The murder of 16-year-old Kimani "Kiki" Gray in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn has become a new flashpoint, illuminating the violence and racism of the New York Police Department, as the anger of the communities the cops victimize reaches a new pitch.
After Gray's killing, protests erupted on a daily basis in East Flatbush, despite a clampdown by police that provided fresh evidence for the bitter assertion of Black and Brown New Yorkers that they feel like they live under an occupation. More vigils and demonstrations lie ahead.
Another element of the occupation–the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" program–is in the headlines again after a historic class-action lawsuit against the department began this week. And on Tuesday, Richard Haste, the officer who killed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in the bathroom of his own home, while his 6-year-old brother and grandmother stood nearby–will come to court for a hearing in his prosecution on manslaughter charges.
The tensions between police and the communities who bear the brunt of their abuse are out in the open in East Flatbush. Despite an overwhelming police presence, hundreds of protesters from Gray's neighborhood and around the city have marched in nightly displays of rage.
Night after night, the cops flood the area–more than 20 blocks of Church Avenue, from Nostrand to East 55th–with flashing lights, dozens of police vehicles and hundreds of cops in full riot gear, brandishing nightsticks. But this heavily armed force has failed to intimidate people intent on demanding justice for Kiki Gray.
On several nights last week, the protests turned violent, with police attacking and pepper-spraying demonstrators and some protesters reportedly throwing bottles, stones and bricks at the cops. The Wednesday night protest on March 13 took a confrontational turn when police blocked the march route previously agreed to with organizers, forcing demonstrators into the street. The police pepper-sprayed a number of protesters and arrested 46 people, including Kiki's sister.
Young protesters from the neighborhood mocked the police openly, walking down the street and screaming obscenities at lines of riot police. One favorite chant was "Don't shoot me!" In response, the cops tried to "kettle" protesters, using orange nets. According to the Gothamist, at least a few bystanders were caught up and arrested in the police kettles.
With each passing day, new revelations call into question the NYPD's version of events on the night of the killing.
First, the media reported that the only publicly known eyewitness to the shooting is "certain" that Gray didn't have a gun–contrary to the cops' claim that he did. Then, a coroner's report was released, indicating that Gray was shot three times in the back. Press reports also revealed that the two officers involved in the shooting have been named in five federal lawsuits alleging civil rights violations, which have thus far cost the city $215,000 in settlements.
And finally–as the NYPD tried to demonize Gray in the press by calling him a gangbanger and "an aspiring sociopath", while praising the two cops for "exceptional work in the field"–teachers and students at Gray's school released a letter praising him for his consistent attendance and hard work. One teacher is quoted as saying that Kiki "always smiled, he came to school every day, and the kids here miss him…that says a lot."
According to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, though, there is "nothing to indicate that this shooting was outside the guidelines." One former NYPD commander even called Gray's killing "a good shooting." Meanwhile, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg has refused calls to visit the neighborhood and repeatedly sided with the police account.
Yet the nightly protests have forced a different narrative into the mainstream press: one that once again raises questions about Kelly's police force and Bloomberg's role in justifying the recent high-profile police killings of young Black and Brown New Yorkers.
Kiki Gray's death has politicized the predominantly Black and Caribbean immigrant community of East Flatbush. Up and down Church Avenue, everyone on the streets and in the shops and restaurants has been discussing the killing, the way police operate in the neighborhood and more.
One protester, Jonathan, articulated a question at the forefront of many people's minds: "How could [Gray] point the gun at [the police] if the bullets ended up in his back?"
The anger that the neighborhood has expressed over the past week and a half is testament to the depth of police bullying and violence that young people experience on a daily basis. As Keeana and Melany, two teenagers from East Flatbush attending one of last week's vigils for Kiki, explained: "We're not safe, we have to walk around in fear…They will stop you for no reason and just search you. Cops over here, as soon as they see you on a corner they automatically think you're doing something."
One of the most chilling media reports to emerge in the wake of Gray's murder is an article detailing how cops from the 67th Precinct had previously harassed Kiki. According to the Village Voice, officers had mocked Kiki regarding the death of his older brother in a car accident and threatened to shoot him.
A friend of Kiki's named Charles told the Voice, "They been harassing Kiki…They were out for him." Charles told of an encounter he and Gray had with police shortly after his brother died:
"One time, Kiki and me were in Kennedy Fried Chicken…[The cops] came in the store, like, 'How's your brother doing?' [Kiki] was about to get up and leave, they were like 'Sit the fuck down before I shoot you. Sit the fuck down.'"
Despite the obvious attempt by police to cover up a murder, major challenges remain in the fight for justice for Kimani Gray. As Sophie Lewis of In These Times wrote:
Activists are up against not just the police, but also the very logic that normalizes police violence and permits the public to rationalize Black deaths. Kimani has been smeared as a "Blood" and a gangster, as though this (unsubstantiated) fact would make okay his unprovoked death at the hands of the state.
Challenging this logic means exposing the lies of the NYPD in the Gray murder, while also defending any and all Black youth, including gang members, against the harassment and racism of a police department that has shown utter disregard for the lives of Black people.
We also need to challenge those who try to turn the focus to "Black on Black" violence–while ignoring the particular role that the NYPD plays in reinforcing a status quo in which working-class Black New Yorkers suffer higher unemployment, greater poverty, worse public schools and a dearth of public services. Violence within the community is a product of material deprivations–whereas police violence is designed to reinforce those deprivations and keep residents in fear of organizing and speaking out.
One hopeful sign: Other family members of police violence from around the city–including the parents of Ramarley Graham and the sisters of Shantel Davis, who was killed in the very same neighborhood as Gray–have already been speaking out for justice for Kiki. Their courage and determination in fighting for justice for their loved ones shows the way police violence upends the lives of working class people of color across the city.
Kiki's family, supported by progressive City Council members Charles Barron and Jumaane Williams, has already begun speaking out. At a press conference last week, Carol Gray, Kimani's mother, said:
Today, I am asking for justice…and I'm asking: Why? Why was Kimani being murdered and slaughtered? Why was Kimani begging for his life? Why was Kimani saying, "You got me. I'm down. Don't shoot no more?" Why was Kimani saying that if Kimani had a weapon to point at the officer?
These are questions that deserve answers, but they won't be readily given by police. And activists know that justice isn't easily won through the court system, either. But they are continuing to organize in the hopes of exposing the NYPD's lies and smears in the Gray case, and continuing the other ongoing anti-racist and anti-police brutality campaigns. This week's meeting of the Shantel Davis Committee held a discussion about next steps to fight for justice for Kiki Gray. More protests have been called for later this week by Gray's family and other anti-police brutality activists.
Meanwhile, one thing is certain: without the outrage that spilled into the streets of East Flatbush every night, the news of Kimani Gray would be different.
Protesters are forcing more and more New Yorkers to choose a side: Do we believe Ray Kelly, who has lied repeatedly to defend his murderous officers, and Michael Bloomberg, who boasts that the NYPD is his own private army? Or do we believe the hundreds of young people in the streets of Flatbush who have been protesting this murder and demanding justice for Kiki Gray?
An earlier version of this article appeared at SocialistWorker.org.