On Wednesday at 9:30 p.m., between 50 and 100 people were gathered on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights where, about five hours earlier, a 34-year-old black man named Saheed Vassell was shot by NYPD officers.
By that time of night, it was a scene of quiet mourning and quiet anger, except for occasional and individual outbursts. The crowd gathered in small groups where people shared their memories of Vassell. There were residents of the neighboring streets who were familiar with him, as well as activists and faith leaders from nearby areas.
“Everyone knew him: harmless,” said one resident, echoing a sentiment shared by many. Another resident recalled Vassell asking for money but said he’d always been sweet and never aggressive.
“We’re here to mourn for our homeboy,” said another. “He was a good guy.”
A few people said they couldn’t see this happening in a majority white neighborhood.
Thurston Denny, who considered Vassell his friend, said the mayor should immediately get on TV and say one of his officers had “murdered someone from the community” and to explain how the city would deal with the matter, “and not have it be played out like a puppet show, because … that’s how the media shows these incidents, like a puppet show.”
“I can’t sleep easy tonight. Who in this neighborhood is going to sleep easy tonight? They’ve been invested with the power to pop you and get away with it,” said a resident who identified himself as Bobby.
According to the Daily News, police say they received three 911 calls about a black man waving what some people thought was a silver gun, and that when the officers arrived, the man had turned and aimed the object at them. Police say they fired 10 times, hitting Vassell multiple times, and that he was brought to Kings County Hospital, where he died. The object turned out to be a metal pipe with a knob.
As reported by New York Times, residents have questioned why the shooting had to occur, given that Vassell was a well-known character to community residents and, they thought, the police themselves. According to the Times, “The Police Department had encountered the man before and classified him as emotionally disturbed.” Vassell’s father said his son had bipolar disorder.
Asked to respond to these concerns, a Community Affairs officer told City Limits that surveillance videos and the 911 record would explain the officers’ actions. Did he sympathize with the community’s grief?
“Of course, of course,” he said. “That’s a family member. It’s a loss of a community member. It’s a loss for everybody.” He said he couldn’t comment on whether such a shooting might ever occur in a majority white neighborhood.
The shooting took place on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination. Listen below to reactions from two pastors from Bridge Church who came to mourn with their neighbors.
Pastor James Roberson
Pastor Rasool Berry