Akai Gurley honored with street co-naming outside building where he was killed by police

Akai Gurley’s daughter Akaila holds up a street sign bearing his name.
Photo by Ben Brachfeld

A portion of Linden Boulevard in East New York near NYCHA’s Pink Houses was co-named Saturday for former resident Akai Gurley, who was fatally shot by an NYPD officer in the building’s stairwell in November 2014.

Where Linden Boulevard meets Eldert Lane will now be known as “Akai Gurley Way,” after an unveiling ceremony held seven years to the day after his killing, attended by electeds, supporters, and members of Gurley’s family.

“In some small way we’re gonna get something,” said Hertencia Petersen, Gurley’s aunt, who has advocated for justice in Gurley’s case for years. “I’m so elated and overwhelmed that the community came out.”

Those present at the ceremony said that the street co-naming was a small, belated victory for the Gurley family, as the location will now be etched into the geography of the city as the place where Gurley was killed by police.

“It’s a day that we can temporarily be happy,” said Andre Mitchell, chair of Community Board 5, at the ceremony. “Because this block, for the record, will be here now forever. You don’t even have to call it Linden Boulevard on this corner, you’ll be able to call it Akai Gurley Way for the rest of history in this city and this neighborhood.”

But at the end of the day, attendees said they won’t feel that their work is over until Black men are not targeted and killed by police.

“Every day that there’s a Black, brown, purple, or any color person is getting murdered, nothing has changed,” Petersen said. “That’s just telling us that we have to strap our boots up a little tighter so we can be back in the streets.”

Gurley was 28 years old and living at Pink Houses when he was fatally shot by NYPD Officer Peter Liang in a dark stairwell while the officer was conducting a “vertical patrol” at the public housing complex. On Nov. 20, 2014, Liang fired essentially blindly into the dark stairwell as Gurley entered a floor below to walk downstairs, and the bullet ricocheted and hit Gurley. Liang then allegedly did not render aid, according to Gurley’s girlfriend.

The incident became a flashpoint in the city, taking place just months after the murder of Eric Garner, and weeks before a grand jury’s decision not to indict his killer, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, set off protests across the city.

Then-Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, who was elected to the office as a progressive reformer intent on reining in police abuse, sought and won an indictment on manslaughter charges against Liang. In February 2016, a jury convicted Liang of manslaughter, in what was widely seen as a defining moment for police accountability.

But Gurley’s family and supporters argue that Thompson then betrayed them as he did not seek jail time for the convicted officer. At sentencing, a judge reduced Liang’s top sentence to negligent homicide, and sentenced him to probation and community service.

“A conviction is what we got,” said Mitchell. “But for us here, in East New York, we still know that justice was still not served.”

Gurley was the father of a 2-year-old toddler, Akaila, when he was killed. Akaila, now a 9-year-old elementary schooler, was presented with a street sign of her own, as a token of remembrance and commemoration for the father she never really knew.

Linden Boulevard at Eldert Lane in East New York is now known as “Akai Gurley Way.”Photo by Ben Brachfeld

“I’ve been thinking about my dad,” Akaila told the crowd. “I don’t know very much about him, but he’s important to me. And I want to take a moment today so I can celebrate my dad.”

Petersen said that seeing Akaila get to celebrate her father was a “priceless” moment, and important for her to understand who her dad really was.

“At two years old, you lost your father, you don’t know him, you don’t have a relationship with him. You only hear what people say or what you read,” Petersen told Brooklyn Paper. “It was priceless that for her legacy, that she knows her father was not who he was portrayed as. What the public, the media portrayed him to be. She knows who he was.”

Thompson died of cancer a few months later in 2016, and recently got a street co-named in his honor near the District Attorney’s office in downtown Brooklyn. But Petersen believes he is not worthy of any honor as a result of his decisions in the case.

“Akai Gurley’s blood is still on his hands,” she said. “Even beyond the grave.”