agents allegedly searching for the “soul of the Black Liberation Army,” Assata Shakur. Mason plans to file a federal civil rights suit in this case also.
Whatever the outcome of the suit in behalf of the Lewis and Gamble families, “I think we will see more and more of these types of incidents, not only in New York but all over the country,” says Reverend Calvin O. Butts, executive minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and a political activist.
“My greatest fear is this: Given the election of Ronald Reagan and the kind of attitude in the city with his coming into the presidency, groups like the Ku Klux Klan or groups similar to them, like the New York Police Department, will feel, more so than ever before, that it is open season on black folks. I believe in nonviolence,” Reverend Butts says with a soft smile. “But the question is, who is the violence being brought against? We must defend ourselves, because the police are not protecting us, they’re shooting us.”
Long before genocide becomes official policy it is an attitude that manifests itself in seemingly random violence toward members of a specific racial, cultural, or political group. Incidents of violence against black people in the United States have reached epidemic proportions. When the police department — which is supposed to stop these crimes — is in fact implicated in them, genocide as official policy against black Americans cannot be far behind.
Peter Funches, Nicholas Benilla, Emery Robinson, Louis Rodriguez, Elizabeth Magnum, James McRee, Herbert Johnson, Darryl Walker, John Davis Jr., William Harper, Curtis Garvey, Jay Parker, Abdul Hadi, Sonny Evans, Edwin Quinones, Michael Furse, Luis Baez, and now Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble are just a few of those who have been killed by police in New York City since June 1979. Almost all were males, all were black or Hispanic, all were shot under highly questionable circumstances. No police officer has been convicted for any one of these murders. ❖
Many thanks to Dave Walker of the Black United Front’s Police Brutality Investigation Unit, without whom this article could not have been written.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 18, 2020