Standing strong against the NYPD

Anger at the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the harassment and violence it inflicts on communities of color reached a new stage in March when police shot and killed 16-year-old Kimani Gray. The police murder led to consecutive nights of protest in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush. Yet politicians like billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city's media continued to take the NYPD side against the victims of police brutality.

The bitterness at the NYPD has been finding a growing expression in activism for more than a year, with family members of the victims leading the way. Now that movement faces new challenges and opportunities.

Two voices of the movement are Natasha Davis, the sister of Shantel Davis, who was gunned down in June 2012, prompting Natasha to found the Shantel Davis Committee for Justice and Beyond; and Aidge Paterson, of People's Justice, a longtime police brutality activist in New York City. For this roundtable discussion, they talked to fellow activist Gina Sartori, a member of the Shantel Davis Committee and the International Socialist Organization, with assistance in transcription and editing from Lichi D'Amelio, an activist with Ramarley's Call and also a member of the ISO.

East Flatbush erupted in nightly protests following the NYPD murder of Kimani Gray (Stephanie Keith | Polaris)East Flatbush erupted in nightly protests following the NYPD murder of Kimani Gray (Stephanie Keith | Polaris)

TWENTY-ONE people were killed by the New York Police Department last year, up from 13 the year before. Why do you think the number of killings has increased?

Natasha: Well, I never really paid attention to the statistics and the numbers before. When I realized it was 21 people--and it could actually be even more, maybe some of them didn't make the newspapers--and that it's up from last year, the only thing I can think of is that the police haven't really been penalized for any of their mistakes before. And they're more aggressive with the stop-and-frisk policy. They're very aggressive, and there are a lot more "accidents" just because people are being stopped unfairly.

When they have people backing them and saying that their errors and mistakes are justified and things like that, they're just not cautious anymore. All these mistakes are being made, and we don't know for a lot of the people who are being killed if they're guilty or innocent. We'll never know now.

They always talk about not having a quota for stop-and-frisk, but obviously there is one. They don't call it a quota. The cops get a shitty shift or a shitty post, so they go out there and try to get these numbers. They're nervous and scared, and they're not being penalized. That's why the number's on the rise.

Aidge: I think one thing to note is that of those 21 killings, I believe there were 20 Black or Latino people killed, and only one white person. And the one white person was the one at the Empire State building, where the police ended up shooting nine or ten other people.

So not only is the number higher, but it also shows you the lack of respect for the lives of people of color in this city, and of poor people in general. And it just so happens in New York City that poor people tend to be people of color. So even if you're not poor, they're profiling you as a poor person of color.

The other thing that comes to mind, which really disturbed me when I heard it after I moved out here, was Bloomberg pumping up the idea that he had the 7th largest army in the world in the NYPD--that only six countries in the world have standing armies larger than the NYPD.

Regardless of the size and the number of cops, the simple fact that the person who's running this city refers to the police force which is supposed to protect the people as an army--as though they were at war against the people of this city--is bound to get people killed. It's the militarization of police--they can't get more militarized than what Bloomberg is doing.

SHANTEL DAVIS was killed almost one year ago in Brooklyn, and the police from the same precinct shot 16-year-old Kimani Gray in March. What do you think these two killings say about what people of color face in New York City?

Aidge: I think it shows how this system teaches police officers to dehumanize people and communities of color. There's a lack of understanding of the value of a person of color's life.

I think any type of policing in this system is going to be faulty, but when you have policing that's not based within the community, you have these cops coming in who are afraid of the community--because they're taught to be afraid. They don't know anybody and they're driving around in cars--especially the ones in cars, not on foot patrol--so they only stop to mess with people. One hundred percent of their interactions are negative. The whole way this is set up is for people of color to be killed.

Natasha: I agree with what Aidge says--there's no regard for human life. If we look at the ages that we're talking about now, it's kids who are being killed. Even if these kids are doing something that's negative, there's no one teaching them to be positive. It's just like shoot to kill--take them down--so the kids who are interacting with cops are afraid and they're negative. The separation is already there. There's no regard for our lives. It's really sad actually when I think about it.

