Kimani Gray and the (New?) Black Left

I’m postponing the last of my Africa-trip-inspired blog posts to weigh in on the Kimani Gray killing and the “unrest” that has followed in the days since.

I expected my first time hearing about Kimani Gray to also be my last. According to police reports, two plain-clothes police officers approached Kimani after he broke off from a group of friends in East Flatbush, Brooklyn on Saturday night. According to police, the officers shot and killed Kimani in self-defense after he pulled a .38-caliber pistol on them. Witnesses said that the men did not properly identify themselves as police. But, unlike some other high profile NYPD shootings of black men (Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham), a loaded gun (purportedly Kimani’s) was recovered at the scene of the shooting. Finally, though he was only 16, Gray had already been arrested four times.

Though the killing made national news, the media’s treatment of Kimani Gray was rather dismissive at first. Reports seemed to say, “Yes, he was only 16. But he had a gun and a record. The police were right in this instance.” I (and probably most members of the mainstream media) expected the story to be nothing more than a 30-second blurb. As I’ve touched on in the past, the black community tends to mobilize around the most clear-cut instances of overt racism (i.e. Trayvon Martin and Jena 6) and not instances like this one which, while much more common, lack a completely “innocent” victim. This selective mobilization is largely strategic; a way of ensuring that the strongest possible case is made both in the court of public opinion and the actual court of law. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other Civil Rights Era figures wouldn’t touch the Kimani Gray case with a ten-foot pole because they’re “strategic” enough to know that conservatives could make too coherent of an argument that this was not a case of unnecessary police force.

But Brooklyn residents had other ideas and took to the streets in protest anyway. Like Kimani, the protests have been imperfect. Last night marked the fourth straight night of street demonstrations in East Flatbush. Unlike previous nights, last night’s protests were peaceful, with no arrests. But 46 people were arrested at protests two nights ago as demonstrators clashed with police. The night before, after a peaceful protest, a group of about 50 young demonstrators bum rushed and trashed a Rite Aid and a grocery store, grabbing items and cash as well as assaulting a reverend who happened to be shopping in the Rite Aid on their way out.

4-days of protests along with some violence and arrests have piqued the media’s interest in the Kimani Gray incident. Predictably, as the media’s criminalization of Kimani has proved ineffective at stemming outrage, news coverage has attempted to criminalize the protesters; focusing more on arrests and violence than the message of mostly peaceful demonstrators.

Yesterday, as I watched surveillance footage of mostly young men of color trashing the stores, I was reminded of a wave of peaceful-turned-violent flash mobs in Philadelphia a couple years ago in which large groups of young people assembled just for the sake of assembling and then a select few of them fought, attacked by-standers, and destroyed and stole property. Like the Philadelphia flash mobs, the violence associated with the Kimani Gray demonstrations are imperfect, and at least partially misdirected, manifestations of a rightful outrage and indignation; not necessarily at one incident, but at the general state of affairs in an oppressed community. But unlike the Philly flash mobs, there is a distinctly political tone not just to the Flatbush demonstrations, but also to the unrest that they have sparked.

There has been an increasing amount of debate about if Kimani was an “innocent” victim. Details have emerged that Gray was shot 7 times; 3 times in the back. Now, a witness who claims to have seen the whole incident is saying that Kimani did not have a gun at all and was “running for his life.”

But perhaps what is most important about the demonstrations of the last four nights is that protesters don’t seem to care if he was “innocent” or not. Flatbush residents, like many people in low-income communities of color, are tired of the violent role that the police play in their everyday lives. Like Kimani, many of them are imperfect. Like Kimani, many have criminal records (a guarantee when viable routes out of poverty are out of reach or criminalized). Like Kimani, some may carry guns (a sad but common reality in areas where everyday life is a struggle for survival). But Kimani is of them. And if shooting down Kimani is law and order, then law and established order are to be challenged.

The rawness and lack of “strategy” that marks the uproar over Kimani Gray is what makes what is going on in Flatbush so unpredictable and also so special. It is not just a challenge to the status quo; it is also a challenge to the civil and tame ways in which the status quo is often challenged. Nobody can tell how this is going to play out because it is new. Jesse and Reverend Al aren’t invited (although as more cameras train their lenses on East Flatbush I wouldn’t be surprised if they now decided that the Kimani Gray case is worthy of their attention after all). Nobody is quite sure what will happen in the streets of Flatbush tonight. Maybe, like other headline grabbing instances of black mobilization, the Kimani Gray saga will fizzle and fade from the spotlight. Maybe Flatbush won’t allow that to happen. Maybe these demonstrations mark a new evolution of community resistance to oppression. Maybe what is happening in Flatbush will spark something much bigger and as yet unforeseen. Maybe. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens tonight.

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