A massive crowd formed in Crown Heights on Thursday at a vigil that quickly turned into an anti-cop protest on the street corner where police the day earlier gunned down a man brandishing a metal pipe like a pistol.
One Brooklynite who blasted New York Finest as executioners in an impromptu tirade that attending journalists rushed to document said seeing other furious mourners inspired his harsh critique.
“I was in the moment,” said Clinton Dyer, who lives in Brownsville. “I just felt the anger in the community, and the upset about what was going on. They’re not hearing us — our voices aren’t being heard.”
Four officers opened fire on Saheed Vassell at the corner of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street on Wednesday, in response to three separate 911 reports of a man threatening bystanders with what observers said appeared to be a gun.
The next day, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced his Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit opened a probe into the Police Department because of the incident.
Hours before the Thursday afternoon demonstration, authorities released surveillance footage of Vassell — a 34-year-old Crown Heights resident whose family said had a history of mental illness — that shows him approaching men, women, and children on the street while wielding the pipe as if it were a pistol.
But the video — which cops released along with 911 transcripts that quoted callers and a dispatcher saying Vassell was pointing what looked like a gun at passersby — did little to soothe the raw nerves of the deceased’s grieving friends, many of whom accused police of a shoot first, ask questions later mentality.
“I wasn’t there, but there was no gun,” said Sander Cameau, a life-long Crown Heights resident and longtime friend of Vassell. “They had no right to kill him — at all.”
Others criticized authorities’ immediate release of the footage and transcripts as a thinly veiled propaganda tactic and poor excuse for killing a man not holding a firearm.
“They are trying to use it to influence the community,” said Crown Heights local, Chris, who refused to give his last name. “Yes he has mental issues, yes he’s bipolar, but this was uncalled for.”
The neighborhood’s state Senator — who called for an investigation into the deadly shooting after it occurred, and helped plan the vigil — demanded Police Department brass better educate trainees on how to respond to mental-health-related incidents during his turn at the podium, where the dead man’s parents Eric and Lorna Vassell joined him.
“Having a mental-health problem should not be a death sentence,” Jesse Hamilton told the audience.
And although many vocally expressed anger before the crowd, some participants stayed quiet as they were overcome with grief at the sudden loss of a friend.
“He was a humble person, he didn’t bother nobody,” said Nicole Williams, another Crown Heights resident. “It’s so sad. Another black man dead, that’s all it is.”
Protestors remained on the scene long after the original vigil’s 4:40 pm start time — which coincided with the time police gave for Vassell’s shooting — with many taking to the streets come sundown in a march to the local 71st Precinct’s station house on Empire Boulevard, where they picketed with signs declaring “Justice for Saheed” and “Abolish the NYPD.”
The Brooklynite’s death at the hands of police came just weeks after California cops shot and killed an unarmed black man at his home while responding to a vandalism complaint.
And the city plans to fully cooperate with Schneiderman’s ongoing probe, according to the mayor, who called Vassell’s death “a tragedy by any measure,” but did not attend Thursday’s demonstration.
“We’re going to be as transparent as we can, understanding there will be a full and formal investigation,” said Mayor DeBlasio.