What It Do: Brooklyn Burning

It’s been less than three weeks since NYPD bullets ended a 16-year-old’s life in East Flatbush. Less than two since a 21-year-old put a bullet through an old man’s brain near Prospect Park. God only knows what will happen before this goes to print.

Better journalists than myself have done some incredible reporting on the death of Kimani Gray—the teenager gunned down by police on March 9—but the short version is as follows:

At around 11:30 p.m., two plainclothes NYPD officers got out of their unmarked vehicle and approached a group of young men. Whether they identified themselves as law enforcement is under dispute. The officers claim that Gray started to act suspicious and pulled a pistol from his waistband, at which point the officers put a bunch of hot little pieces of metal through his body at high velocity.

In the days that followed, protests erupted and got chaotic. Dozens of people were arrested. East Flatbush was placed under what basically amounts to martial law. And Mayor Bloomberg made his brow-furrowed promises of “a full and fair investigation.” We’ll see.

If these two police officers ever do face a grand jury for their actions, I’m quite sure I would be disqualified, as I believe I already have a pretty good sense of what happened. This is my speculation:

The officers were looking to pump the group of kids for “word on the street”-type intel. The kids were uncooperative and the situation got confrontational. Maybe Gray talked a little shit. Maybe 16-year-old bravado combined with the constant pressure of police antagonism resulted in some bad choices on Gray’s part. Maybe he really did have a gun.

Even if all that is the case, I don’t believe for a second that he pulled on the cops instead of trying to run. Maybe—if he was carrying—he tried to ditch the piece without being caught. Maybe one of the cops saw a flash of metal and opened fire. Maybe.

Or maybe those two NYPD officers—already targeted by no less than five federal lawsuits alleging various abuses of power—had lost themselves to the brutality of the street and forgot why the fuck they were supposed to be there in the first place. Maybe they needed to remind everyone who ran the block. Maybe they were just a couple of gangsters with badges.

Either way, the thin blue line has once again become a wall, and those with the power to write the record have done all they can to paint Gray as a dangerous menace, and the cops as courageous civil servants performing a perilous job to the best of their ability. The city authorities will weather the storm, maybe throw the people a bone in the form of some gravely worded commission report, but it’s hard to believe that anything will actually change.

There is an obscene and unspoken belief among many law enforcement officials in today’s society, which is the idea that tragedies like the death of Kimani Gray (or Sean Bell or Amadou Diallo or Noel Polanco or …) are unfortunate but necessary byproducts of keeping the streets safe. Sure, they say, maybe there are isolated incidents of unjustified shootings, but the overall effect is to reduce violent crime and increase civil order.

This might be a compelling argument, save for one inconvenience: it’s not working.

On March 15—not even a week after Gray’s death—while the NYPD had East Flatbush on lockdown, four young men ambushed a 60-year-old who was walking away from a bodega window, shooting him in the head before fleeing the scene. They stole nothing. This happened a short distance northwest of where Gray lost his life—approximately a mile as the pigeon flies. The militant NYPD presence in Flatbush did nothing to help the victim of the bodega shooting.

Nor did it help the man who was shot in Atlanta on March 18 while walking home from the bus stop. Or the 18-year-old kid who was shot in broad daylight in the Greenville section of Jersey City on March 19. Or the seven people wounded in Chicago on March 21 when someone opened fire in a nightclub.

Gun control advocates would say these incidents are prime examples of the need for immediate legislative action. Gun rights advocates would counter that if these victims were armed, they could have defended themselves. It’s difficult to imagine that any of the above situations would have been helped by the presence of more guns, but it is also unlikely they would have been prevented by any kind of gun control that could pass constitutional muster.

What I do believe is this: the militarization of law enforcement in this country—a phenomenon enthusiastically embraced by the NYPD—is not making us safer. They can massage the numbers all they want, but the streets know the truth.

The only way to truly stop the violence is to build up the communities where it is happening. The police would do well to put down their riot gear, stow their tear gas canisters, and respectfully sit down with the human beings who live in the neighborhoods they purport to serve. They might learn a thing or two.