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Kimani's Story: An Interview with the Directors of “Defended in the Streets"

Kimani's Story: An Interview with the Directors of “Defended in the Streets"
Fri, 2/21/2014 - by Kevin Limiti

On March 9, 2013, a 16-year-old black youth, Kimani Gray, was shot dead by plain clothes police in the streets of Brooklyn’s East Flatbush community. Although police alleged that Gray had pointed a gun at them, at least one witness said that he had no gun and that his hands were in the air at the time of his killing.

His death sparked outrage across the East Flatbush and Brooklyn communities. Now, almost a year since Kimani Gray’s death, a group of activists that includes playwrights, videographers and journalists is completing a film that tells Kimani’s story. Using the voices of those who knew Kimani Gray best, Defended in the Streets is a documentary about the unjust killing of an unarmed youth that draws wider connections to New York’s Stop and Frisk program and mass incarceration.

Occupy.com spoke with the film’s videographers and editors: playwright Kelly Stuart, journalist Raven Rakia and Occupy veteran Atiq Zabinski.

Kevin Limiti: What inspired you to work on this film?

Atiq Zabinski: I had already been doing videos for the Occupy movement from the days of the Occupation of Zuccotti Park. It had been more than two years, I'd made over 100 videos, had produced a weekly news show on public access TV, and it was getting time for me to stop. The whole point of my making videos and TV programs had been to provide an alternative to the mainstream media, which had been under-reporting and misrepresenting the movement. Of course the mainstream media is tough competition, and I was constantly trying to figure out how to reach a wider audience – and over and over I kept getting frustrated.

This was all volunteer work. There's only so much an individual can do, and when it came to projects like the TV show where I was working with other volunteers, there was always this horrible stress and pressure of having tons of work to do on deadline, and never knowing from one week to the next who was going to help and how much help they were going to do. This is a problem that plagues most volunteer efforts, and I think Occupy in particular was hobbled by the prevailing mood or ideology of everyone being "independent" and "autonomous," and doing whatever they chose to do, day to day, without commitments to anyone else. People think this is being free and anarchic, but it's just being disorganized and self-indulgent, the opposite of what a movement is supposed to be about and it makes it extremely difficult to do large projects, especially on deadline. So most Occupy media is stuff like livestreaming, blogging, posting photos on social media; you know, thousands of small-scale things that you have to be in the know to find, and which don't travel far beyond ones own circle.

So by March of last year, I'd been pouring tons of energy into this, running myself ragged, and not seeing that it made much difference. I had to bring the TV show to an end for the sake of my own health. I was about ready to give it all up and move on, turn my back on the whole activist media thing and get on with my life. I said to myself, "If I do any more media work, it will only be on highly-focused projects with people I know I can rely on." And then, a few days later, Kimani Gray was killed and East Flatbush erupted in protest.

Naturally I ran out there with my camera, I was there the night of the 47 arrests, and I did my same old thing, shooting and editing on my own, rushing my footage onto YouTube as quickly as I could, and again I was frustrated in the same old ways. It was hot news, so my videos got a lot of hits, but I could tell from the comments viewers left that I wasn't raising any consciousness. You know, you shoot confrontations between protestors and police, and viewers interpret it by their preconceptions. Viewers didn't get why people were protesting. Their perceptions were colored by the police propaganda about Kimani having been a gangster who pointed a gun at the police. There were downright racist comments.

Clearly there was a need to show the full context for people who didn't already know about what the police do in neighborhoods like East Flatbush. I had a conversation with a friend about this and I don't remember which of us said it, but the idea came up that it would take a full-length documentary. And then it clicked: such a documentary would be exactly the kind of project I'd said I would only be willing to do if I were to do any more media work. And I think personally, there was something about my being about ready to get on with my life, albeit with some disappointment and reluctance, and here you had this boy robbed of the chance to get on with his life in any kind of way, slated to be another statistic, news today, forgotten tomorrow… I just felt compelled. I had to try to tell his story if it was the last thing I ever did as a video activist.

