New York is living through the latest version of a sadly repeating cycle in which police use deadly force, triggering massive community demonstration. And those protests inevitably reveal underlying questions of racism, poverty and injustice.
Demonstrations against police misconduct get particularly heated because communities remember prior injustices. Layer after layer of incidents over the years become part of a litany of cases stretching across decades. In many cases, activists shout out names like Randy Evans, Arthur Miller or Eleanor Bumpurs -- a catalogue of pain and grievance passed down across generations in black communities.
In my first journalism job out of college, as a reporter for the now-defunct City Sun community newspaper, I wrote about the 1984 killing of Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly grandmother being evicted from her apartment in the Bronx after missing four payments on her rent of less than $100 a month.
Bumpurs was in poor mental condition, so three officers from the Emergency Services Unit -- officers allegedly trained to deal with emotionally disturbed people -- came to the Sedgwick Houses, a public housing development, to assist in the eviction. They entered the apartment with plastic shields and a metal Y-bar to restrain the woman -- and when the elderly woman freaked out and began waving a knife, the cops tried to pin her.
At a point when it seemed as if Bumpurs was about to break free, an officer named Stephen Sullivan fired two shotgun blasts, killing her.
Sullivan was charged with manslaughter, but a judge dismissed the indictment, ruling that the evidence was legally insufficient to charge the cop with any crime. In an interview the day after the ruling, the officer said, ''I'm very happy, ecstatic,'' reported the New York Times. Asked if under similar circumstances he would again shoot, he replied: “Yes, I would.”
Protests and rallies followed the decision. By then, a decade of police killings had galvanized a protest movement explicitly modeled on civil rights campaigns of the 1960s. A group of young activists leading the movement would later command national attention, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry and his chief of staff, a fiery young Charles Barron, who would later serve in the City Council and is now a state assemblyman.
They came to prominence after a string of cases that rocked the city in the 1970s.
On Thanksgiving of 1976, a 15-year-old boy named Randolph Evans was shot and killed by patrolman Robert H. Torsney. The policeman and his partner went to a housing project in the East New York section of Brooklyn to investigate a report of an armed man. When they reached the apartments. Evans and five other children approached Torsney, who suddenly shot Evans from a distance of two feet.
Two fellow officers at the scene later testified against Torsney, saying the killing was completely unprovoked. Torsney said he thought Evans had a gun, but there was no weapon of any sort. An all-white jury found Torsney not guilty of murder by reason of insanity; they were convinced the officer had experienced a "psychotic episode" triggered by an epileptic disease so rare that medical experts had never heard of it. Torsney's first and last "seizure" occurred the moment he killed the child. He was released from a mental ward in 1979 when doctors could find nothing wrong with him.
In 1978, Brooklyn businessman Arthur Miller was beaten to death by 16 policemen. Miller's brother, Samuel, was fighting with two officers who sought to arrest him for driving without a license in Crown Heights. Arthur Miller joined the scuffle, and more police were summoned. Some 16 officers "swarmed" Miller, who died of "pressure applied to throat." A series of demonstrations followed, one of which drew 2,000 participants. A grand jury refused to indict any of the 16 officers.
The next year, Manuel Martinez, 40, and his nephew, Domingo Morales Jr., 25, were shot point-blank by an officer named Kevin Durkin. The policeman was off-duty in a bar across the street from his Bronx precinct. Morales and Martinez were about to leave when Durkin suddenly fired five shots from within two feet of the men. As Durkin’s fellow officers removed the gun from his hand, he stood over the bodies, muttering. "I'm on the job. I got them. They're coming in the bar."
Durkin later testified that he believed the two men were members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a Puerto Rican leftist group. He also said he "had no choice" but to shoot because Morales moved as if reaching for a gun (neither man was armed, nor did they have anything to do with the FALN.)
Psychiatrist Daniel W. Schwartz -- whose "rare epilepsy" testimony had convinced a jury in the 1976 Randy Evans case -- argued that Durkin had temporarily gone insane. The jury found Durkin not guilty, ignoring the insanity issue but deciding the officer thought his life was in danger. Then-Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola expressed disgust at the verdict: "Any man who shoots an unarmed man twice in the back should not be given a gun and put back on the streets." Durkin did not return to duty.
There have been many cases since then. In 1983 a young man named Michael Stewart was beaten to death in police custody after officers saw him spray-painting graffiti in a subway station. In 1985, undercover detectives in Ozone Park used stun-guns to torture a teenager named Mark Davidson inside the 106th precinct; several officers were convicted and sentenced to prison, and stun guns were eliminated for use by the NYPD for many years.
In 1994, a Bronx man named Anthony Baez was choked to death by an officer named Francis Livotti after Baez and some friends hit Livotti’s car with a football they were tossing. The judge who later sentenced Livotti to prison publicly excoriated the NYPD for keeping the officer on duty despite nine prior citizen complaints of brutality.
In 1997, Abner Louima -- an innocent bystander at a chaotic scene outside a Brooklyn nightclub -- was a victim of mistaken identity by a cop named Justin Volpe, who thought Louima had hit him while cops were dispersing a crowd outside the club. Volpe arrested Louima and sodomized him with a wooden stick inside the 70th precinct. Volpe later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, where he remains to this day.
In 1999, an African immigrant named Amadou Diallo was gunned down on the front steps of his home when a group of cops with the NYPD’s Street Crimes Units fired 41 shots at Diallo, mistakenly believing him to be armed. All of the cops involved were acquitted; the unit was disbanded.
And so on, through the decades. When activists chant “Say Their Name!” they are invoking the long, dismal parade of innocent people tortured and killed by cops over the years, and urging us not to forget them. Patrick Dorismond. Ousmane Zongo. Timothy Stansbury. Sean Bell. Ramarley Graham. Eric Garner.
Many of us lived through, and remember, these cases; many marched in the streets to protest yet another killing. Others have heard parents and grandparents speak, with great bitterness, about the many cases of unpunished injustice they witnessed over the years.
Not to mention nationally-known cases from outside the city, like the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Sandra Bland in Texas. Michael Brown in Missouri. The flat-out murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina.
Those who are new to the issue should understand that the death of George Floyd stirs a tide of bitter anger in black communities and in activist circles. When people say the entire system needs to change, they mean that these deep ancestral memories are too much to bear -- and that something needs to change.