Police shooting of Brooklyn teen sparks protest

March 13 vigil for Kimani Gray in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. (JennaPope.com/Jenna Pope)

March 13 vigil for Kimani Gray in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. (JennaPope.com/Jenna Pope)

“You’re going to miss me when I’m gone.” Those words were posted on Facebook by teenager Kimani “Kiki” Gray shortly before he was killed by undercover police officers in East Flatbush on Saturday night, according to his friends.

Gray couldn’t have had any idea he was foreshadowing his own death. He was more than likely just playing around, something Keayana Coke says Gray loved to do. Coke, also 16, helps her older sister run a local sweet shop, one of the few places where kids in East Flatbush can go after school. Gray used to come in, sit at the counter, chew gummy bears and pass the time, she says, painting a very different picture of him from that of the gang-banger that many stories in the media have run with.

A handwritten sign on the front window of her sister’s shop reads, “Kiki Forever,” and Coke is still talking about him in present tense. “He’s like mad cool to joke around with,” she said. “Not everybody is a saint, everybody has their faults. But we’re kids. We all just want to live. Nobody deserves to die like that.”

Details of the 16-year-old Guyanese boy’s death have been trickling out slowly since Saturday. Seven bullets entered his body, three of which hit him in the back, according to an autopsy report. One witness told The New York Times that officers stood over Gray while he died pleading for his life. The New York Police Department claims that Gray was brandishing a gun when plain-clothes detectives opened fire and that a gun was found in Gray’s possession. But another witness has come forward and told the New York Daily News that Gray was unarmed when he was killed.

While the story of Gray’s final hours remains far from complete, the teen’s death has already begun to haunt the NYPD. Clashes broke out between mourners and police Monday night during a vigil and celebration of the Gray’s life that turned into a protest.

Video posted on YouTube shows teenage girls with balloons in their hands being manhandled by police attempting to clear the streets. From there the scene grew more ugly.

Protesters “threw garbage cans, broke car windows and messed up fruit stands,” recalls Coke, who was closing up her sweet shop when the violence broke out nearby. “They felt like if they talked quietly, if they weren’t brutal with it, they wouldn’t be heard. But they got what they wanted, and now they was on the news.”

Many news reports described the protest as a riot. But anti-police brutality activist Jose LaSalle doesn’t consider that to be the case. “Every time people act the same way police act with them, they say it’s a riot, that we’re out there acting like criminals,” says Lassalle. He listed examples of criminal activity that New York City police officers have been caught engaging in recently: fixing tickets to meet quotas, selling guns to kids in the Bronx, rape, and plotting to kidnap, murder and cannibalize young women. That’s not to mention the slew of high-profile shooting deaths attributed to police that have occurred within the past year or two. Bronx teenager Ramarley Graham, for instance, was shot after officers broke down the door of his family’s home and killed him in front of his grandmother and six-year-old brother. Then there’s Shantel Davis, who police shot and killed last August just blocks from where Gray died.

The incident that ended Davis’ life came after she crashed a Toyota Camry that police claim was stolen — a charge the family disputes — at a busy intersection in East Flatbush. While she was trapped inside the vehicle by the car’s airbags, narcotics officer Phillip Atkins shot Davis in the stomach and pulled her onto the pavement where she bled to death. Police confiscated video of the slaying, supposedly as evidence. But nine months have passed since the killing and Atkins, an officer with a long paper trail documenting incidents of brutality and false arrests, remains on desk duty at the 67th Precinct in the same neighborhood – the same station from which the officers who shot Gray operated.

To many local residents, shootings such as these are only the most shocking expressions of the day-to-day racism that young people of color there and in neighborhoods across the city experience every day.

“As soon as they see a Latino on a corner,” Keayana Coke said, police “automatically think we’re doing something.”

LaSalle echoed her feeling. “If they find themselves in the park, police is in there harassing them,” he said. “If they find themselves on the corner, just talking among their friends, police is harassing them.” It’s all part of a policy the NYPD calls Stop, Question and Frisk. Statistics compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union show that that nearly 90 percent of those targeted for stop-and-frisks are young males of color.

“That’s a lot of pressure,” LaSalle added. “Psychologically, that’s going to create an environment of anger, an environment of hate towards the police department.”

Only a mass movement, LaSalle believes, will force authorities to recognize that the streets have reached a boiling point. People’s rage, he said, is “about to spill over and they’re the ones that are going to feel the water fall when it hits the floor. They’re going to feel the tsunami.”

Confrontational protests have continued in East Flatbush following Monday’s outpouring of rage, forcing the 67th Precinct into nightly lockdown, while officers have remained stationed on every corner along Church Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare.

Many of those who are taking part in the campaign for justice in the Davis case have joined forces with those now protesting since Gray’s death. The crowds in East Flatbush have included local young people side-by-side with Occupy Wall Street veterans and anti-stop-and-frisk activists. City Council Member Jumanne Williams, however, has expressed grave concerns about the protests. While stating that he shares the community’s frustration, he has accused people from outside the community of inciting young people to violence.

“We cannot turn our anger against our neighbors,” reads a statement from his office.

There has been some damage to local property, but the protesters’ ire has been directed mainly at the NYPD. Gray’s sister was pulled into a cop car while crossing the street during a march on Wednesday and was given a desk-appearance ticket. After that, demonstrators hurled projectiles at police and pushed against barricades. Bottles flew out the windows of nearby buildings. One protester said the “look of panic on the driver of a police van’s face after the rear window of his van was smashed, seemingly from nowhere” was stuck in his mind. Cops wielded batons and discharged pepper spray. More than 40 people were arrested, including three who were documenting the use of force by police.

Council Member Williams has called for anger to be channeled peacefully toward City Hall and the NYPD’s headquarters at One Police Plaza in Manhattan. Otherwise, he said, “I fear this will be a long and bloody summer ahead.” But for now the 67th Precinct remains the focus of a rage felt across the city.

“I really hope we get justice,” said Keayana Coke. “This is our home. They’re driving us out of our home and killing us off one by one.”

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