CAN YOU talk about the response to Kimani's murder from the community and the media?

Natasha: As we all know, Kimani's murder caused an uproar. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that these kids here are just tired--tired of being harassed and picked on. I see it all the time, just walking down the street. They have kids up against the wall for no reason whatsoever. It's always for "suspicious activity," and I'm trying to figure out what the "suspicious activity" is. Standing on the corner! That's where they have to be, because there's nothing for them to do.

So this is what part of what starting the Shantel Davis Committee was about for me. It's about having something for these teens to do. In this neighborhood, we do have programs for little kids, up to about 13. But once they hit a certain age, they have nothing to do but go to the park. And if you don't want to play basketball or sit in the park, there's nowhere for you to go. So a lot of them hang out on the corner.

And the other thing is, hold on, this kid was 16! Do you understand? 16 years old! He was in high school. He was headed to his house, coming from a baby shower.

These kids were just so tired. It could've been any one of them. These public figures came out to speak for them, but these kids actually wanted to try and say something, because the public figures aren't around all the time. They wanted to use that time to say to them, "Y'all don't see what we go through every day. This is how it is out here. This is what we're used to. We're used to getting thrown up against the wall and searched. We know this cop, we know that cop. We're used to getting guns pointed at us for no reason."

So in Kimani's case, I think it was an outcry to let people know.

Aidge: I totally agree with Natasha. People are sick of it. It's not the first time people have ever risen up around things like this.

The community response was exactly how it should be anytime somebody gets killed. The only way we're going to be able to stop this is if people stop letting this shit happen. Anytime someone gets killed, the people should be rising up.

I hear people saying, "Wow, these police are really starting to go crazy," and I'm like: "What do you mean 'starting to'?" Please tell me one time in the history of this country when people of color have not been under assault by the police. You can't name a single time when people weren't living in fear of the police, and the police weren't getting away with murder. The ancestors of these police were slave-catchers. The NYPD was formed around the time of the Civil War. This is the basis of policing in this country.

I think the way people rose up was righteous. But one of the problems is that within the media telling of it, but also within the community, too, so much of the talk is about divisiveness over which direction to go--that there were so-called outside agitators, or adults supposedly inciting kids, as though kids aren't angry on their own. Nobody went to people's doors and said, "Come outside!" The kids were mad, and they were in the streets.

So it feels like Kimani's name and his murder is no longer even part of the story. It's all about who to point blame at on the side of the people who were in the streets. Nobody's even talking about the police in this thing. So I have to say that the NYPD and their media friends have done a great job in reframing that.

I think what we have to do is make sure this doesn't continue. We have to make sure that we as a people can reframe that narrative--to keep people understanding that it isn't any of our fault that this happened. It's directly on the police.

Philip Atkins [the officer who killed Shantel Davis] was a defendant in six federal lawsuits, and the two officers who killed Kimani [Sgt. Mourad Mourad and Jovaniel Cordova] have five or more between them.

Natasha: Including falsifying evidence. This is the same tactical team that was involved in my sister's death as well.

Aidge: So it's systematic. If this was about bad apples, these officers wouldn't be in the police department anymore, but the fact that they've they've had to go to court for doing bullshit shows how systematic it is. That's why when kids are out there saying fuck the police in general, they're right.

CAN YOU say more about the police brutality movement more generally?

Natasha: When we all get together, we'll be seamless. This is what we did [on March 9, the night after Kimani's murder]--and unfortunately, there was some rioting because people were frustrated. But I tell you, it was the whole community--everyone was involved.

But the problem is when you have personal ego involved. Everyone wants their group to shine, so you're going to have those kind of issues. That's the weakness we have right now--too many different groups want to be the leader or the person who broke through the whole system.

Aidge: I've been doing organizing around police brutality for around 15 years--since I was a high school senior, and that was back in the 1990s.

I've organized in several different cities--in Los Angeles, New York City and the Bay Area a little bit. This is probably the most powerful I've seen the movement in my experience. I think in the late 1990s and 2000, it was coming to a peak, where it was almost this strong, maybe it was stronger. It was moving.

