By Jerry Kann
On Tuesday evening, March 19, I took the 3-train out to the Saratoga Avenue stop in Brooklyn. I was hoping to get to my destination — East 55th Street and Church Avenue in East Flatbush — by 7 o’clock. That was the start-time set for the nightly vigil for 16-year-old Kimani Gray, shot and killed by New York police on March 9. The neighborhood was new to me, so I had no idea if I’d be able to find my way to the vigil by 7:00. I was a little nervous.
I had heard that Jumaane Williams, the City Council member for the area, had angrily demanded that people from outside the neighborhood stay away from the vigils. He was obviously concerned about the violence that had broken out in the neighborhood the night of March 13, when about 40 people were arrested.
Yet OALIC member Jenna Pope, who photographed the protest and march that night, reported to our General Assembly that cops on scooters cut off the marchers, blocking their way. There is nothing illegal, of course, about walking down the sidewalk, even with a large group of people. According to Jenna, this blocking the crosswalk was the NYPD’s way of provoking the marchers and, as it were, inciting the disturbance that followed. I couldn’t help remembering the reports that journalists were arrested at Zuccotti Park on the night of November 15, 2011 — a clear case of City government stomping all over the First Amendment…
It may well be that Williams’ remarks were motivated by a genuine desire to restore peace to the neighborhood. But he might have also have been genuinely angry at the “outsiders” coming to participate in the actions. If his feelings were widely shared by the residents, then I wouldn’t be very welcome there. But after hearing Jenna’s report, I really wanted to see for myself what was going on.
The walk from the train took about 20 or 25 minutes. Every few blocks there was a group of two or three cops standing on the corner, all along Church Avenue. I saw more and more patrolmen and patrolwomen, and more police vehicles, as I got closer to the site. I got to 55th Street around 7:15. Everything was pretty quiet…except for the gigantic police presence. I counted about 35 or 40 cops, and more arrived over the next hour or so.
Sitting on the sidewalk, against the wall of a restaurant on the southwest corner, were dozens, or maybe hundreds, of candles. Taped to the wall were many home-made posters with many handwritten messages addressed to Kimani (or “Kiki,” in many messages). Only about a half dozen or so younger black men were gathered around the candles, lighting them one by one.
“You a reporter or a photographer?” one young man asked me, conversationally.
“Neither,” I said. “I’m just a citizen.”
“That’s good too,” he said.
I was wearing my black-and-yellow “Occupy Astoria L.I.C.” button. I’m not sure anybody noticed it, but as time went by it was clear to me nobody had any problem with it.
Around 7:30 or a quarter to 8:00, about 15 or 20 officers in riot gear lined up, surrounding all five or ten people gathered around the candles. The cops stood in the street, a few feet behind the barricades. I overheard one man answer someone’s question about the plan for this vigil: “No…no marching tonight.” I was relieved to hear that, of course, just as I was relieved by the feeling that I was welcome there.
About 8:00 the vigil proper seemed to begin. A younger black woman with an aluminum cane arrived and began to speak directly to the cops. “Hello, officers!” she cried. “We’re just speaking our minds here. Why do you need to be here at all?”
Just a few people joined us. The group around the candles grew to about 20 at the very most. Most of those folks seemed to be from the neighborhood, but I overheard one younger black man say he was from Queens. Later one young white woman arrived, offering to serve as a medic if the need arose. Two middle-aged white men (one of whom later told me he recognized me from OALIC’s day-long gathering at the Citibank building in Long Island City last summer) came along, both joining in the speaking, which was directed both to the cops and to the other members of our small group. Two young Russian guys came later, one angrily describing his own arrest by a plain-clothes cop.
There was no speaking platform, nor was there any parliamentary procedure — but none of that was necessary. It was an orderly general discussion, though a very spirited one. One middle-aged man named Carlos, who later told me he lived a few blocks away, directed most of his comments to the younger people, warning them about tactics he said the NYPD used in African American neighborhoods — notably carrying handguns with the serial number scraped off, in order to drop them at crime scenes to implicate just such people as Kimani Gray.
I hadn’t even noticed that there were four cops standing on the roof of the 3-storey building across the street, until the woman with the cane pointed them out, calling out loudly enough for everybody nearby to hear. Then she shouted: “Jump! Jump!” It turned into a chant, and soon we were all shouting “Jump! Jump!”
Around 8:30 or 8:45, the cops in riot gear turned and marched away in single file, like soldiers. A cheer went up. But the place still felt like an armed camp.
Carlos also spoke to the assembly about the “frozen zones,” which he said was a euphemism for an area under martial law. But even some of the other speakers mentioned that a TV team from News 12 (which covers the Bronx and Westchester) had been there earlier. And there were a couple photographers among us. Remember, this was almost a week after the night of the march when there were so many arrests, so perhaps it’s not surprising there wasn’t much press there. So it didn’t seem that the media was being “kept out” of the neighborhood. On the other hand, it did seem like there should have been some reporters there, especially given the enormous police presence.
Before I left, I asked Carlos about Jumaane Williams’ tweets and comments to the press the week before, and my earlier apprehension that East Flatbush didn’t want us “outsiders” there. “No, it’s not true. If he said that…” he paused. “Well, I don’t support it…We *welcome* you. *Everybody* should come here.” And he tried to assure me that many other people in the neighborhood felt the same way.
I’m happy to respect the feelings of the residents of that neighborhood, if indeed there are some who don’t want ongoing marches and protests that involve people from other parts of the city. But I got an entirely different feeling from the people I saw that night. I didn’t encounter any hostility at all. I not only felt relieved about that — it also made me feel hopeful. Even optimistic.