Thirty-two young people, including several high school students, who were arrested last month as they headed from the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn to a friend’s wake in Coney Island are organizing to demand that the police treat minority residents – themselves included – with respect.
They say the police targeted them unfairly on May 21, held them for 13 hours without food or water, then booked them on trumped-up charges. Most of them were held for almost 36 hours before being released or posting bail. They missed their friend’s wake. Now they’re seeking some way to mourn with dignity, instead of from inside a jail cell.
The youths, with the backing of Bushwick community group Make the Road by Walking, started leafleting on Thursday outside the 83rd Precinct in Bushwick, calling for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg to respond to the incident. Oona Chatterjee, co-director of Make the Road by Walking, said the group would hand out fliers in front of the police station every weekday afternoon until the city responds. But Chatterjee said the leafleting is just the beginning. She said those who were arrested and their families and supporters are organized and committed to fighting for respectful law enforcement in their community.
“Young people from the neighborhood come into our office regularly with complaints about police harassment and mistreatment,” Chatterjee said. “And in the past few weeks … those complaints have become more frequent.”
Those arrested came up with five demands in the days afterward: to have all charges dropped; to receive a public apology from the NYPD; to begin a dialogue with Bloomberg and Kelly about police misconduct and racial profiling; to have the police officers involved publicly identified, and removed; to receive help in creating a memorial to make up for the missed wake.
The group and their supporters are planning a town hall meeting June 5 at St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church for those concerned that police harassment of young people from the neighborhood reflects a policy – either official or unofficial – at the precinct and the department, and that it won’t be tolerated.
When they were arrested, the group was headed to a wake for their friend Donnell McFarland. He was 17 years old when he was gunned down May 15, allegedly by another teenager from the neighborhood. Police say the shooting was gang-related, claiming that McFarland was a leader of a faction of Bloods called the Pretty Boy Family, which they say operates out of the Hope Gardens Housing Project in Bushwick.
The police say that James Kelly, 16, who was arrested for McFarland’s killing, was a member of a rival gang, the Linden Street Bloods. But several of the young people who were arrested also challenged the idea that different local sets of the same gang would fight among themselves – or that McFarland had direct ties with any gang. His friends say the shooting was the fatal result of a long-running dispute between McFarland and his accused killer.
The police also said that violence between the Pretty Boy Family and the Linden Street Bloods escalated immediately after McFarland was killed.
When the group gathered that afternoon at Putnam Park, many of them were wearing t-shirts with McFarland’s picture on it. The NYPD said members of Brooklyn’s Community Board 4 had called the 83rd Precinct to tell them the group would be at the park, and asked the cops to intervene, fearing that members of the gang responsible for McFarland’s death might attack his friends on their way to his wake. Nadine Whitted, District Manager of CB 4, said she couldn’t “confirm or deny” that one or more of her board members called the police.
“We have 15 members on our board, so I can’t tell you what they did or didn’t do,” Whitted said. “I can say that all our members are concerned about gang violence and all the other issues facing our community, because they all live in the community.” Board chairperson Julie Dent could not be reached.
When the police arrived, they ended up hauling the youths, ranging in age from 13 to 22, off to jail – including six juveniles younger than 16 and six young women. The juveniles and women were released within two hours, according to police, but the young men were held for a day and a half and charged with disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly. Those arrested say they were first taken to the precinct house where the women and juveniles were eventually cited and released. The teenage men say they were held at the precinct for almost 13 hours with no food before they were taken to Central Booking in Brooklyn Heights, where they stayed until the next morning.
“They came after us like we were in the mafia,” said Asher Callender, 19, a student at Bushwick Community High School, who was among those arrested last month. “There were 12 or 13 cop cars surrounding us and some of them had their guns drawn. They yelled at us to get up against the wall, then they frisked everyone and searched us, the women and children too. None of us had any weapons, they didn’t find any drugs, no one threw an empty wrapper on the ground, no one spit on the sidewalk, we weren’t doing anything.”
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said Capt. Scott Henderson was properly acting on information previously received when he ordered the arrests. Browne also said none of the arresting officers ever drew their weapons, contrary to the account given by some of the people arrested.
In fact, the police paint a very different picture of what happened on the day of McFarland’s wake and the events that led up to his death than the young people who wound up behind bars for a day and a half.
“The Pretty Boy Family and the Linden Street Bloods have been engaged in an internal power struggle” for control over Bushwick, Browne told City Limits. “McFarland was known to the NYPD Gang Division as a member of the Pretty Boy Family set.”
“NYPD Captain Scott Henderson … who happens to be black, personally patrolled the vicinity of Putnam Park on Monday [May 21] where he observed groups of six to eight individuals each, with red bandanas, and making gang signs with their hands, converge on Putnam Park at a wall that had been tagged with gang symbols. The group grew in size to 32, some wearing gang bandanas, and all wearing T-shirts memorializing McFarland. They proceeded on foot toward the ‘L’ train to attend a wake for McFarland in the 60th Precinct. En route, they took the entire sidewalk and part of the street; and some walked on the tops of parked cars as the group proceeded.” That’s when Henderson ordered the arrests, Browne said.
Even with her community in an uproar over what many see as police misconduct, Bushwick City Councilmember Diana Reyna defended the police.
Reyna said her neighbors who are up in arms over police mistreating minority youth are focusing on the wrong issue. The police only arrested the group after they became rowdy, walking on parked cars and blocking traffic, said Reyna, who maintains there is a serious gang problem in Bushwick, and the community should unite to combat gang violence, instead of pointing fingers at the police department.
The group was going to a funeral for a known gang member, Reyna said, they gathered at a park used as a gang hangout, and they were wearing t-shirts with the slain gang leader’s photograph on it, all of which made them targets for violence from rival gangs.
“I’m afraid that this murder is just the beginning,” Reyna said. “I know as a matter of fact that there has already been retaliation, and I know that there is a young man from my neighborhood in hiding because he is cooperating with the police in that shooting, and that came about because some gang members paid a visit to that young man’s uncle and shot him.”
The well-known civil rights and criminal defense lawyer Ron Kuby offered to lend his support to the group last week at an organizing meeting at Make the Road by Walking’s headquarters in Bushwick. “None of these arrests were justified,” Kuby told a group of those who had been arrested and their families and supporters at the meeting May 30.
Kuby said the arrests were “illegal,” “unconstitutional,” and motivated by racial prejudice against the black and Latino young people.
“That’s what ensured that they would be arrested,” Kuby said. “If they had been wealthy white young people they would have been protected, but because they were minorities in a poor neighborhood they were arrested.”
As of late last week Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes was still investigating, and his office was in the process of determining who would be charged with the alleged offenses. Spokesperson Sandy Silverstein noted that some of those arrested, like 16-year-old Lamel Carter, a student at Automotive High School in Greenpoint, who had never been in trouble with the law before – and whose father happens to be an NYPD detective – were not being charged. Others, like 19-year-old Asher Callender, who had an outstanding warrant when he was arrested on the way to the wake, were being charged with disorderly conduct.
Kuby, who will be working to get the criminal charges dismissed, said, “When Charles Hynes ends his investigation and dismisses all the charges against these young people, that will go a long way toward meeting the demands and expectations of the community.”
At least eight of those arrested have already retained another civil rights attorney specializing in police misconduct to file lawsuits against the city for wrongful arrest. Those who signed retainers with lawyers knew that filing a civil suit might get them money, but nothing else from the list of demands.
“Civil suits don’t get you apologies from the city, they don’t get cops fired or disciplined, and they don’t change policy, but they do get money for you and your lawyers,” Kuby told the group.