The friends of Saheed Vassell gathered in the stairwell and hallway of his family’s apartment building Wednesday night.
One friend remembered that they used to play tag on those stairs. Also that Vassell would sometimes change clothes multiple times a day. And that he walked around Crown Heights dancing and joking, carrying groceries for women, maybe cadging a dollar, helping older people cross the street.
Sometimes he was a little off, but he wasn’t the kind of guy who scared anybody, his friends said as they slumped against the stairwell banisters drinking Guinesses and sometimes crying: dealing with the fact that Vassell, 34, had died hours before.
He had been fatally shot by NYPD officers Wednesday afternoon in his usual stomping grounds of Crown Heights. The police were responding to three 911 calls of a person brandishing what seemed to be a gun, which was also supported by video released Thursday.
But Vassell didn’t have a gun. It ended up being a “pipe with some sort of knob” on the end of it, Chief of Department Terence Monahan told reporters on Wednesday. According to Monahan, when the officers arrived responding to the gun calls, Vassell “took a two-handed shooting stance” and pointed the object in the direction of the approaching officers. That’s when four officers fired their weapons.
There were protests within hours at the corner where Vassell was fatally shot. There was anguish. There were screams. There were reminders that this was 50 years to the day since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot to death in Memphis. There were questions about the road to equality, and how long before these deaths end. But as midnight neared there were just the friends of Vassell outside the fourth-floor apartment, unsure how it came to this, to them gathered here.
They passed around cell phones with videos of Vassell: the terrible one that they wouldn’t share, at least not that night, which captured Vassell bleeding and crumpled on a sunny street. But they also passed around happier videos, like one picturing Vassell from just days before, dancing with a broom as a prop in Kev’s Barber Shop down the street.
The store-owner, who gave his name only as Kevin, said Vassell was always on the premises. He would dance, he would joke around, he would entertain the patrons.
“He could teach you stuff,” Kevin said. Both Kevin and Vassell were Jamaican immigrants but Vassell came to the United States earlier, as a child — so he taught Kevin American history.
Kevin said he was with Vassell just before he was killed, that Vassell had been playing around with a piece of metal, fooling, like it was a gun. Then he went to the corner.
Kevin said the officers didn’t say anything before shooting: “In two seconds, bullets.” Many witnesses had similar stories. At least one witness told reporters the cops and Vassell may have exchanged words. Details are still unclear, and the officers weren’t wearing body cameras. It seems clear at least that everything happened quickly.
As midnight neared, Vassell’s father, Eric, came out of the apartment. The friends moved to embrace him, offer their support, touch his hand.
“He only walks, man, he only walks. That’s all he do,” said the elder Vassell.
He said his son was bipolar, had been to the hospital a few times over the past few years. He had once been on medication but now, no. He’d had encounters with law enforcement in the past, when he was sick, “making noise.” But he had no gun.
The young Vassell had trained as a welder, his father said, and the family took care of him when he needed it. He has a 15-year-old son, and a sister in the Navy.
The friends listened to Vassell, and again offered their support when he went back into the apartment. “I’m keeping up,” he’d said, “staying strong.” They’d try to do the same.
But downstairs in the lobby now there was a sign taped to a mirror: “Black Lives Matter,” plus two candles, a handful of empty bottles. A grim memorial, another black man shot to death by police, another name added to the long list: a man shot like Stephon Clark last month in Sacramento by police in his own neighborhood. A man killed, like Eric Garner in 2014, in New York. And therefore upstairs, the friends gathered, wanting to remember and set the record straight about Vassell.
“Do you see these people,” Kevin asked, asking whether it was clear what the dozen or so in the narrow hallway meant? “That he’s loved in this community,” he said. “Very loved.”