In 2013, an unmarked patrol car carrying a team of plainclothes NYPD officers came upon 16 year old Kimani Gray, an African-American young man who at the time was walking home with a group of friends through the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. Two officers opened fire on Kimani, and he was pronounced dead upon arrival a short time later at Kings County Hospital.
This killing at the hands of the NYPD sent shockwaves through my community and set the neighborhood on edge for a long, turbulent summer that year filled with civil unrest, rioting and protests.
At each turn in the subsequent investigation, more questions were raised than answers. Police claimed Kimani was in possession of a .38-caliber weapon at the time, which he produced from the waistband of his pants and proceeded to wave in the direction of the officers. Upon closer examination however, that story begins to fall apart. By summer that year, reports began surfacing that the Brooklyn police had been systematically planting weapons in neighborhoods like Flatbush and manufactured charges against innocent civilians, aka — people of color.
By the time one steamy hot July afternoon rolled around, tensions in the neighborhood had reached a boiling point. The midday sun beat down on the concrete sidewalks of Flatbush, casting everything in a harsh yellow glare. I left the comforts of my AC that afternoon for a seemingly unmemorable trek to Walgreens a couple blocks away.
After making my rounds in the toothpaste and deodorant aisles, I was waiting in the checkout line behind a young black girl not more than 8 years old. She was buying hair clips, scrunchies and a nail kit, from what I remember. I overheard the cashier tell her that she was two dollars short.
I stepped forward and slipped two singles into the little girl’s palm. I watched her face register surprise, then relief and a smile. “Thank you so much,” she said.
No sooner had we looked up from this exchange when I became aware of a chilling chorus of whoops, wailing and loud voices getting louder and closing in from outside the store. The security guard standing by the door had heard it too, and standing there he could see what we couldn’t yet: an angry mob of rioters had crept up outside and had now completely blocked the entrance. The screams and raw, wild wails continued to rise.
“Everyone get down! NOW!” the guard screamed. He began frantically pulling down a metal security grate as the rioters bore down on the front door with baseball bats and sledgehammers. BOOM. BOOM. BOOOOOM. Each thud was heart-pounding. My head swam with sheer terror.
And so it was that I found myself crouched down on my knees in the deodorant aisle of a Walgreens in Flatbush, Brooklyn, barely able to process the surreal scene that was unfolding around us. An elderly Haitian lady was at the far end of the aisle, also on her knees with her head covered. She rocked back and forth fervently reciting the Lord’s Prayer, first in English and then slipping into Creole. I felt a sweaty arm around my waist and I realized that the little girl from the checkout had been clinging to me this entire time for protection. I wanted to ask her “Are you here all by yourself? Where are your parents?” but no words came. We continued halting breaths in terrorized silence.
The entrance door’s glass finally gave way. A resounding explosion from the glass shattering rifled through the air. “Do not come in here! Do not come any closer! We are calling the police!” the security guard shouted at the rioters. This was soon followed by a brick crashing through a plate glass window on the side of the store, landing not more than four isles away from where we were hunkered down.
I will never know exactly how long we knelt there. Eventually sirens wailed in the distance. I heard at least one exclamation of “Oh s**t man, book it!” from the rioters outside.
Today as I look back on that harrowing memory, I’m saddened and haunted by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. New York City and the nation at large now sit atop a massive kindling heap of despair, mass unemployment, policing abuses, social unrest and racial injustices, ready to go up in flames at a moment’s notice. It feels highly disheartening that after eight years of having a black man in the Oval Office, we still managed to wind up in this exact same downward spiral.
While I feel as lost as anyone during these times, it is my sincere hope that you will join me in seizing this moment as a catalyst for change. We cannot allow this watershed moment to pass without exerting our greatest efforts toward police and social justice reforms for our black and brown brothers and sisters in America.
“America stands at a crossroads. Allowing discriminatory policies and practices to continue to claim the lives of black Americans is abhorrent,” the Jackie Robinson Foundation wrote in a statement. “George Floyd joins countless black citizens who have lost their lives in the wake of systemic bigotry — in full view, in broad daylight, with blatant disregard for the basic rights of all Americans.”
“If our country’s majority does not choose now to work to correct the glaring injustices that persist, the future for all of us is bleak. Jackie Robinson’s decades-old exclamation resonates today: There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.”
For a comprehensive list of resources you can access as we work to make America a more just and equal land for all, please download the Healing Action Toolkit from the Black Lives Matter resources archive at https://blacklivesmatter.com/resources/.