In LA in 2000, [the protest for the annual anti-police brutality day of action on October 22] was 6,000 or 7,000 people. A lot of people were in the streets, and I know out here in New York City, it was very similar. It was 1999 when Amadou Diallo was killed, and Malcolm Ferguson, Juanita Young's kid, was killed in 2000--he had just been to a rally about Amadou Diallo a week or two before that.

And then 9/11 came, and it changed everything. In New York especially, for awhile, police were the murderers. And then, 9/11 happened, and the police are heroes. You couldn't even talk about the police. October 22nd out here went from being 2,000 people in 2000 to then less than 100 in 2001--they went from people cheering them on to people spitting at them.

So there was a lull from 2001 up until when Sean Bell got killed in 2006. But the police just kept doing what they'd been doing. They never quit killing people. They never quit doing what they do to our community. It just took a while for the media calling them heroes to get exposed again as a lie. And finally, people have had enough again.

I feel beautiful about the movement right now. I really can't say that I've ever seen it hitting on so many fronts. There are so many different groups that want to be "that" group and stake claim to stuff, and there's also the politicians running for mayor who are talking about the police. I can't even remember when someone running for mayor talked about "Yeah, the police are messing up." You know shit is real when a mayoral candidate thinks that's going to help them win! That's a beautiful thing when the pressure is there like that.

We haven't seen the police brutality movement this strong and broad in my experience. There are new things we've got to get through. It's been a long time since we've had, all together in the same room, liberal folks or very middle-of-the-road folks, and radical folks, and then community folks who haven't figured out where they stand politically, but are just sick of the bullshit.

So it's going to be a growing experience. We're going to have to figure out how to do things. I believe in certain tactics above others, but also right now, I think we need tactics to hit on all angles.

My faith is in our communities. I don't have faith in the Community Safety Act [a reform measure under consideration in the City Council]--in the politicians being the ones who make changes for us. I don't believe in top-down changes, because I don't think that's how change happens. The people in power, those who oppress and exploit, don't just give power to the people because it's the right thing to do. They do it because we force them to. They have to make concessions.

If you want to keep people from boiling over, you have to take the top off the lid. That's how I see what the politicians do. That's the only reason CSA is happening--not because it's the right thing to do, but because something is going to happen if they don't stop this stop-and-frisk.

The Floyd lawsuit [Floyd v. City of New York, a federal class-action suit challenging the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy] is important. It's opening things up to a very broad range of people. It's enabling middle-of-the-road folks to support police accountability and our streets being safer for everybody.

But at the same time, a lawsuit isn't going to change the way the police function. Like with the Daniels case in the early 2000s, they got rid of the Street Crimes Unit. After the Ramparts scandal in Los Angeles, they closed the CRASH units, but the department just turned it around and gave it a new name.

Even though I feel that way about top-down changes, I still see the importance in building of allies through that work. But I really think change can only happen from the ground level--from people taking the power back and forcing that change.

NATASHA, CAN you say something about the state of your sister's case?

Natasha: There's nothing to say! As far as I'm concerned, there's been no movement. When we had that meeting in August, the DA [Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes] clearly said what he did--that there was going to be an investigation that could take three months or six months--just to shut us up. The case isn't going anywhere fast.

WHY DO you think the DA isn't doing anything?

Natasha: Besides that he's an ass? He's a DA! He needs the cops. He needs them to make his cases, so he's not going to ruffle any feathers too much or do anything so his buddies won't get him the cases he needs. Anything to do with cops is not going to be an easy move.

HOW DOES the Floyd trial fit in to all of this?

Natasha: It helps the movement, obviously. It shows that not only are the police stopping one kind of person--Black and Brown people--but that we get stopped for "suspicious activity," which means walking down the street basically.

Take Kimani, for example. They said they saw a group of kids acting suspiciously--but what were they doing? Standing in front of a house! No one made a complaint. No one said these kids were too loud. Nothing like that--but an unmarked car stops, and plainclothes officers jump out to stop kids from standing in front of a house.

