In honor of the late Akai Gurley’s life and to mark six years since his death at the hands of police officer Peter Liang, the Party for Socialism and Liberation organized a winter supply drive with Gurley’s family for community members who have stood with them in their fight for justice.
Residents of East New York, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, lined up Nov. 20 outside of the New York City Housing Authority Pink Houses Community Center, where the event was held. Volunteers handed out coats to try on, along with plastic bags filled with disposable masks, gloves, socks, and hand sanitizer.
Gurley’s aunt Hertencia Petersen, known in the community as Aunt T, was in attendance, along with other families of victims of police brutality. “The purpose of the giveback is to thank the community for standing in solidarity with the family for six years…and just [to not forget] about Akai,” Peterson explained. “Whenever we came out here, it was always appreciated. And we felt the love, so, with the pandemic and everything that’s going on, we had to take care of the community, because they took care of us and carried us through while we were going through everything.”
Gurley, a 28-year-old unarmed Black man, was shot and killed by Liang in a Pink Houses stairwell during a so-called “vertical patrol” in 2014. During vertical patrols, a practice commonly deployed in New York City’s housing projects, police officers descend from the top of the building to each floor, questioning or stopping and frisking any person they deem “suspicious.”
In his testimony, Liang claimed to have drawn his gun in the dark stairwell, then heard a noise that startled him, and “accidentally” fired his weapon. The bullet then ricocheted off the wall, fatally striking Gurley, standing on the floor below, in the chest.
Immediately afterward, Liang stepped outside into the hallway with his partner, Shaun Landau, to debate whether or not to report what happened to his superiors. When the two returned to the stairwell, they found Gurley collapsed on the floor bleeding out from the chest, with his girlfriend Melissa Butler attempting to resuscitate him. Neither Liang nor Landau performed CPR on the victim despite being trained, leaving Butler to do it herself while taking instructions from a phone operator.
Gurley’s case brought the practice of vertical patrolling into national scrutiny, and while a jury convicted Liang of second degree manslaughter, the charge was later reduced to criminally negligent homicide. Liang was only sentenced to five years probation and 800 hundred hours of community service. He never saw jail time, and Gurley’s family never saw justice for their slain son.
Also attending the supply drive was Eric Vassell, who knows this denial of justice all too well. His own son, Saheed, a 34-year-old Black man, was shot multiple times and killed by the New York Police Department in 2018 when officers responded to a 911 call in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The four officers involved claimed to have mistaken the metal pipe in Saheed’s hand for a weapon, None were charged in his killing.
Speaking before the crowd on Friday night, Vassell movingly recalled how the Brooklyn community rallied to stand with him in solidarity after his son’s killing. “When my son died, I saw the beauty, the love, and [how] caring…Brooklyn people are,” said Vassell. “There were people like Kerbie [Joseph], Akai’s Aunt T…many other people who came out to give support when my son passed away. And tonight, I’m telling you I’m grateful and I’m happy to be here to see all of you guys come out to support Aunt T and the other families of police brutality.”
Kerbie Joseph, an organizer with the PSL, underscored the necessity of community, in the absence of justice. “This is what justice looks like–we didn’t get it in the courtroom,” Joseph stated, addressing the crowd. “Even though we got an indictment and a conviction, [Liang] went home. And if it was any one of us, we would have been under the jail, for touching a police officer…We are here when no politician wants to come out here, when there’s no camera, no news network. It’s just us, and we want to give back to our community.”
The event drew a large crowd, and PSL members were on hand to pass out supplies to attendees. In addition to the over 50 coats they had collected from donations, the PSL also raised over $1,400 to buy new coats and winter supplies to distribute.
The weather was unseasonably warm, and spirits were high as attendees waited in line, sipped hot chocolate, chatted and remembered Gurley. The PSL has organized in solidarity with Gurley’s family for years, from speakouts to banner drops, both in NYC and nationally.
Mesha Joseph, Gurley’s cousin, reflected on how the community giveback was an appropriate way to honor his memory. “I just want people to remember he existed, that he was a person, he was a member of the community. He was a caring person, and someone who would want to give back,” she emphasized to this reporter. “And I feel like that’s why it’s super important that we’re doing this event now, especially with what’s going on with the pandemic.”