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AS A MATTER of protocol, the New York Police Department does not make 911
calls public. In the rare occasions when it does, it is often in the
service of building a narrative to justify police action. Such was the case
at the end of last week, when, in response to growing community and online
anger over the police shooting of Saheed Vassell in Brooklyn, police
released partial transcripts of the 911 calls bringing their attention to
the 34-year-old black Crown Heights resident with a well known history of
The NYPD released the edited transcripts of three calls in which two
unnamed individuals tell police that a man is pointing what looks like a
gun at people, and a third caller states outright that it is a gun. One
caller described Vassell as a “crazy man.” The police also made public
edited clips of CCTV footage showing Vassell brandishing a silver, shiny
object at a number of passersby — not a gun, but a small piece of metal
piping. The point of releasing the transcripts and footage was clear: to
convince an angered public that the 911 callers truly feared that a black
man was threatening people with a gun in Crown Heights, and it was to this
fear that police were responding.
In this fear — and its use as grounds for swift death-by-cop — Vassell’s
Crown Heights community sees no justification, but rather another site of
structural violence: gentrification.
For many, the very act of calling the police on a disturbed black man was
proof of a sort of privilege.
Whether the 911 callers were in fact new, white, and gentrifying residents
in the neighborhood can’t be verified, but the longtime Crown Heights
denizens who protested Thursday night in front of the NYPD’s 71st Precinct
assumed as much. Vassell was well known and well liked in the community.
Locals were well aware of his history of mental illness, but knew him to be
harmless. Neighbors recalled that he was a regular feature outside Dons &
Kings Barber Shop on Utica Avenue, offering to do odd jobs and chores. To
longtime residents, he was known by name — not as some “crazy man.” For
many, the very act of calling the police on a disturbed black man was proof
of a sort of privilege that does not recognize the risks the police pose to
black life, particularly when mental illness is involved.
“You are visitors in our communities,” Hortencia Peterson told the protest
crowd — a mixture of locals and activists, many of whom were white — via
megaphone. Peterson is the aunt of Akai Gurley, a young black man who was
shot dead by police in 2014, despite being unarmed. “Stop calling 911.
Blood is on your hands,” she said. Another protester, according to
freelance journalist David Klion, said, “This is what your 911 call did.
Stop killing black people. Stop killing black men. These officers are
trained to murder black and brown people.” A Brooklyn rapper who goes by
Nuff$aid tweeted, “The NYPD execution of Saheed Vassell was Death by
Gentrification. I spoke to my sister who lives a block away. She said
everyone in the neighborhood knew him & knew he was mentally troubled. He
was harmless. The new neighborhood called 911. They put a hit out on
A STUDY BY RentCafe released last February found the area encompassed by
the Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant area to be one of the 20 most
gentrified in the country, using metrics of housing value spikes, median
home value, median household income, and the share of residents that hold a
bachelor’s degree or higher. Whether or not the 911 callers in Vassell’s
case were direct participants in this gentrifying protest, the readiness
with which longtime residents drew this conclusion speaks to an empirically
grounded concern in gentrified and gentrifying communities that black
residents will face increased scrutiny and police interference — at times
with deadly consequence.
People claim gentrification makes neighborhoods safer — but safer for whom?
As Abdallah Fayyad reported for the Atlantic last December, concerns about
the correlation of gentrification of a neighborhood and the criminalization
of its pre-existing, low-income residents of color is “not just
speculative.” He outlined a theory that “as demographics shift, activity
that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers —
many of whom are white — are more inclined to get law enforcement
involved.” Reactionaries and property developers defend gentrification — a
classist, dehumanizing term in itself — with claims that it makes
neighborhoods safer. But that leaves a hanging question: Safer for whom?
In 2014, a 28-year-old lifelong San Francisco resident named Alejandro
Nieto was killed by police while eating a burrito on a work break in the
hilltop park he had frequented since childhood. That killing was also
deemed “death by gentrification.” Two white men, both new to the
neighborhood, had seen the Latino man as a threat and called the police —
he was carrying a Taser, for his job as a security guard, and wearing a red
jacket that the white men found suggestive of gang membership. It was a San
Francisco 49ers jacket.
To criticize the tendency of new, privileged white residents in certain
neighborhoods to call the police on people of color who they read as
suspicious does not take blame away from trigger-happy police. Nieto was
shot with 14 bullets fired by four cops. Vassell’s body was hit with 10
rounds. According to witnesses, the plainclothes officers who shot him
pulled up in unmarked vehicles and immediately discharged their weapons.
Within days of the killing, the New York attorney general’s office
announced it was investigating. Whatever the conclusions of the probe, it
remains part of black experience in this country to learn to distrust and
fear police encounters for tragically valid reasons. A white 911 caller who
fails to appreciate this reality and act accordingly risks becoming a
participant in racist police violence.
Top photo: Hundreds rally for a march to the NYPD’s 71st Precinct on Empire
Boulevard in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 5, 2018, to protest the fatal police
shooting of Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old father of a teenage son.
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