A shooting in Brownsville

A dozen people shot in Brownsville on Saturday, and the interpretation begins.
A dozen people shot in Brownsville on Saturday, and the interpretation begins. Photo Credit: Todd Maisel

A man walked down Hegeman Avenue on Monday morning flipping a golden piece of metal in the air. It appeared to be a bullet casing. He said he’d found it at the scene where twelve people were shot in Brownsville on Saturday and he wondered what information the metal contained. Let the interpretation begin.

The shooting happened at the tail end of Old Timers Reunion Night, a decades-old annual music-and-food celebration attended by a few thousand people.  At least two gunmen opened fire and one person was killed.

Was it a "mass shooting," that ill-defined but alarm-bell-ringing concept, along the lines of another casualty event in California over the weekend where a shooter brought an assault-type rifle to a garlic festival? Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is among those who thought it was, and national groups advocating for more gun control highlighted the incident.

The problems are the guns, accessible for too many, the argument goes. 

Or was the shooting a sign of a new mood rising, a result of police officers hesitating because they don’t want to be slammed as too aggressive by politicians and protesters? This was the line of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, who claim that “Gotham is burning…. Restore the NYPD.”

The problem, in their view, is the city. 

If those assertions sound like more of the usual ignorable line from a police union that often reaches for hyperbole, consider the enduring outrage over viral videos of New Yorkers dumping water on police officers, who just try to ignore the deluge. Those dousings have in recent days led to a legislative call for 1 to 4 years prison time for those who toss water or other substances on a cop; plus tweets from the president, who seems to be in the middle of a digital survey of the state of cities with large African American populations. The union has company.

One of the dousers already arrested was from the same 73rd Precinct as the shooting.  Police brass didn’t make connections between the two. But how long before a Brownsville presidential tweet?

While the interpretation is ongoing, it’s unclear exactly what prompted the gunfire on Saturday, with cops saying the dead man had a gang affiliation but they have no final motive for the killing yet.

Clifford Brown, 57, who works security at night and lives in the neighborhood, was sitting a few blocks away on Hegeman doing a crossword on Monday and had his own interpretation, still speculation. He said he was close to someone who was related to the person killed and thought there hadn’t been a pre-existing feud between shooters and victim. More like a spilled drink or too much pride and someone goes and gets a gun and the bullets start flying.

Others sitting around interpreting in the heat thought old beefs might have had something to do with it. Police have noted that about half of homicides and shootings in the 73rd Precinct are gang or crew related. Those interpreters who don’t tend to give their names to officers or reporters complained about a shooter or shooters getting away in the middle of a highly policed evening. 

“If the right people was there," someone who might have stopped the violence, whatever it was, ‘it wouldn’t have gone down that way,” Brown thought. 

Some of the people who do that are “violence interrupters,” part of a city-supported program to get people with standing in the community to convince those thinking about picking up a gun not to do it.

One such program in Brownsville has been credited with a dip in violence in the precinct coverage area, and some interrupters were on hand on Saturday night. But they couldn’t stop the violence, either.

For now, the city is left with interpretations, in an environment ripe for distrust. Among the certainties are the "Virgin Mary of Guadalupe" candles placed near the homicide scene, the sticky patch of red on the pavement still buzzing with flies on Monday. The resident with the bullet casing hardly paused over the patch. He wondered whether the metal held the key to what happened over the weekend, who shot first and at who and why, and he thought he’d give it to someone who would know what to do with the information. He said he would never give it to the cops.

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