So it goes back to why they're stopping these kids. The Floyd trial helps to expose what's happening.

WHAT DO you think the impact is of the revival of family members leading the struggle?

Natasha: You know something? Before this happened to my sister in June, I was blind. I felt like if I'm not doing anything, nothing's going to happen to me. I never stopped to think that, you know, I have a 16-year-old son. He could be coming from school and stopped and frisked. I wasn't thinking those things before.

So when this happened to my sister, and I kind of jumped into action. Because I had noticed a couple of months before what happened in the Bronx [to Ramarley Graham] and what happened in Florida [to Trayvon Martin], and I thought, hold on a second, what the hell's going on?

Having family members at the front makes the movement stronger, because it's really coming from us. And now we're trying to help the community so it won't happen to them. It's really impactful.

So people can really see that this is our community and we want it to be better. And they can see it's not people from outside. It shows people that it happened to us, and we should know, so maybe we should do something about it.

Plus, it brings awareness and makes us closer. We're connected now with other family members in Brooklyn. And we're crossing over, crossing the water--we have the Bronx, we have Jersey now, we have California. So it's bringing us closer.

Aidge: I think this is vital if we're going to see change. If we're really going to feel the spirit and get motivated to make change, it's going to have to be with families at the center of it. Police brutality, and all the shit that goes along with that in this country, is not going to change without the people who are most affected by it standing up--and that's communities of color and poor people in general.

When we talk about highly affected communities--it's not just Black and Brown communities in generally that are "highly affected," but nobody is more affected than somebody who's had their loved one killed. So if we talk about the people most affected needing to lead the movement, it goes without saying that the families have got to be at the center of that.

And not only because they need the change more than anybody else, but also because of the strength they show. I think of Natasha standing up. Or Juanita Young [whose son was killed in 2000] and Nicholas Heyward [whose son was killed in 1994] standing up--and then, 10 or 20 years down the line, of Frank and Constance [Frank Graham and Constance Malcolm, the parents of Ramarley Graham, killed by NYPD officer Richard Haste in February 2012] standing up.

Even parents who don't think they can speak out as much are still out there fighting--like Reynaldo Cuevas' mom. I think when family members stand up with everything that they're going through, it gives other people strength to stand up, too.

When it first happens, most people, like Natasha was just saying, are just living life. They don't come into this having already been an activist. So when police violence happens to most people, they feel isolated. They don't know about the stories--all they hear is their loved one's name getting run through the mud, so often that they feel like they're the only person who knows the actual person their loved one was.

So many times, people just don't have the voice to stand up, and they don't feel that support. So I think with family members at the center, that gives so much more power to everybody.

I know it inspires me. There's nothing more inspiring than seeing somebody like Juanita Young--the police have raided her home, they've put her in the hospital, they've arrested her, beat her down many times, arrested her kids, beat down her kids, everything. The way that she refused to be quiet is just so inspiring. As an activist, how am I not going to stand up if somebody who's going through all that shit is still standing there, barking at them.

WHAT DO you think it will take to finally stop police brutality?

Natasha: Oh my gosh! You know, it's not going to be one thing. It's a culture, and a mind frame. Whoever is leading the NYPD, they have to understand our culture. They can't be trigger-happy or afraid to be in the neighborhood that they're patrolling. They need to connect more with the community so there won't be that tension, and people won't be so jumpy when a cop comes around.

So it's going to be a lot of different things, and it's not going to be anytime soon.

Aidge: This is most typical question, and it's still the hardest one to answer.

I think in order to find solutions, we have to know what the problem is, right? You can't give a solution if you don't know how the problem started. I think we really need to look at where the police come from, and what their original place and purpose in this country was as an institution.

When I say that the police come from slave-catchers and union-busters, there's a literal lineage. They come from people whose whole purpose was to protect the wealth and power of the rich and the government. It's not about protecting everybody, and it never has been. It's always been about maintaining the status quo and keeping people from getting free when they've tried to get free of exploitation.

So I think it's vital to understand that history first if we want to know what it's going to take to get rid of police brutality.