Callous Bronx gunman turns up the heat on Mayor de Blasio

Gunman who didn't even spill his drink while shooting his victim raises questions about more relaxed policing

Column LAST UPDATED AT 12:52 ON Fri 8 Aug 2014
Charles Laurence

The video from the CCTV camera mounted in a grocery store – or bodega - in New York’s Bronx shows the man in the red shirt emptying his pistol into his victim, and then hitting him over the head with it, all the while managing not to spill the drink he holds in his left hand.

When he is finished, the man leaves. The camera keeps rolling, showing five other men stepping over the twitching victim and walking indifferently away.

It happened last weekend and already the images have become iconic. They say something, somehow, about the violence and callousness of life in the Big City, even though New York is now among the safest cities in America.

As the veteran crime writer Michael Daly noted for the Daily Beast, the bodega shooting is the 'Kitty Genovese' story of our times.

“Fifty years ago,” Daly wrote, “the whole nation was shocked by reports that dozens of neighbors had done nothing on hearing the screams of Kitty Genovese as she was stabbed to death near her home in Queens.

“The Bronx security camera video from early Saturday is in some ways more disturbing than that infamous, long-ago failure of strangers to act.

“The owner of the grocery reports that everyone involved in this new horror — the gunman, the victim, and the five others — know each other.”

Ali Abdullah, the Yemeni immigrant store owner, told Daly that the young men spend all their days together, and that they all carry guns, all the time. They had been making a rap video in the street. The fight started when the crew fell to arguing over the merits of various rap songs, and the victim, who is still alive in hospital, spat in the face of the gunman.

What monster, we are left wondering, lies just beneath the surface of New York once we have left glittering Manhattan or the groovy hipster quartiers of Brooklyn?

The video from the bodega speaks to the ugly old image of the urban threat – a young black man with a gun.

And to the very great inconvenience of new Mayor Bill de Blasio, it turns up the heat on his first major crisis since taking over from Michael Bloomberg at the beginning of the year.

De Blasio romped to City Hall as the most left-wing candidate in decades. With his “activist” past and his bi-racial family he captured the discontent of the poor and the black and the brown which had been simmering below the surface of Bloomberg’s boomtown.  And he put the issue of New York’s aggressive “stop-and-frisk” policing at the heart of his campaign.

But at the end of July, while de Blasio was on holiday in Italy, a New York police officer on Staten Island killed a black man while “taking him down” with a choke hold, which is against both police regulations and the law.

Eric Garner, 43, was being arrested for hawking single cigarettes on a street corner. The coroner has already ruled his death a “homicide”. The police, however, have adopted a less than repentant attitude, even managing to arrest the man who filmed the arrest, for carrying an illegal gun.

A few days later, New York policemen were seen dragging a naked 40-year-old woman from her flat, kicking and screaming. It turned out that they had bust into the wrong apartment. But they arrested the woman anyway, for “resisting arrest”.

As the dog days of summer arrive in August, police violence and the implicit racial bias of aggressive street policing – it is young black men who are disproportionally in trouble on the streets, and in the jails - is the city’s burning issue.

And what is the Mayor who promised to rein in the cops doing about it? Not a lot.

As the New York Times put it: “Confronting the first civil rights test of his administration, Mayor Bill de Blasio is struggling to take command of a controversy over the police and race that has pitted his long-time liberal supporters against the police department he now depends on to keep the peace.”

His major effort so far turned into a parody worthy of Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, written in an era of rampant crime and dangerous racial disharmony.

De Blasio called a community meeting on Staten Island: on his right sat Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, 'America’s Supercop' whom he had brought back to New York from Los Angeles; on his left, the Rev. Al Sharpton, New York’s best known and, often, most loathed race activist, the model for Wolfe’s Rev. Bacon.

Bratton and Sharpton have been sparring for more than 20 years. Neither knew the other would be on the podium. Bratton glowered. Sharpton, never lost for words, launched into a swingeing critique of police tactics. You could almost hear the fabled chant of the street mobs that Sharpton would assemble in his heyday: “No Justice! No Peace!”

The police union is so furious that Sharpton was granted “equal status” on the podium that they are threatening a go-slow.

The brass and the mayor’s office have fallen back on appeals for calm while the wheels of justice follow their course. De Blasio cannot possibly be so naïve as to think that black New Yorkers have cause for faith in the wheels of justice.

Sharpton alone is on firm ground. He is calling for a mass demonstration and march across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which soars over New York Harbour to link Staten Island with Brooklyn. “No Justice! No Peace!”

Into this dangerous soup plops the star shooter of the Bronx bodega. Not yet under arrest, the man who can shoot while holding his drink steady has just handed the biggest possible gun to those who believe that the aggressive, targeted, street-based policing brought to them by Bill Bratton and Mayor Guiliani in the early 1990s is all that keeps them safe.

“Had a cop seen the man in the red polo shirt with his drink out on Webster Avenue when they were just shooting the rap video,” wrote Daly, “a public drinking summons and accompanying search might well have produced that silver pistol. Had the cops still been pursuing stop-and-frisk as aggressively as before, the man might not have been carrying the gun in the first place.”

An awful lot of New Yorkers would agree. And an awful lot of New Yorkers would agree with Sharpton on the racial iniquities of aggressive policing designed, essentially, to protect the rich from the poor.

It could yet be a hot summer in the city. ·