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Protesters march one year after the police killing of Akai Gurley

Akai Gurley's family lead a march for justice on the anniversary of his death. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

Akai Gurley’s family lead a march for justice on the anniversary of his death. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

Hundreds of people gathered and marched in Brooklyn, New York on November 20 to commemorate one year since Akai Gurley was shot by a police officer while walking down a project stairwell.

“Today, we honored a man who was murdered by the NYPD one year ago,” said Asere Bello, one of the march’s organizers and a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. “We just wanted to make sure we showed respect because now he’s one of our ancestors making sure that we’re doing what we need to do to build community.”

On November 20, 2014, Gurley, a 28-year-old father of one, decided to walk down a dimly-lit stairwell after getting his hair braided by his girlfriend in the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York, Brooklyn. As he and his girlfriend entered the stairwell on the seventh floor of 2724 Linden Boulevard, officers Peter Liang and Shaun Landau were about one flight above them. The two officers had been conducting a vertical patrol, where police actually enter New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, buildings to patrol the hallways and stairwells of each floor. Officer Liang already had his gun in his hand with his finger on the trigger. Officer Liang’s gun then allegedly “accidentally discharged” with the bullet then ricocheting off the wall and landing in Gurley’s chest. Gurley tried to flee, not realizing he was hit, before collapsing on the fifth floor.

A police source told the New York Daily News that Liang and his partner then tried to contact their union representative for six-and-a-half minutes instead of calling for help and were even unsure of the address of the building they were patrolling. The union representing New York Police Department officers, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, told Buzzfeed that these accusations were untrue and that none of their delegates in that area ever received a text from Liang. Gurley’s girlfriend ended up asking a neighbor to call 911 for help, and Gurley was declared dead at the hospital.

Multiple Black Lives Matter protests have since been held to demand that officer Liang be held accountable for his killing of Gurley. Protesters in New York City even walked all the way to the Pink Houses from Manhattan after the Millions March in December 2014 to pay homage to Gurley. Liang, unlike many cases of police killing black people, was indicted in February 2015 for his killing of Gurley and plead “not guilty” to the charges, which include second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other lesser charges. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison. Officer Landau was offered immunity in exchange for testifying against Liang.

Between 100-200 people gathered on Friday right outside the building in which Gurley was killed. NYPD had a heavy presence at the protest with dozens of officers stationed all around the gathering spot. Protesters literally had to walk by multiple cops just to get to the front of the building where Gurley was shot. The relatives of other people killed by the NYPD spoke along with Gurley’s relatives, many of whom traveled hours from out of town to make it to the march.

“Akai’s mom and their family live in Jacksonville, Florida so they’re very isolated from what’s going on up here. It’s very hard for his mom to feel the support,” said Shayvon Ford, a family friend and organizer with the Justice For Akai Gurley Family Committee. “So today was actually the first time she could feel and see what type of support she has.”

Gurley’s mother, Sylvia Palmer, while visibly holding back tears, also spoke and expressed her gratitude at so many people coming to march for her son.

“Akai didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” she said. “He was a good man, a good son, a mama’s boy. He loved life and loved everyone. It touched my heart to see so many people out here supporting myself and my family in getting justice for Akai. I just want to say thank you. It really hurts standing here looking at my son’s picture knowing that he should have been here with me now getting ready for Thanksgiving.”

Speakers then addressed Liang’s trial and police brutality, as well as related issues such as racism, the horrible conditions of many NYCHA buildings, and the coming gentrification of East New York. After the speeches, the protesters marched around the neighborhood with Gurley’s family leading the way.

“We want a conviction,” Ford said. “And not only do we want a conviction, we want to see changes happen in East New York. We see the suffering that’s happening out here, the gentrification. We know that people out here need jobs, training. They need a better quality of life, and that is not going to come from being dependent on the government. But the government needs to do its part to get people self-sufficient.”

Protesters then ended back in front of the building where Gurley was killed, and speakers encouraged people to network and organize to keep their communities safe from police violence and to pack the court when the trial begins on January 7, 2016. Officer Liang recently hired a new lawyer who is also a former policeman, but Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson has promised the Gurley family that he’d make sure Liang is held accountable for Akai’s death. Despite this, organizers emphasized that justice for Gurley means more than just a conviction for officer Liang.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about the trial. We’re not going to get justice in that courtroom,” Bello said. “The only place that we’re going to see justice is by the organizations that we build here, by building our copwatch programs, and sustaining a movement that builds spaces where we have economic freedom and where we’re teaching our kids the education they need to know.”