Crown Heights Mourns the Loss of a Neighborhood Personality

At the intersection of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, it seems like an ordinary day, bustling with people on their way home from work and school. But in front of the laundromat on the southwest corner of the block, brightly-colored candles sit in front of a broken fence. Taped above is a yellow poster featuring the phrase “RIP SAHEED,” with a photo of a young man underneath. He is wearing a button-up shirt and jeans, his face serious. But he is playfully crouched down, arms crossed, staring directly at the camera.

A mother and young daughter walking together pause to look at the monument. After a moment, the daughter looks up at her mom and asks, “Where is he?”

Saheed Vassell Black Lives Matter

Signs next to the memorial for Saheed Vassell. (Taylor Romine/NYCityLens)

On Wednesday evening, Saheed Vassell, 34, was shot and killed by four police officers after several people called 911 saying that Vassell was wielding something that looked like a gun. The NYPD released a video of Vassell’s actions shortly before the shooting, as he seems to be pretending an object in his hand is a gun and pointing it at people on the sidewalk. It turned out to be a broken piece of a showerhead. Vassell, a well-known neighborhood character, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was often seen hanging out in the area. He was known to play around while walking up and down Utica Avenue, sometime holding odd objects that he found off the street. It was clear he had issues with his mental health, according to residents, but he was considered harmless, apologizing if he thought he bothered someone. The community is now dealing with what people here say is a devastating loss.

“Everyone knew him,” says Dav Williams, 45, a Crown Heights native. “He was our friend.”

Across the street from his memorial, a group of men are gathered in the front yard of a friend’s house, drinking Hennessy in small plastic cups. The atmosphere is friendly, but in between the laughs and jokes among friends, devastated faces reappear.

“He was part of us,” says another man, who asked not to be identified. “If I had seen him, I would’ve stopped him and told him to put it away. I think most of us would. He was harmless.”

In the several days since the shooting, there has been a growing conversation on Twitter about why people in the neighborhood would call 911 even though Vassell was well known and non-threatening. What some people in the community suspect is that people from the “new neighborhood,” which is mostly white and didn’t know Vassell, put in the call to the police.

According to a 2016 report by the NYU Furman Center, the south Crown Heights area is 64.5 percent black, down from 79 percent in 2000. The white population is 21.5 percent, which is up from 8.6 percent in 2000.

The NYPD has released full transcripts of the three 911 calls received. While it sounds like one call is from a person who owns a shop on the corner, it is unclear who the other two are from.

Others in Crown Heights are angry with the cops for what they say was a mishandling of the situation and part of a larger pattern of violence against black people. Several people in the community said that the local police knew Vassell well, but these weren’t the cops who responded to the call. The New York Times reported that because of the current notification system for emergencies, cops from out of the area responded to the incident.

“It was the blue and whites,” said Gregory Philescon, who has lived in Brooklyn his whole life. “If it was the D’s [detectives], they would have ran up to him and patted him down.”

Saheed Vassell memorial

A memorial for Saheed Vassell on the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue. (Taylor Romine/NYCityLens)

Others in the neighborhood said they were upset purely with the use of force. The four officers fired ten rounds in all. People who witnessed the incident told the NYCityLens and the New York Daily News that the police gave no warning that they were going to shoot. The state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office announced on Twitter that it had opened an investigation into the matter.

“You’re a cop. You have pepper spray, a nightstick, and the first thing you think of is a gun?” said Philescon. “They got to stop shooting people.”

This story has been updated.