Ramarley Graham’s parents, Constance Malcolm (left) and Franclot Graham, speak to supporters. (Lucy McKeon)
Around 4:30 in the afternoon on Thursday, July 19, a crowd began to gather on East 229 street in the Wakefield section of the Bronx. Reggae and R&B wafted down the block like a smoke signal from the house where 18-year-old Ramarley Graham was shot and killed by New York City police officer Richard Haste on Thursday, February 2. Ramarley’s 6-year-old brother and grandmother were both in the house that day when, unarmed and followed into his home by police without a warrant, Ramarley was shot in his bathroom.
Members of the community, activists, supporters and family have been meeting outside the house to hold weekly vigils for eighteen Thursdays, each vigil marking one of the eighteen years of Ramarley’s life. This past Thursday was the eighteenth and final vigil, and by 5 pm hundreds of people spilled from the sidewalks into the street. Children ran around the front yard while Ramarley’s parents, Constance Malcolm and Franclot Graham, made final preparations and greeted visitors. Banners lining the gate with pictures of Ramarley asked, “You see my hands, no gun. Why did you shoot me?”
The vigil began with impassioned pleas for justice by friends, activists, and families who knew the pain of Ramarley’s parents all too well. “Let this be the one that stops them,” said Juanita Young, mother of Malcolm Ferguson, who was killed by police in the South Bronx in 2000. All around, supporters from groups like Copwatch, Fathers Alive in the Hood (FAITH), the National Action Network and Picture the Homeless, waved signs and chanted, “I am Ramarley!” A member of the New Black Panther Party reminded the crowd, “Ramarley’s death does not happen in a vacuum.”
The chasm between the promise and reality of the NYPD’s responsibility to “protect and serve” communities of color has long defined the relationship between the two groups. Few administrations embodied this gulf more flagrantly than that of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose mayoralty was punctuated by the murders of Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, and Anthony Baez, among others, as well as the brutal assault of Abner Louima. Yet under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police chief, Raymond Kelly, police conduct has been equally brazen and aggressive. The rhetoric may be kinder and gentler, but the reality has been no less belligerent.
“If you look at the actual effect of policing practices—the sheer scale of them in New York City during Bloomberg-Kelly versus Giuliani—you could make a strong argument that police practices are worse, that they’re more unconstitutional now than under Giuliani,” said Darius Charney, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Charney was referring specifically to the NYPD’s wanton stop-and-frisk practices, which disproportionately affect New Yorkers of colors and have jumped 600 percent since Bloomberg took office a decade ago. (Charney is the lead counsel in a federal class action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices). In 2011 alone, the police stopped 685,724 people, though only 12 percent of these stops led to arrests or summonses and just 2 percent to the recovery of contraband, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. Eighty-four percent of those stopped were black or Latino, and the vast majority were young men.