Kelly Stuart: I had been going to vigils and protests against police violence and what would be called “The New Jim Crow” legal system since the execution of Troy Davis. After reading about Kimani Gray’s case in the media, I went to East Flatbush to look at the situation for myself, in the period right after he was killed. I was shocked by the total occupation [by] the police, total militarization, twenty cops on every corner for blocks and blocks. And nobody outside of the area seemed to know about it or care. I’d talk to friends about what was happening. There was a reaction as if it was something that was happening in Syria. This ate at me.

Last July, I met Atiq at one of the vigils and he told me he was working on a documentary about Kimani Gray. I started to help out and then became totally involved. Watching the way Kimani’s family have coped with his death, watching his mother become a mother to all the youth in the neighborhood, watching her literally fight off the police who continue to harass and target Kimani’s friends, watching her struggle to seek justice for her son, is a lesson in courage. I’ve also come to know a group of parents in New York who have lost their children to the NYPD and I admire them so much, their strength, their sense of humor, their support for each other.

Kimani’s story, and the story of the people who are seeking justice, is not one that’s really told in the media. I’m a playwright. I teach at Columbia. I’ve also been making short documentaries about human rights issues in Turkey. I’ve come to see that the situation here is maybe worse for minorities than it is in Turkey – that the violence is just as great, but it is not named. It is not really acknowledged except [by] the people who are directly touched by this violence.

Raven Rakia: When I started working on this film I had only been in New York for a couple of months but I've been interested in police brutality and mass incarceration for a while. I have dealt with police harassment myself. My brothers deal with police harassment on a regular basis. Close friends of mine have had to deal with the death of loved ones at the hands of police. I know people who are facing decades of years in prison solely for marijuana possession. I wouldn't say this film is "personal" for me because I didn't know Kimani Gray. But the topic of police brutality and mass incarceration is a reality I have to deal with.

Kevin Limiti: Is Kimani Gray’s death a systemic issue?

Atiq Zabinski: Absolutely. If he'd been white, the cops would almost definitely not [have] pulled up on him, much less fire 11 shots at him, continue to fire at him while we was on the ground, and then invent this gun story to justify what they did. So we’re looking at institutional racism here. And there is an epidemic in police shootings and brutality in this country. It’s accelerating; it's getting worse and worse. And the police are never really brought to justice. Particularly shocking of the cases in the last two years was that of Ramarley Graham from the Bronx. Here you had a young man shot in his own home, unprovoked, by cops who didn't even have a search warrant. Flagrant violation of the 4th Amendment and the cops weren’t even indicted. And white people go on talking like the Constitution guarantees us rights. So yes, certainly a very systemic problem.

Kelly Stuart: Kimani Gray’s death is part of a pattern of killings of black and minority youth nationwide, where the police who perpetrate the violence are able to act with impunity. I can’t think of a single case where a police officer has been found guilty in criminal court for killing or injuring a minority youth. In rare cases there are indictments but they don’t stick, as in the case of Ramarley Graham. And even in the most egregious beatings or killings that are on video, officers are never found guilty because juries believe that the violence is justified by “fear.”

It’s quite telling that there are no academic studies of the statistics on police shootings. None. There is one study in 2012 by the Malcom X Grassroots Movement that concludes that an African American is killed every 36 hours by police or someone working in a “security” position. Why are police departments not required to report the statistics on police shootings? Why is there no nationwide database for this information?

Simply looking at police violence on the local level, there have been a number of cases from inside the NYPD where quotas of arrests have been revealed, no matter [for] what cause. In Graham Rayman’s book on the Adrian Schoolcraft case, “The NYPD Tapes”, precinct commanders were reported as saying, “If you see more than two guys standing on the street, just arrest them we’ll figure out the charges later.”

Many of the parents of children who have been killed by the NYPD have continued to face harassment and unjustified arrests by the NYPD. One parent told me that six police showed up at his door at 6 a.m. and arrested him for having walked his dog without a leash. Coincidentally it was the morning of a large anti-police brutality protest. There is corruption within police departments at the local level, along with complicity by the DA’s office. The question is, I suppose, how is the system benefiting from criminalizing and even killing minority youth? We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Who benefits from this?

