Why does protecting African American communities always seem to require members of those communities to surrender their civil rights?
Last Saturday at 11:30 p.m. in Brooklyn, New York, 16-year old Kimani Gray was shot seven times by two plainclothes NYPD officers. The details of the deadly altercation seem to come from a template: The police claim Gray had a weapon, while an eyewitness says the teen was definitely unarmed. Accounts of the killing varied widely, and the medical examiner’s report concluded that three shots hit Gray in the back but could not determine whether he was shot in the back before or after the other four bullets hit him.
Gray’s family, friends, and hundreds of others have taken to the streets throughout the past week for vigils, marches, and protests, some of which escalated into confrontations with police and resulted in dozens of arrests. Tensions in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush remain high, and conversations have begun about what to do with the anger felt by other young people in the community. Police allegations that Gray had a gun and his reported gang membership could make him appear a less sympathetic victim than Trayvon Martin or Ramarley Graham. But it remains true that another young man is dead in a community with a history of problems with the police. As his mother, Carol Gray, put it in a Thursday statement, “He’s not the public’s angel, but he’s my angel…he was slaughtered and I want to know why.”
A week after the shooting tragedy, a panel of guests on Melissa Harris-Perry discussed whether it is possible to balance civil rights against the need to stop violent crime, and how policies like the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk could lead to stories similar to that of Gray’s tragic death.
“The outrage and the tension that is happening in communities now is not new,” said Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “That there is even a question about whether Gray may have deserved his grisly end because of his alleged affiliations, is, like the fact that 87% of the people stopped-and-frisked by the police are either black or Hispanic, a reminder that non-white Americans, and non-white men in particular, are criminalized and stereotyped throughout their lives.” As New York State Sen. Eric Adams put it Saturday, “No innocent child should be approached by a person with a gun. It doesn’t matter if that person is wearing blue jeans or a blue uniform. The problem is that it’s an oxymoron for some to say black child and innocent in the same sentence.”
The city’s own statistics suggest the answer to Carol Gray’s question of why her son’s life was taken cannot be separated from the NYPD’s policies and heavy presence in the neighborhood. Mayor Bloomberg recently announced that the NYPD had stopped and frisked 5 million people. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, the 67th Precinct saw almost 94% of its stop-and-frisks end without any charges, the second-highest rate in the city. This is also the second time in less than a year that protests have broken out in the wake of a police shooting in the neighborhood. In June of last year, 23-year-old Shantel Davis was killed by a police officer after a car chase.
On Thursday, the fourth night of protest, community representatives such as City Councilman Jumaane Williams met at a local church while a small group of youths and activists marched to the 67th Precinct. Williams criticized “adults from OUTSIDE the community” in a tweet late Tuesday night, suggesting that the young people involved in clashes with the police were incited by agitators, although he did not specify who these outside agitators might be. There is still no consensus on how to quell the rage behind the protests. Warren, on MSNBC Saturday, suggested a possible way forward. “Police officers need to police in a way that protects the communities,” he said, “and not police the communities themselves.”