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Saheed Vassell: Killed by Gentrification?

An influx of affluent white residents and police abuses often go hand-in-hand, but the reality, in this case, may be murkier.

Erin Sheridan Apr 12

Speakers at a vigil for Saheed Vassell last week in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights community repeatedly blamed white gentrifiers for their neighbor’s death.The mentally troubled 34-year old, whom fellow residents knew to be harmless, was gunned down by the NYPD on April 4 while wielding a metal object police say officers mistook for a firearm. Regardless of how the NYPD has sought to justify their actions, however, locals see the young man’s killing as the result of structural violence, of neighborhood demographics shifting to serve a growing population of affluent whites.

Here in Brooklyn, as wealthier, white residents move into the traditionally Black and Carribean, working-class neighborhoods, a familiar pattern has ensued. Community boards meet to vote on rezoning; concerns over gentrification are lost in the developers’ quest of to “clean up” the area; bars, coffee shops and shiny new residential buildings appear, slowly strangling the ability of longtime residents and business owners to continue to call their neighborhood home. The cost of living rises to a level attainable only to outsiders.

According to a recent study from RentCafe, household incomes rose 48 percent in Crown Heights and neighboring Bedford Stuyvesant between 2010 and 2016 — a statistical reflection of the growing presence of white, affluent residents. Home values have risen 194 percent, making it one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the country.

‘We know it’s really easy for police and the news media to be able to confuse civilians who are trying to figure out what happened.’

Impassioned speeches by Crown Heights residents along Utica Avenue the day following Vassell’s death spoke to the widely held belief that whites new to the neighborhood called 911 on Vassell, and had thus facilitated the deadly confrontation that ensued.

“They don’t know how these communities function and how they run themselves, so they see someone like Saheed and they call the cops,” a Palestinian restaurant owner told the crowd.

One resident called on community members to rely on each other, not on the police: “I don’t care how many kittens they get from under cars. I don’t care how many babies they deliver on the highway. If you call 911, they will kill you on site.”

While the audio of the 911 calls has yet to be released, two sources told The Indypendent that more than one of the three callers were likely of Caribbean descent.

“I’ve personally heard the 911 calls and they were Caribbean accents,” a member of the NYPD who spoke on condition of anonymity said. “And well, formally, before it’s being, so-called ‘gentrified,’ [Crown Heights] is a Caribbean neighborhood. I shouldn’t say all of them had accents, but some of them.”

A separate, non-NYPD source who has listened to the recordings said that one caller used the word “dotish,” Caribbean slang that sometimes means “silly,” “idiotic” or “crazy,” but that the turn of phrase did not appear in transcripts released by the NYPD last week, likely because the transcriber was unfamiliar with it. One phrase that does appear, “stupidness,” is not a word typically used by white, college-educated gentrifiers.

But the transcripts also show that only one of the three callers claimed to be certain Vassell had a gun. One referred to the object as a “silver thing.” Another, uncertain, said that the object “looks like a gun.”

Jose LaSalle, founder NYC’s Copwatch Patrol Unit, noted that the NYPD officers who shot Vassell were not wearing body cameras.

“We know it’s really easy for police and the news [media] to be able to confuse civilians who are trying to figure out what happened,” he said. “When you feel that you’re in the wrong, you’re going to try to misdirect people’s attention away from what really happened.”

According to two witnesses, NYPD officers responding to the calls jumped out of their vehicles and immediately fired 10 rounds at Vassell, who was struck by bullets and later pronounced dead at the hospital.

LaSalle suspects that the two edited videos released by the NYPD of the shooting don’t tell the whole story. The first video, depicting Vassell pointing a metal object at passersby, serves to justify his death. The second, security footage taken from across the street, is too far back to prove that Vassell did, in fact, point the metal pipe directly at officers.

“Did Saheed Vassell point the gun at the NYPD?” LaSalle said. “Because if he didn’t point the gun, if he’s running around menacing people, then he would be arrested for that. He would probably be taken to a hospital because he had mental health issues, and be dealt with in that way. But he’s dead.”

Crown Heights residents say they are increasingly made to feel like strangers in their own neighborhood, and view the police as more of an occupying force than one looking out for their best interests.

NYPD Lieutenant John Grimpel, a police spokesperson from the Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information posed a question of his own: “So, hypothetically, you’re an officer responding to the scene, and you get out of the car and you believe someone is pointing a gun at you. What would you do? They’re trained to assess the threat within seconds and, if they feel that threat is going to hurt or kill them, they’re trained to eliminate that threat.”

Had the officers realized that Vassell was holding a metal pipe and had a history of mental illness, the proper protocol would have been to “isolate and contain him until [an] emergency services unit came, along with a supervisor,” the officer said. “They could also possibly use a taser if one was given to them, or if one had a taser on them.”

Vassell was a fixture in Crown Heights, widely viewed as harmless to those familiar with him. He had a habit of picking up odd objects off the street and playfully pointing them at people. He had been arrested and hospitalized on multiple occasions and was known to the local 71st Precinct. The responding officers, however, for reasons unclear, were not aware of his history of mental illness. Thus Vassell’s death, coming at a time when Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD have touted a community-based approach to policing, has inflamed tensions in Crown Heights. Residents there say they are increasingly made to feel like strangers in their own neighborhood, and view the police as more of an occupying force than one looking out for their best interests.  

“Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray — they are all not the kind of people the police are here to protect,” the restaurant owner who spoke at the vigil for Vassell on April 5 told mourners, listing highly publicized instances in recent years in which cops have killed young, unarmed men of color.

Another speaker gave attendees homework: “I want you to take the time when you go home tonight. I want you to look around before you go home. I want you to look in the sky. I want you to look on the roofs. I want you to look around yourself and ask. Are you traumatized?”

Indypendent staff contributed reporting to this article.

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Photo: Crown Heights residents and supporters raise their fists in the air during a vigil for Saheed Vassell on April 5. Credit: Erin Sheridan.