When I spoke to Nicholas Heyward Sr. the morning that the news of Akai Gurley's fatal shooting broke, neither of us could believe it. Gurley, like Heyward's son, Nicholas Jr., was shot by a cop in a Brooklyn housing staircase. It was 20 years on the year that these gunshots, fired from the hands of cops, echoed each other. The same history repeated itself with the Eric Garner chokehold killing last year and the 1994 Anthony Baez chokehold killing -- also 20 years apart.
A few hours after getting the news, Heyward and I joined other activists and outraged residents in front of the Pink Houses, where Gurley was shot. Over the next few months there would marches and press conferences. One woman-led rally that ended in a march around the Pink Houses in the rain was especially powerful. Speaker after speaker made the connection to the past victims of police brutality, like Heyward and Baez, but also to Garner in Staten Island as well as to Mike Brown over in Ferguson, Missouri.
One of those speakers was Ty Black, an East New York-based activist, community leader and hip-hop artist. She, along with other local grassroots organizers, have been working with Gurley's family to keep the pressure on prosecutors to indict and convict Gurley's killer, PSA 2 officer Peter Liang.
Earlier this month Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson's office announced that it had in fact indicted Liang. Thompson's office found that Liang didn't come to Gurley's aid, instead arguing with his partner over what to do next. Neither of the pair called for medical help until after four minutes of back and forth with Liang worried about his job. Even more morbid was the allegation that Liang had texted his police union instead of helping Liang.
While news of the indictment was perhaps welcomed news after the Staten Island DA had failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the detective that choked Eric Garner to death, Black and the other organizers weren't going to slow down. They announced a rally, march and speak-out scheduled for this Friday, February 20th to mark the three months since Gurley was shot in the chest -- and to keep pushing for a conviction.
Asere Bello, another East New York activist working with Black on the Justice For Akai Gurley campaign says the indictment "is just a finger in the door. Even if leads to conviction, it's just another step. This is also a healing process. [The rally] is a recognition of the third month. We're not going to stop... not only for Akai's family but for other victims of police violence."
As with all movements, questions of leadership undoubtedly rise. However with these organizers, the dynamics are different than in other campaigns built around police brutality. Al Sharpton, for example, was eventually pushed away from organizing around Gurley's killing when Gurley's family members rebuked his attempts to speak at the eulogy. Hertencia Peterson, Gurley's aunt, has been particularly outspoken throughout protests and marches. On Sharpton she said he simply "put his name on the situation" without "one single call to the parents." According to Peterson all Sharpton sees "is money and political gain... turning the tragedy into a circus."
Black echoes those sentiments as she and a handful of other community-based activists continue to organize largely out of the spotlight. While she's outright hostile to Sharpton, calling his style "compromising" and pointing out that he's "satisfied with just getting settlements and no jail time for the police."; she's also skeptical of other celebrities and power players as well: "I notice they come around for photos but where are the donations? The families of the police that were killed received a lot of donations," she says, referring to generous donations from Jetblue and the New York Yankees to the families of the Brooklyn cops killed by a gunman last December. "We don't need help from celebrities marching and wearing t-shirts. We the people have that in order. If they want to be useful, donate."
Bello, who has also been a longtime organizer with MXGM/Crystal House says ultimately the goals branch out into a broader political and social battle:
Ending the conditions that got Akai Gurley killed -- militarized policing, vertical patrols, Broken Windows policing -- those are things we're looking to stop. Also we need to look at lack of investment in NYCHA and Black and Latino communities overall. The same mentality in Peter Liang is also the mentality that runs in NYCHA authorities -- a dehumanizing mentality.
Real estate developers call East New York the 'last frontier'. The NYPD is basically the muscle for the real estate interests in our communities -- and in urban areas across America. So justice means holding NYPD accountable, but also holding financial and real estate interests accountable.
We need to hold everybody accountable.