The mother of Saheed Vassell, a Crown Heights man who was killed by NYPD officers on Wednesday, stood before hundreds of people at the intersection where he was fatally shot Thursday evening and demanded justice.
“I want to make it clear Saheed came from a good family and they had no right to shoot him down, and he was not a gunman,” Lorna Vassell said with frustration and distress evident in her voice. “I want no one to portray him as a lowlife. He was a good man.”
Vassell’s father stood by her side as she addressed about 300 people who gathered for a vigil and protest, organized by a host of elected officials as well as the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, at the intersection of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street. It began at 4:40 p.m., the exact time that four police officers opened fire on Vassell, 34, on Wednesday.
Five officers had responded to at least three 911 calls of a man “pointing what is described as a silver firearm at people on the street,” Chief of Department Terence Monahan said. A law enforcement source said four of the cops fired 10 rounds.
Clive Williams, 38, said Vassell was a good friend of his and he felt compelled to attend in a show of support.
“He was a humble dude — never seen him get into anything. To hear what happened to him, I was heartbroken,” Williams, of Crown Heights, said.
Sen. Jesse Hamilton, a representative of Crown Heights, demanded a full investigation into the death of Vassell, who officials said had mental health problems.
“We are mad. Too many of our young men are dying on our streets,” Hamilton told the crowd. “Having a mental health issue shouldn’t be a death sentence.”
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened an investigation into the shooting. Separately, the NYPD is conducting its own review of the shooting and the five officers remained on full duty as of late Thursday, police officials said.
Less than a half-hour into the vigil, chants of Vassell’s name and “no justice, no peace,” from the increasingly restless crowd began to drown out the speakers. By 6 p.m., the vigil had transformed into a protest calling for more police accountability.
“We’re here demanding that the NYPD fire every officer who was in the shooting. We’re calling on the Brooklyn district attorney to indict every officer for murder,” said Linda Sarsour, a political activist who helped organize the 2017 Women’s March on NYC. “Nobody is going to fight for Saheed if we don’t fight for Saheed.”
Sarsour argued that Mayor Bill de Blasio has the power to hold the officers accountable and reminded the crowd that the NYPD is paid with taxpayer dollars.
“The New York Police Department works for you. … They do not terrorize you,” she added.
Schneiderman said on Thursday he would investigate Vassell’s death under an executive order that allows him to take over police shooting cases that involve an unarmed civilian or if there is doubt over whether the person was armed and dangerous.
Vassell was armed with a metal pipe when police shot him, according Monahan. The NYPD released the transcripts of the 911 calls on Thursday, and well as video, in which Vassell can be seen walking with the pipe Wednesday. The video shows him approach a bystander before jabbing the pipe against the person’s chest. Another portion of the video shows Vassell pointing the object at a pedestrian walking with a small child.
Speaking at an unrelated event, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the shooting a tragedy and stressed that the investigation into what happened had only just begun. The mayor also acknowledged Vassell had a “mental health problem,” but added that 911 dispatchers were not told this information when the calls came in.
At the Thursday protest, City Councilman Jumaane Williams wondered whether the outcome would have been the same had it been a white person holding the pipe.
“The question I have is whether this shooting should have occurred or not occurred. The system failed Saheed,” he said. “If you had the same circumstances but changed the color of the skin, would we have the same situation? The answer is sadly, no.”
Abu Talib, 62, said he attended the protest in support of Vassell’s family.
“We have to organize and challenge the system,” Talib, who has lived in Crown Heights for about 50 years, said. “You feel pain because that could be my brother, my cousin, my neighbor.”
As the sun set on Crown Heights, the crowd marched to the NYPD’s 71st Precinct station house on Empire Boulevard, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets.” When they arrived, they shouted Vassell’s name in unison from behind a barricade as NYPD officers silently kept guard.
With Anthony M. DeStefano