Raven Rakia: Yes, Kimani Gray's death plays into the larger reality of mass incarceration that affects Latino and black people disproportionately and unjustly. It begins with over-policing communities of color and often ends with abuse, deaths or locking them up for years for minor, non-violent and usually drug related offenses. One can argue the beginning of this as a systematic issue was the redlining of communities and the structuring and creation of black ghettos by our government and the banks. That being said, blackness has always been seen as a threat in this country.

Kevin Limiti: Why do you think the media seemed to eat up the NYPD's account of Gray as a gang member?

Atiq Zabinski: Well, the media and the police work hand in hand. The media rely on police to give them the “inside story.” This is part of how they churn out stories every day, part of their laziness, inability or unwillingness to dig deeper into these stories. They need to maintain a friendly relationship with the police to get these stories. It's just like how the news we get from the wars America fights is mostly just military propaganda. And these stories sell papers and get TV ratings. It's sensationalistic and plays on fear. And in these kind of stories, you have this image of this dangerous black kid, which strikes a chord in the psyche of White America.

Kelly Stuart: The media botched Kimani’s case horribly. They simply took what the police told them and ran with it, without doing any investigation. The police immediately moved to paint Kimani Gray as a thug and a gang member based on a few Facebook photos. They immediately moved to dehumanize this boy in order to cover their ass for murdering him. The narrative of the dangerous black man, and the out of control people who live in the ghetto is the fairy tale that sells. It justifies huge police budgets, money that could be going to education, arts programs, health programs, parks, enrichment of people’s lives. The mainstream media is nothing more than a marketing arm of the police and in exchange for doing this “job” they get “access” to police disinformation. It’s a vicious circle. Reading what was reported in the press and then talking to people who witnessed the killing was an experience of night and day contrast.

Raven Rakia: The media, in general, loves the story of the black gang member. Perhaps they love a juicy story that doesn't take much work on their end or maybe they have biases of their own. But time and time again we see the media portraying the image of the black gang member without doing any research to back up these claims or giving any context into the lives of inner city communities. In recent history it goes back to the Reagan administration where the media was fed images of the black welfare queen and the black drug dealer that initiated public support for the War On Drugs. The media's role in propaganda is usually lazy and dangerous and can cost people their lives.

Kevin Limiti: Do you think anyone will be held account for Kimani Gray’s death?

Atiq Zabinski: No I don’t, actually. There's just too much of this stuff happening and cops getting off for me to think that it's going to go different this time. I feel just like Kenneth Montgomery, the lawyer of Kimani's mother, who we interviewed in one of our short videos. At the end, Peter asks him what gives him hope. And he just laughs and says, Hope has nothing to do with it, you just have to do what's right.

Maybe something good will come of your work in the long run, maybe not, but regardless you have to do what your conscience compels you do. At this time in my life, I have the rare privilege of not having to spend all my time struggling to survive. I've picked up a lot of video skills over the last couple of years, nobody else is trying to tell Kimani's story, and so this is the direction my conscience is leading me. Maybe what I do will amount to nothing, but how can I not try? My hope is that with time, with enough of these stories getting out, gradually people who don't know what's going on will learn and be moved to stand up and say, No, we can't accept this, we have to stop it. So while this movie will not be the straw that breaks the camel's back, hopefully it will be one of the straws.

Kelly Stuart: There is a new DA in Brooklyn, Ken Thompson, and he’s got a huge backlog of cases that have been or are being overturned because of previous corruption under Charles Hynes. I’m certain that if he is able to do a real investigation of Kimani’s case, the lies told by the police would quickly fall apart. There are just too many holes in their story, too much obfuscation and too much that directly contradicts what witnesses have said. In addition he would discover that witnesses continue to be intimidated by members of the DA’s office. I don’t believe this is Ken Thompson’s doing, I believe it is the old guard trying to cover their tracks. If Ken Thompson is able to do a real investigation, I believe people would be held accountable for a number of things. So my question is: can he do a real investigation and does he have the will?

Raven Rakia: If we look at the past, it would be ahistorical to believe that either of the NYPD officers will see jail time or even be charged of a crime or wrongdoing when it comes to killing Kimani Gray. Personally, I feel like a similar thing will happen in this case that has happened in the past. The District Attorney will go on performing the investigation and interviewing people from the community. They will use this investigation to convince activists and the family to "work with" the DA and not do anything controversial (i.e. civil disobedience). But in the end, nothing will happen. The police won't get charged or be punished for any wrongdoing and the activism surrounding the incident will wane down or lose momentum. And this is, of course, what the District Attorney, police commissioner and police unions want.

