Why the NYPD Killing of Saheed Vassell Has Locals Worried About Gentrification in Brooklyn

Saheed Vassell, a black man with mental health issues, was well known to many neighbors — but not the people who called the NYPD on him.

Hundreds rally for a march to the 71st Precinct on Empire Boulevard to protest Wednesday's fatal police shooting of Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old father of a teenage son, Thursday, April 5, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Hundreds rally for a march to the 71st Precinct on Empire Boulevard on April 5, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York to protest the fatal police shooting of Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old father of a teenage son. Photo: Craig Ruttle/AP

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 mental illness.

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 #SaheedVassell.”

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.

Correction: April 13, 2018
An earlier version of this article misspelled Hertencia Petersen’s first and last names. The story has been corrected.

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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