In 2018, officers from the New York City Police Department shot and killed 34-year-old Saheed Vassell in his Brooklyn neighborhood while he held what 911 callers thought was a gun, but turned out to be a piece of pipe.
At the time, family and community members filled the streets to cry out that Vassell was mentally ill—but never violent. His death galvanized calls for an end to racially-biased, quick-trigger policing in his Crown Heights, Brooklyn, neighborhood and beyond.
So why did video of Vassell’s final moments end up in an attack ad going after Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, an apocalyptic spot claiming to show “actual violent crimes caught on camera in Kathy Hochul’s New York”?
So far, the candidate airing the ads—far-right Republican Lee Zeldin, whose campaign has been predicated on what he calls a terrifying surge of violent crime, even if the numbers are more complicated—has been silent.
The jarring TV advertisement, which Zeldin bragged was launched with a “seven-figure buy” in September, has run on social media and YouTube as well, where it comes with an offensive content warning.
“Vote on November 8th like your life depends on it. It just might,” says an ominous female voice after a series of allegedly violent crimes, shootings, and, perhaps most jarringly, zoomed-in security footage of Vassell holding the pipe at the 21-second mark.
Eyon Vassell, 29, told The Daily Beast that seeing his uncle’s final moments used in service to a politician he’d never heard of inspired anger and fight in his family.
“That’s just it: I really don’t understand why would they put him in the video, because he’s not a killer,” Vassell said on Monday.
The family—which has been calling for the ad to come down since it began to run in mid-September—has now hired lawyers to file what one of their attorneys described as a “cease-and-desist” to help pressure the candidate to hear them.
The letter, dated last Thursday, accused Zeldin’s campaign of being aware of the details of Vassell’s death and running the “malicious, knowing, intentional, and dishonest” spot anyway.
“Saheed was and remains a father, son, brother, uncle, and beloved member of his community,” reads the letter by lawyer M.K. Kashian of Kaishian & Kline LLC. “However, you and your campaign intentionally misrepresent the facts of his death and character to spread fear and mislead the public to devastating effects on the wellbeing and reputations of those who knew him best.”
On Monday, Vassell’s father and other family members held a press conference on the steps of New York City Hall to demand an end to what Eyon Vassell and others called a racist and misleading video.
“Today I’m asking Lee Zeldin to take down that racist ad,” said the grieving father in a statement on Monday, adding, “If Lee Zeldin wants to make this about Saheed, he can call for an end to police brutality and support the mental health needs of New Yorkers like my son. Instead, he has chosen to enrich himself and misrepresent the final moments of Saheed’s life.”
The video was still visible on YouTube and social media as of this story’s publication. Lee Zeldin’s campaign did not respond immediately to requests for comment for this story.
Hochul and Zeldin have been locked in a surprisingly competitive race for control of the highest office of New York, though most surveys suggest the incumbent remains the favorite in the overwhelmingly Democratic state.
How competitive the race is is sort of beside the point for Vassell’s family. Instead, they can’t help but be flabbergasted at a tragedy being appropriated for a partisan attack.
“[There’s] probably other people in the video that's probably not even a part of what’s going on in the community because basically, he did no research,” Eyon Vassell told the Beast of Zeldin.
Eyon remembers his uncle as a kind man who taught him how to navigate a new life in the United States when he arrived from Jamaica and gave him advice on being a dad and taking care of the family. Later, it would be Eyon who, in turn, would help as his uncle struggled with mental illness.
“I basically grew up with Saheed. So everything I know right now is because of him,” Eyon said.
Before he died, Vassell had also struggled with the loss of his friend Ortanzso Bovell, who was shot and killed by NYPD rising star and current Deputy Chief John Chell.
“I’m always upset about Saheed’s situation, but in my head, I was like, ‘Wow, why is he even in the video?’” Eyon continued, later adding, “We just want [people] to know that he’s not the person y’all think he is.”