If activism surrounding these issues has any chance in a change in their communities, it has to take a different route from attempting to find justice in the court system, because that requires a partnership with people, [like] the DA and the police commissioner, who have been proven to have ulterior motives.

Kevin Limiti: What is the status of the film?

Atiq Zabinski: We're still shooting it. We know some kind of investigation is going on. Since Brooklyn got a new DA, witnesses are getting interviewed. We don't know how serious they are or what's going to come of it, but clearly the story isn't over. And there’s a lot of people we still want to interview. We’ve had great interviews with family members, activists and people whose lives Kimani touched. But we’re short on interviews with his friends. We’re having great difficulty getting his friends to talk on camera. They're really afraid to talk on camera and they probably feel like it's just a risk for them that won't amount to anything. A number have said they'd like to be interviewed and then backed out. But we're doing our best to win their confidence and hopefully we'll get a few of their stories.

Kelly Stuart: We’re still interviewing people. It’s actually still an unfolding story. Besides uncovering the truth of what happened the night Kimani was killed, we’re following the trajectory of Carol Gray’s quest to get justice. That may not come in a conventional way, it may not come through the criminal justice system, and it may be a long road. We’re focused right now on documenting things as they happen and creating short videos to keep the story in people’s minds, and little by little we will weave things together into a feature.

Raven Rakia: We're in the midst of filming right now both interviews and anti-police brutality activism and organizing happening around the city.

Kevin Limiti: What can people do to help raise awareness about the issue of police violence in poor communities?

Atiq Zabinski: It’s different for different people and the resources they have. Most people have social media. So first off, if you don't already know what's going on, you can start by educating yourself, checking out what the mainstream media is under-reporting, and spread that knowledge within your social circles. For example, there's the Facebook group Filming Cops and they have stories like this every day. Beyond that, there’s the usual recourses: contacting politicians, holding protests, etc.

I think it’s gonna take a lot more people involved to make a difference. Most of all it has to penetrate the consciousness of white America. They don’t know enough people personally who are directly affected by this and, in their minds, the real danger to them is the dangerous black criminals. So as long as mostly black and brown people are getting stopped and frisked, arrested, brutalized and killed, it looks to them like crime is getting fought. It's gonna take awhile to change the consciousness. If you have friends who have a racist viewpoint, it is your obligation to educate them.

Sunday, March 9, will be the 1-year anniversary of Kimani's slaying, and there's going to be a big protest in East Flatbush. The initial protest over Kimani’s slaying was enormous because Kimani was a very popular and beloved young man. He touched the lives of so many people, and they knew the things the media was saying about him were untrue. They were outraged and still are outraged. The brutal crackdown shied a lot of kids from coming out in those kind of numbers and marching, but there have been quiet vigils on East 55th Street and Church Avenue on the 9th of every month, and now that I'm in touch with a lot of his friends and reading what they post on Facebook, I’m sure March 9 is gonna be big.

Kelly Stuart: The first thing people need to do is learn about it themselves. Come to a vigil, meet some of the people who have lost loved ones to the police. The October 22nd Coalition, the Stolen Lives Project and the Mass Incarceration Network are important organizations that have information about events and documentation of cases.

I would ask anyone reading this to come to the march for Kimani Gray on March 9 in East Flatbush. Everybody should read the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which explains in a scientific, systematic way how minority youth are criminalized and fed into the prison system. Social media is a good resource but there’s nothing like actually coming to be in the presence of people whose children have been killed to really understand the cost of this violence and to understand why it has to change.

Raven Rakia: Raising awareness is one thing, stopping police violence is another. I think filming the cops is one way that is capable of both raising awareness and working to stop police violence. There are plenty of other ways to raise awareness but I would suggest people in the NYC area stopping by their local activist organization that deals with police brutality. There's at least one in every borough. Supporting protests when they happen is also very important. But filming the cops with your cell phones or a small camera has the potential to save lives and hold police accountable.

For more information about the film, to watch the trailer and see other related videos, visit kimanifilm.com.

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