Anger in the Bronx at police

February 14, 2012

Don Lash reports from New York City on two terrible examples of police brutality--and how the community in the Bronx is organizing to express its outrage.

TWO RECENT police attacks on young Black men in the Bronx--one the brutal beating of an unarmed man by a crowd of officers, and the other the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in front of his family in his own home--have intensified and focused the community's anger and outrage against the NYPD.

These incidents are part of a pattern of routine harassment and abuse, punctuated by regular episodes of brutality. Police violence in New York City is by no means confined to the Bronx. But it is bound to be more commonplace in the borough with the lowest per capita income of the five and with a population that is 90 percent people of color. To Bronx residents, the police resemble an occupying army.

The beating of 19-year-old Jateik Reed took place on January 26. A neighbor made a video of the assault by the four officers, who clubbed and kicked Reed in front of his residence. Officers then threatened the neighbor with pepper spray.

Witnesses said Jateik was beaten because he complained about being questioned and frisked while standing in front of his building. Police said he resisted when officers attempted to arrest him for drug possession. Initial reports included the police claim that an officer had been injured, but the video doesn't show any injured officer, and none has been identified.

Demonstrators against police violence wound their way through a busy Bronx shopping area
Demonstrators against police violence wound their way through a busy Bronx shopping area (Gary Lapon | SW)

Jateik's mother, brother and several friends went to the 42nd Precinct following his arrest, and three of this group ended up arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after refusing to leave.

When the video of the beating surfaced, the four officers were placed on modified desk duty, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly claims the incident is being investigated by the Internal Affairs Bureau. But lawyers for Jateik dismiss the ability or willingness of the NYPD to investigate itself and are demanding the appointment of a special prosecutor.

The second attack took place on February 2, 2012. Eighteen-year-old Ramarley Graham was shot and killed by police in the bathroom of his home, in the presence of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother.

The NYPD version is that officers saw Ramarley on the street and observed what they thought was a gun in his waistband. They allege Ramarley fled when asked to stop, and that they followed him into his home in "hot pursuit." A surveillance camera, however, filmed Ramarley walking at a normal pace as he approached the front door of the building, followed shortly thereafter by an officer without his weapon drawn--not what one would expect in a "hot pursuit" of a suspect believed to be armed.

What is undisputed is that Ramarley was shot in his grandmother's bathroom, and no weapon has been recovered. Police claim they were allowed into the home by a resident, although this has been denied by people present in the building. Initial reports featured a claim that the shooting followed a struggle with Ramarley, although police have since abandoned that story. Marijuana was allegedly found at the scene, and police speculated that Ramarley was flushing marijuana before he was shot. The officer who shot Ramarley and his partner have been placed on modified desk duty.

Incredibly, Ramarley's grandmother was taken to the precinct and questioned for over five hours immediately after her grandson was killed. She says she was forced to give a statement, and a family friend who went to the precinct at the request of Ramarley's father said he was denied access to her. A police department spokesperson confirmed the length of time Ramarley's grandmother was questioned, but said there was no record of her requesting to leave.

As for Commissioner Kelly, after acknowledging that Ramarley's grandmother had just witnessed him being gunned down, he said, "I would hope she was shown sensitivity to that issue."

In both cases, police immediately released arrest records to discredit the young men they beat and shot.

OPPONENTS OF police violence, including friends and family of the two victims, and their supporters from throughout the Bronx and beyond, mobilized in response to each of these incidents.

On the night after his death, a solemn, angry crowd gathered at a makeshift memorial in front of Ramarley's house and then marched to the 47th Precinct.

Meanwhile, growing crowds have attended each of Jateik's court appearances, despite attempts to intimidate supporters. For example, one man reported having been targeted for harassment by court officers who objected to a button he wore demanding an end to "stop-and-frisk." After he was ejected from the courthouse, a woman he had been speaking to was told that her bag would be searched for a second time. When she refused consent to search, she was arrested. Nevertheless, the number of supporters grew with each appearance.

On February 4, family members of the two victims were joined by hundreds of supporters, including Take Back the Bronx, which arose out of the Occupy movement. Following a press conference hosted by local politicians and clergy, at which both the families of both Jateik and Ramarley were represented, a march headed for the 42nd Precinct.

Most of the marchers were aware that they were taking to the streets 13 years to the day after Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was shot 41 times by police who claimed to have mistaken the wallet he was attempting to show them for a gun.

