There’s a lot we won’t ever know for sure about the death of 16-year-old Kimani Gray, shot to death by police on Monday, March 11 in the Brooklyn district of East Flatbush. Here’s what we do know: two plainclothes officers approached Gray after seeing him “suspiciously fixing his waistband.” The confrontation ended with the officers firing eleven bullets at the teen, hitting him with seven, including three in the back.
In between the waistband-fixing and the body hitting the ground, things get less clear. The officers claim that as they approached Gray, he pulled out a revolver and aimed it at them, thus their use of deadly force. At least one eyewitness, however, claims that Gray had nothing in his hands and did not appear armed; furthermore, when he was already on the ground, clutching the wound at his stomach, one officer told him to “Stay down or we’ll shoot you again.” Another witness claimed that Gray did have a gun, and was trying to make that known precisely so he wouldn’t be perceived as a threat. But let’s give the cops the thing they never seem to give suspects in these situations: the benefit of the doubt. Say Gray was pointing a gun at them. Are they justified in firing? Firing eleven rounds, including three after Gray’s back was already turned?
Remember, from Gray’s point of view, these men aren’t identifiable as policemen. That’s the whole point of plainclothes. All he sees is two random guys approaching him, intent on something. Even if he does draw, even if he does take aim, this is still a defensive posture. The police and various eyewitnesses naturally disagree as to whether any advance warning was given, but even if the officers did announce themselves before firing, Gray has no reason to believe them.
Bear in mind that this is the version in which the police come off best. This isn’t the telling in which two patrolmen shoot yet another unarmed black male, and plant a gun on him in order to cover up their malfeasance, and trust in the blue wall of silence to take care of the rest. No, in this rendering, a case could be made, however tenuous, for pumping seven bullets into a scared teenager. But even so, the incident — like several hundred more in the last few years alone — stands as an indictment of the policing tactics in Mayor Bloomberg’s city.
If you disagree, you are free to protest — but NYPD is also free to treat your protest as an incipient riot, and deploy troops accordingly.
Recall that it was Bloomberg who strongly encouraged the use of “stop and frisk” techniques, which allow policemen operating under a “reasonable suspicion” to detain anyone on the sidewalk, and publicly pat them down for weapons. Even though more than 90% of these stops do not result in arrests — and far fewer still in convictions, often because they illegally seize small drug stashes (and, lately, arrest women carrying condoms as prostitutes) in the process — and even though by the city’s own stats these tactics are disproportionately used on blacks and Latinos, intensifying the distrust felt by many minorities for the police, Bloomberg insists this suspension of Fourth Amendment rights is crucial to protecting New Yorkers as they go about their daily business.
The question of who, exactly, will protect New Yorkers like Kimani Gray (or those within stray-bullet or ricochet range when police open fire), seems irrelevant to these calculations — if you are “fixing your waistband” in public, and especially if you’re young, black, or Latino, you simply don’t count in the same way as the hypothetical citizen Bloomberg has in mind. If you disagree, you are free to protest — as many in the community did in the nights after Gray’s death — but NYPD is also free to treat your protest as an incipient riot, and deploy troops accordingly. The last few nights, police in riot gear have used “kettling” tactics, extending netting across streets and maneuvering on horseback in order to constrict protestor movement, and eventually to envelop them completely. A minimum of 19 (and possibly upwards of 40 or 50) were arrested, many of them young black women. Hair was pulled, faces were pushed into concrete, pregnant woman were shoved to the ground.
When several journalists, who were streaming a live feed of the scene, tried to approach closer, they were met with police claiming another of Bloomberg’s suspensions of constitutional rights: the “frozen zone” that supposedly trumps the First Amendment protection of freedom of assembly. Like so many abrogations of our rights, this has its roots in counter-terrorism, being conceived as a justification for dispersing crowds around the WTC site on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. It was deployed liberally against the Occupy crowds, since Zuccotti Park was conveniently located near Ground Zero; now it appears to be available as an on-site justification anywhere in the city. Here’s how it seemed to work last night: a journalist approaches the scene of an arrest, and a cop orders them to leave, because it’s a frozen zone — and that is the extent of the logic involved: “Because I said so.”
It’s the same logic that’s at work throughout Bloomberg’s fiefdom, extending all the way from Wall Street to the corner store (even if the ludicrous Big Gulp ban was at last overturned). The control he exercises makes him the envy and icon of every politico who aspires to power simply because he knows best — and, if you’ve been keeping track, you’ll know that’s pretty much every one of them.
The end result of such arbitrary, good-for-you power is what has been termed the “carceral state”: a polity based on imprisonment, whether or not that corresponds with actual prison bars. The days of community policing are long dead; the model now is adversarial policing. Kettling, stop and frisk, frozen zones: these are prison tactics, marks of a society bent on treating citizens as inmates. So far in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, that has meant inconvenience and harassment for millions, and death for Kimani Gray and hundreds more.