It was around 7:30PM when Margarita Rosario took the microphone at the Sunset Park rec center, turned to a table that seated five police officers and told the story of how her son had been murdered by NYPD cops.
“My son, Anthony Rosario, had 14 bullets in his back, face down on the floor,” Rosario said. “Now who is the criminal? My son? Or [the police officers]?”
Rosario, three others parents whose children had been killed by the NYPD, and hundreds of residents in this diverse community, came together at an old gymnasium on Wednesday night for a town hall on police brutality. The gathering was called by Dennis Flores, who runs El Grito de Sunset Park, a police watchdog group. He dubbed it Sunset Park Town Hall: Police Conduct and Accountability, and let community activists run it. The police gathered there were spectators, with the exception of the five-person panel.
Flores has been doing this type of work for years, but in the past few months a number of violent clashes and use of force incidents have increased tensions between residents and police, culminating a few weeks ago when Sandra Amezquita, who is five months pregnant, was thrown to the ground after she tried intervening when they were trying to arrest her son.
That incident and another one in which a melee broke out after cops tried shutting down vendors and an officer was suspended after kicking a man while he was on the ground, were both captured on video. Because of that, the violence by police has gotten media coverage but it’s also emboldened residents to try and force change. Wednesday night was the beginning of that process.
In a very dramatic opening to the night, Flores played a montage of citizen videos that captured clashes with police on the wall of the gym. It seemed to catch the officers there off guard, with many of them conferencing with each other while the video ran and people in the crowd grew angry. In addition to the table of five officers, there were dozens more who were spread out in the room. The videos were difficult to watch for many, and during one pause in the action, a man in the room yelled, “The community knows [the cops] do this. It’s not new. They’ve been doing it all summer.”
The room then filled with loud applause.
Juanita Young’s son, Malcolm Ferguson, was killed by police in 2000. After Eric Garner died when NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold earlier this summer, Young, along with other parents who have lost their kids to police violence, attended Garner’s funeral. She spoke on Wednesday.
“My son had no weapon yet every one of our sons who have been murdered by these low-life cops have had nothing happen to them,” Young said, citing the lack of convictions in the deaths of all four parents’ sons. “Why do these cops think they’re above the law?”
Throughout the night the crowd was somewhat wiley, but peaceful. Many questioned the NYPD’s sincerity, with many asking why police commissioner William Bratton was not in attendance. Multiple people demanded he be fired. But many local organizers and civil rights attorneys asked the crowd for balance, with some relaying personal anecdotes about having family members who are police, and that not all are bad.
Bratton sent Chief Philip Banks instead. Banks spoke to the crowd, and listened while also trying to tackle questions people asked throughout. At one point, people began yelling and Banks said, “It’s okay. You can yell. I’m used to this.”
A man in the crowd quickly responded, “That’s because you’ve been killing people for so long.”
Banks kept it moving.
“I believe the overwhelming majority of cops do it right,” Banks said, to boos. “You don’t want cops not doing their job in the community and we don’t want that either. The bad cops are the biggest enemy because of the police officers that do it right. It brings them down.”
That elicited applause from the crowd. But it was the testimony of the parents that seemed to have the biggest impact.
That included Nicholas Heyward, whose son, Nicholas, was 13 when he was killed by police, back in 1994. Bratton was commissioner back then. Heyward is well-known in the community. He was the last parent to speak.
“They say there are good cops out there,” he said. “I’d like to meet some of them.”
(Photos: Amy K. Nelson/ANIMAL New York)