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Crown Heights Residents Demand Justice for Saheed Vassell

Apoorva Tadepalli Apr 6

Joey Katabi, who works at Carroll Street Food Corp on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, offered a lighter to a solemn-looking man in a red sweatshirt. The man lit a candle which he placed at an impromptu memorial that has cropped up in front of the bodega for Saheed Vassell, a mentally ill man shot and killed by police on April 4. Returning the lighter, the mourner shook hands with a passing neighbor and rested a hand over his heart on his way out of the shop.

Such displays of neighborly comradery are common in the Brooklyn neighborhood these days.

Earlier Thursday, a vigil for Vassell began at 4.40 p.m., the same time of day that he was killed on April 4, near Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street, two blocks south of the Carroll Street bodega. Officers were reportedly responding to three 911 calls from people concerned about a man with a gun, though two of the callers could not confidently say that the metal object Vassell was carrying was actually a firearm. In fact, it was a knobbed piece of pipe.

Vassell had bipolar disorder and, according to Katabi, the 34-year-old often pretended to be holding a gun. “He was always using his hands,” he told The Indypendent, “making guns as a joke.” Like Vassell, Katabi has lived in Crown Heights his entire life. The elder shopkeeper watched Vassell grow up and was still grappling with the shock of the loss of a face he had seen alive just days previously.

“He doesn’t bother nobody,” Katabi said. “The local cops know him. Sometimes they’d see him doing that, and they would ignore him because they know how he is. They calm him down. The cops that came, they didn’t know him or they would have calmed him down.”

The NYPD is the real threat to public safety, speaker after speaker proclaimed.

Vassell was a well-known member of his Crown Heights community. His habit of pointing fake guns at people was a part of his playfulness, and his playfulness was a part of the way he interacted shopkeepers, restaurant workers and with his neighbors. Local patrol officers had taken him home or to the hospital on several occasions in the past. But only someone familiar with the neighborhood dynamics would have understood that. The speakers at the vigil, which gradually became a protest and eventually a march as the sun set Thursday evening, said that the 911 callers and the responding NYPD officers were not members of the community.

“Everyone on Utica knew Saheed!” a local Palestinian restaurant owner called into the microphone. “We were familiar with him! He walked up and down these streets, saying ‘hi’ to people, leaving his mark on the neighborhood. He wasn’t homeless because Utica was his home! We used to give him free food from the restaurant. You know who didn’t know him? The newcomers to this neighborhood! They don’t know how these communities function and how they run themselves, so they see someone like Saheed and they call the cops!”

After each speaker finished, chants of “No justice! No peace!” rose from the crowd.

“Let me tell you gentrifiers something,” raged Hertencia Petersen, whose nephew Akai Gurley was killed by the NYPD in 2014. “This is not your neighborhood! If you don’t like it you should never have moved here! Stop calling the police! Every time you call on a black or brown person, there is death. Everyone that called 911 saying Saheed had a gun — his blood is on your hands.”

Community activist Linda Sarsour, the former director of the Arab American Association of New York, demanded that the NYPD fire every officer involved in the shooting.

Earlier in the day, Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that the public imagine what would have happened if Saheed actually had a gun. “[T]hat’s a split-second matter of trying to save lives right then and there,” he told CNN.

But protesters on Thursday were tired of the repeated criminalization of the NYPD’s victims. 

“We are strong enough and independent enough to police ourselves!” a woman hollered into the microphone.

Another local resident, who asked not to be identified, described the police as “violent people.”

“My house was burgled and I never called the cops,” he recalled. “I spoke to my neighbor and my super, I found out who did it. I got my stuff back.”

As protesters began to march towards the 71 Precinct, Royston Antoine, Uncle Roy to those that know him, lingered behind. Antoine has run a store in the area for over 25 years and ran unsuccessfully for the City Council seat in Brownsville last year. “The young people who want change don’t vote,” he complained. “The people who don’t want change continue to vote.”

The vigil was wary of journalists, some of whom were crowding close to the speakers and not giving Vassell’s family room to stand on the platform. “Media, I know you want the news but we’re trying to get the family up here so you don’t have to visualize what they look like,” one activist acidly chided the reporters.

Victor Dempsey, brother of Delawn Small who was killed by an off-duty NYPD officer in 2016, was less subtle. “I don’t care about the media who want their shots,” he shouted. “I just want justice and I want it now!”

Vassell’s brother Marcus Vassell told supporters what a warm person Saheed was.

“I never seen him hurt nobody,” he said. “If anyone wanted to bother him, he says, ‘I got my hands up. I don’t want to fight.’ If anybody was to mess with me, Saheed is running down Eastern Parkway to make sure I was good. He always held it down for me. … He’s up there now with God, saying, ‘Yo, God, you wanna smoke a spliff with me?’ He’s partying and dancing and busting a move right now. I love that man. I swear, I will never forget you.”

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Photo: Crown Heights residents protesting Saheed Vassell’s killing on Thursday. Credit: Erin Sheridan.