As the New York Police Department was burying one of its own, the gulf between the city’s cops and its citizens seemed to get a little wider on Saturday.
On a bright winter afternoon, about 200 or so fed-up protesters marched a mile from the notorious Louis H. Pink Houses in crime-ridden East New York, protesting the killing of a young black man by cops.
The protesters were remembering Michael Brown, Eric Garner and, this time, Akai Gurley: all unarmed black men killed by white police officers who have so far faced no punishment. The police departments say procedures were followed, and grand juries have listened. No indictments have been handed down against the police officers in question. But members of the black community say the cops are, at best, enjoying a culture of impunity and, at worst, getting away with murder.
And like what happened in the wake of the deaths of Brown and Garner, protesters congregated at the Pink Houses, determined to remember another life.
Gurley was gunned down on Nov. 20, when a pair of cops was patrolling the rough housing project. Gurley came out of stairwell door as the two cops approached. One officer says he lost control of the trigger of his service weapon in the dark stairwell, and shot Gurley by accident, killing him.
GALLERY: Marching in Memory of Akai Gurley
Today, however, standing three stories on a rooftop with the Stars and Stripes waving behind him at half-mast, one cop grinned and others puffed stogies as the protesters filed past. The whir of the circling NYPD helicopter muffled their chants calling for unity and calling out police brutality. They seemed to sense that the mood of the city, which once had sympathized with the protesters and Mayor Bill De Blasio, had shifted to support the police after the murders of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on Dec. 20 by a deranged Ismaaiyl Brinsley.
For the most part, the police maintained order and didn’t let the march turn into anything close to a melee as was seen in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Brown, or in other violent protests around the country over black deaths at the hands of the police.
Many police officers were attired in their finest blues, clearly in deference to Rafael Ramos, one of the murdered cops being laid to rest a couple miles way.
Protesters waved at the smiling officers standing on the roof of the 75th Precinct and then responded by belting: “They think it’s a game. They think it’s a joke.”
They repeated that several times and before the procession moved on. Kimberly Ballinger was a loss for words.
Ballinger is Gurley’s widow, and she walked most of the way during today’s protest hand-in-hand with her daughter Akaili. She cradled a black sign with white writing that read her dad’s name: “Akai Gurley.”
Ballinger was at first speechless when asked about the 75 Precinct reception. She took a beat. Then sighed,
“It’s disrespectful,” she told The Daily Beast as she paced towards the Police Service Area #2 a few blocks down on Sutter and Alabama Avenues.
“I’m dying-in right now,” she vowed as she faced 25 yards of metal pens blocking the front entrance.
Then Ballinger, along with 20 protesters, fell to the concrete and after a moment of silence, shouted loudly.
“It just shows the blatant disrespect and disregard for human rights,” said Shavon Ford, 30, of Jersey City, when told of the cops’ response to the emotions expressed by the marchers. He had helped organize Saturday’s protests.
“We’re being oppressed and victimized and murdered, and they think it’s an illusion, but it’s not,” he added.
The cops assembled to detail the march provided a modicum of security—even though protesters’ tactics and the trajectory kept shifting, and despite some calling out the police as racist and provocateurs.
“How do you spell killer? NYPD!” the demonstrators chanted. “How do you spell racist? NYPD!”
One chanter yelled, the “real savages that are trained to kill—It’s the NYPD.”
The resounding chants channeled Gurley’s memory directly: “Akai Gurley—no accident!” “Fists up—Fight back!”
Dante Bethea, 30, a social worker who is also Gurley’s cousin, came out because, as he said, he is incensed.
“This is a sad loss,” he told The Daily Beast. “A mother has lost a son,” referring to his late cousin Akai. “He was very even-keeled, goofy and liked to play basketball.”
Bethea is trying to conjure why all the senseless killing of both his family member and the cops as well.
“It feels like his childhood was meaningless now that it’s been taken from us,” he said. “I’m not happy about the cops dying either. Another family loses a loved one. And it’s all senseless killing.”
There are no answers to salve his wide-open wounds.
“I tell you there is nothing that can explain why [Akai] is gone. He was unarmed. Why was he shot?”
Bethea is like many who showed up saying they want justice.
“Justice to be served,” Bethea said. “The cop who shot Akai, he should be arrested and reprimanded for what he did.”
The stoic were in the crowd, too. A 59-year-old retired subway train driver, who gave his name only as Artist, admitted that he had family members in the NYPD.
“They’re trying to marginalize us by calling this march anti-police, an anti-cop march. It’s not.”
He said the motive to march on the same day as the funeral for the fallen Officers Ramos is “completely separate” and all about “police brutality.”
“What responsibility was taken by cops when they kill unjustly?” he asked. “Did the police stop their tactics?”
The sentiment was echoed by Terrence McIntosh, a 30-year-old father of two who lives at the Pink Houses and came out today to protect his kids.
“I have two kids and the last thing we want is to see our kids being attacked in their own homes.”