Outside the precinct, the march paused in front of a tense line of officers guarding the station house, while Rob Starz of Rebel Diaz Art Collective, a local venue for hip-hop culture and political activism that itself has harassed by police, read the names of the five officers involved in the beating of Jateik Reed. As each name was read, the crowd pronounced them "Guilty!" The list continued with the names of the police commissioner and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The march moved on, winding through one of the busiest shopping areas in the Bronx, with some shoppers joining the march and others showed solidarity with cheers or raised-fist salutes. Eventually, the march concluded at the steps of Jateik's building. Jateik's mother and other relatives greeted the marchers, and Jateik's lawyer asked supporters to pack the courtroom for the next court appearance two days later.

That day, February 6, Jateik was released on anonymously posted bail. He was greeted by a crowd celebrating his release and vowing solidarity in his fight to expose the police cover-up.

A second march and vigil was held for Ramarley Graham on the evening of February 6. Approximately 500 people lit candles at the memorial outside his home, and again marched to the 47th Precinct. Ramarley's parents and siblings led the march and were joined by the mother of Malcolm Ferguson, a 23-year-old who was shot by the police nearly a dozen years ago.

AS OUTRAGEOUS as the facts are surrounding the shooting of Ramarley Graham and the beating of Jateik Reed, it's important to see the larger context in which these incidents of police violence occurred. Police oppression of people of color is nothing new in the city, but in recent years, the NYPD has aggressively pursued and defended policies specifically targeting young men of color.

According to the city's own data released by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the "stop-and-frisk" program, which expanded the use of "noncustodial" pat-down searches, resulted in a five-fold increase in such searches between 2002 and 2006.

For every period looked at, African American New Yorkers are grossly overrepresented. In 2010, for example, NYPD conducted over 600,000 stop-and-frisks--over half were against Blacks, who comprise about a quarter of the city's population. Whites, who comprise over 40 percent of the population, accounted for only 9 percent of stop-and-frisk searches.

One favorite justification for the searches is that individuals are targeted in "high-crime" areas. But this simply means that young men who live in areas defined as high crime are subject to search and harassment any time they leave their homes.

The NYPD justifies the expansion of stop-and-frisk as a preventive measure, claiming that it removes weapons from the street and makes communities of color safer. In a variation on the same theme, landlords can opt into an "Operation Clean Halls" program, inviting police to conduct stops inside apartment buildings, leading to reports of residents being harassed in their own buildings.

Press reports have documented the pressure within the NYPD to use stop-and-frisk. One officer has come forward and alleged that she was told she had to make a daily quota of stop-and-frisk searches. The non-police witnesses to Jateik's beating describe it as a stop-and-frisk encounter turned violent.

And it's undeniable that officers have been known to punish people who complain about being stopped. Recently, an officer was recorded boasting about having falsely arrested a man on Staten Island--he described it as "frying a nigger."

Related to stop-and-frisk is the continuing over-representation of Black and Latino youths among those prosecuted for marijuana possession. Although young whites are statistically more likely to use marijuana, whites account for only 12 percent of New York City marijuana arrests on average, while Blacks and Latinos account for 87 percent.

The relationship to stop-and frisk was confirmed when Commissioner Kelly issued a memo in September 2011, noting that the department had been criticized for its disparity in marijuana arrests and directing officers to use their discretion not to make arrests when small amounts of marijuana are discovered during a stop-and-frisk.

The number of marijuana arrests declined after the memo for a brief time, but the NYPD quickly returned to business as usual, and made a record number in 2011.

Shortly before joining the march on February 4, Take Back the Bronx conducted its General Assembly in the shadow of Mott Haven Houses, a large public housing complex in the South Bronx.

Residents joined the GA and reported having frequently stopped and searched frequently, and more or less randomly. Several reported having their doors kicked down for searches, and two showed copies of search warrants from different dates containing identical language about what police asserted they were told by a confidential informant.

At the press conference on February 6, elected officials voiced the anger of the community, but it was clear that the marchers and Bronx residents cheering them on from the sidewalks had demands that were far more militant than the politicians. While the politicians asked for meetings with the police commissioner, departmental investigations and cultural sensitivity training, the signs of marchers demanded an end to stop-and-frisk and other abusive practices, the firing of Kelly, and an end to racially discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws.

Lichi D’Amelio contributed to this article.

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