Stormed on the Fourth of July: Racist cops brutalized Crown Heights barbecue-goers, residents say

Stormed on the Fourth of July: Racist cops brutalized Crown Heights barbecue-goers, residents say
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

Cops brutally broke up a Fourth of July barbecue in Crown Heights last summer, busting into a house, spraying a crowd with Mace, and arresting four, according to revelers and neighbors who are now demanding justice.

The annual barbecue at the house on Eastern Parkway between Utica and Rochester avenues went sour just after midnight when cops swarmed the yard and then the house, cursing and yelling racial epithets, according to witnesses.

“The cops were yelling ‘get those monkeys’ and ‘get those m————,’ ” said Gordon Wilson, who was arrested at the 71st precinct when he says he went to file a complaint. Wilson claimed that the collar came in late July but police records put it the night of the party, a half-hour after cops cuffed three others. One arrested reveler made a stop at the hospital before jail, according to police, so that he could get treated for a fractured rib, his friends said.

The outdoor party is an annual tradition of the Gittens family, which lives in the three-story townhouse. The driveway barbecue started in the late afternoon and was bumping at midnight when a patrol car pulled up outside the gate, according to witnesses. Three cops made a beeline for the party, prompting attendees to pull the gate shut, Keenen Gittens among them.

Police demanded that they open up, according to Gittens, who says he asked, “What for?” The officers, by then joined by 10 or 15 more cops, responded by shooting Mace through the bars and muscling the passageway open, neighbors said.

“They started hitting me over and over,” said Gittens, adding that cops then cuffed him. “I do not know what happened after that.”

“It was chaos — hell on earth,” said Nicholas Cummins, who lives in an apartment on the third floor of the house. “It was just a war zone filling up with spray. Everyone was coughing and crying and screaming, and police were scattering everywhere.”

The resulting melee saw one cop get hit in the face and, when officers arrested three men, angry onlookers pelted police with bottles and furniture, according to the NYPD. But Cummins disputes the police version of events, saying no one threw anything.

Videos of the incident show officers waving bright flashlights as they storm the gate and the front door, one yelling, “Get out of the f—— way!”

A piece of footage shot from an upper floor of a neighboring building shows a man in a basketball jersey who is lying on the ground shoved to his feet by officers in blue shirts. In the same motion as he stands, the man appears to strike an officer, whose white shirt indicates a rank of lieutenant or above, in the head. In the moments that follow, some six cops pile onto the man, pummeling him with fists and feet.

A man was arrested at the scene and charged with assaulting an officer, according to a police spokeswoman, but no record of the case appears in online court records.

In the aftermath, another video shows one woman in the largely African-American and West Indian crowd accusing police on the scene of racism for their handling of the incident.

“It’s because we’re black!” she yells.

“You’re f—— pigs,” another man exclaims. “Everything you did was illegal!”

Emma Francis-Snyder lives on the second floor of the building and was hanging out there when cops swarmed the front yard. She shot the second video, which shows at least five officers barging into the yard and then the house over screams of protest. Francis-Snyder said that cops have visited the holiday barbecue in years past to ask the hosts to keep the noise down, but that nothing at this year’s event merited the response that she said was heavy-handed.

A police department spokeswoman said cops came because someone shot off fireworks in the road and that 100 people were crammed in front of the driveway when the law arrived, but a commanding officer filmed on the scene said he was there because of a “large disorderly party with alcohol and drugs.”

Wilson, the reveler who got pinched when he went to complain to police, faced charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing, and resisting arrest, but a judge gave him an adjournment contemplating dismissal in September, meaning the charges will go away as long as he stays out of trouble until mid-March. Gittens and another man both faced charges of rioting, interfering with officers, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest, but all the charges have been dropped under similar deals.

Gittens ultimately did file a complaint with police, but the internal affairs investigation was dead on arrival, according to Wilson.

“This not going anywhere,” he said.

Wilson learned at a November meeting of the 71st Precinct’s community council that the investigation has been handed down from a captain to a lower-ranged sergeant. He said he has spoken to an attorney about suing, but is waiting until his charges are disposed of to make any further moves.

A civil rights lawyer who frequently sues the city for police misconduct said Brooklyn cops have a reputation for cracking down on black barbecues for no reason.

“This is a product of a police response to assemblies, particularly of African Americans,” said attorney Mark Taylor of the law firm Rankin & Taylor. “The police seem to consider such assemblies unlawful. There is no legal basis for it.”

To come onto private property, police need the permission of residents or must be responding to an emergency, Taylor said, pointing out that law enforcement rarely busts heads at lighter-complexioned block parties.

“If you are white, you can have a barbecue,” he said. “It is crazy.”

A community affairs officer at the precinct confirmed that the investigation was handed off from the captain to a sergeant.

Reach reporter Megan Riesz at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow her on Twitter @meganriesz.