A last vigil for Ramarley

Yoni Golijov and Akua Gofori report from New York City on the weekly protests for Ramarley Graham that helped launch a new movement against racist police.

The last of 18 weekly vigils for Ramarley Graham drew hundreds of people to demonstrate in the Bronx (Brian Jones | SW)The last of 18 weekly vigils for Ramarley Graham drew hundreds of people to demonstrate in the Bronx (Brian Jones | SW)

MORE THAN 400 people joined the family of Ramarley Graham in the Bronx on July 19 to remember the life of the 18-year-old--and protest his murder by a New York police officer in the bathroom of his own home in February.

This was the last of 18 weekly vigils organized each Thursday since his killing by the family--one for each year of Ramarley's life. The vigils helped focus attention on the case and made it a lightning rod for the new movement against police racism and violence that is taking shape in New York and other cities. The success of these protests is a testament to the leadership of Ramarley's parents, Constance Malcolm and Frank Graham, and their courageous fight for justice.

Ramarley was killed on February 2. The police say Officer Richard Haste was in "hot pursuit" of Ramarley--a claim exposed as a lie by surveillance video which shows Ramarley walking calmly into his building. Haste barged into the apartment and shot Ramarley in the bathroom, as his 6-year-old brother and grandmother stood nearby.

Like previous vigils, the June 19 protest gathered at Ramarley's house. There, almost a dozen speakers spoke to the horror of his murder and how commonplace such killings have become in the U.S. A report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that since the beginning of the year, an African American has been killed on average once every 36 hours by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes.

The vigils for Ramarley have become places where other families of victims of police violence can share their stories. Last Thursday, Juanita Young, mother of Malcolm Ferguson who was shot in the head by NYPD at point-blank range in 2000, talked about her experiences organizing as a family member of a police brutality victim: "The cop admitted to killing him for no reason, and the DA still refused to indict him...By being a mother whose son was killed by the NYPD, I have met so many mothers whose sons were killed by police."

A member of the New Black Panther Party who spoke after her pointed out, "Since Juanita's son was killed, the NYPD has killed over 200 people who look like you and me. Ramarley's killing does not happen in a vacuum."

Public school teacher and International Socialist Organization member Brian Jones talked about the NYPD racist stop-and-frisk policy and the need to protest it. Referring to the case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen murdered by vigilante George Zimmerman, also in February, he said:

Zimmerman said it was God's will that he kill Trayvon. Well, I'm no priest, and I don't know God's will, but I do know that it's our will that stop-and-frisk ends, it's our will that [NYPD Commissioner] Ray Kelly be fired, and it's our will that Richard Haste go to jail...They say that these killings are unfortunate accidents, the products of bad apples. But it's not just bad apples because the whole barrel is rotten. Ramarley's murder was no accident. It was the entirely predictable result of policy. It's policy to stop and frisk young Black and brown bodies. It's policy to view an entire generation as criminals.

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AFTER THE speakout at the house, hundreds of people marched to the 47th Precinct, where Richard Haste remains on the payroll, despite being indicted for manslaughter in Ramarley's death. The march was full of spirit and anger, as chants of "No justice, no peace! No racist police!" rang out along the way. Drivers honked from their cars and pedestrians cheered in solidarity. Some onlookers even joined in--by the time we reached the precinct, the march had doubled in size.

As we inched closer to the 47th precinct, marchers chanted, "I don't know what you've been told, but Richard Haste has got to go!"'--and then added Ray Kelly, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others to the list. In front of the precinct, where more than a dozen cops were lined up, activists spoke about the epidemic of police brutality and how communities can fight back.

Danette Chavis, the mother of Gregory Chavis, who was killed by New York police in 2004, gave a moving speech about the hypocrisy of the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg, identifying them as the biggest purveyors of violence in communities of color:

The mayor of this city has come out and attacked those fighting against stop-and-frisk and has attempted to cause division within the community by blaming violence and Black-on-Black crime on the residents who suffer within its midst. You've stopped nearly 700,000 people and couldn't hardly get a conviction, couldn't hardly find any weapons, but you're begging and pleading to be allowed to keep your stop-and-frisk.

If you want to stop and frisk something, check your officers. They are the criminals. They got the weapons and don't mind using them. So when you get to that crime prevention, then we'll listen to you...But until then, we don't give a damn what you've got to say. We are going to keep on fighting stop-and-frisk until it's over and done with.

After the speakout at the precinct house, protesters marched to the last site of the demonstration: a rally held at Crawford Memorial United Methodist Church. Speakers included other families of police brutality victims, and representatives of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network (NAN) and the Nation of Islam (NOI), as well as New York City Council member Jumaane Williams and city Comptroller John Liu.

This powerful and inspiring part of the day showed how different networks of activists have come together. Present at the front of the church and in the audience were the family members and friends of Sean Bell, Shantel Davis, Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., Malcolm Ferguson, Gregory Chavis and Danroy "DJ" Henry, among others. All received a standing ovation for their struggle and their courage to fight back.

Acknowledging the progress in creating a network of family members whose loved ones have been victimized by police, Shantel Davis' sister Crystal Davis stated, "What the NYPD doesn't know is that they're creating a family, a strong family."

When his turn to speak came, Rev. Al Sharpton talked about Ramarley's case and the inconsistencies of Richard Haste's defense of the killing. "I was in the court room," Sharpton said. "The cop said he was afraid for his life. If you thought [Ramarley] had a gun, you wouldn't be jumping through the door, you'd be running away. You'd be calling for backup, you wouldn't be jumping through the door."

Jumaane Williams repeated the message of other speakers in challenging Ray Kelly's recent hypocritical statements about how Black community members don't care about violence in their own communities. Rather than place the focus on "Black-on-Black crime," Williams said, "I want to talk about blue-on-Black crime."

Frank Graham brought the audience to tears when he expressed the pain of losing a son:

Remember the first step that child took, that first birthday party...and one day, from nowhere, somebody comes up and snatches that away from you. Think about that. This is what Richard Haste took from us. They are snatching all that away. Never again feeling the warmth of your child's hug or seeing their smile or enthusiasm.

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THE VIGILS for Ramarley have been heartening and powerful. They have provided a space for community members, activists, family members, community groups and even local political leaders to organize and act in unity against the monstrous structure of racist police brutality.

While this was the last of the 18 vigils, Ramarley's family has no intention of stopping their struggle for justice. They have announced two more upcoming demonstrations--one on August 2, the six-month anniversary of Ramarley's murder, and another on September 13 at the Bronx Criminal Courthouse for Richard Haste's next court date.

At the close of the June 19 event, Constance Malcolm spoke out, referring to her mother who witnessed Ramarley's death:

[The NYPD] has three things on their car--courtesy, professionalism and respect--and they have demonstrated none of that, but they expect us to respect them...This is my mom right here, she's 80 pounds, and [after they murdered Ramarley], they took her to the precinct and questioned her for seven hours.

Constance ended with a rallying cry to a standing ovation: "This is a fight I'm prepared for, because I'm not going to stop until we get justice for Ramarley!"