Sunset Park, Brooklyn:
Struck Down by a Speeding Cop

Revolutionary Worker #1115, August 19, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

They were trying to get across Third Avenue in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Thatís all Maria Herrera, her four-year-old son Andy, and her sister Dilcia Peña, 16, were trying to do on the evening of August 4. But they never made it.

In this part of Brooklyn, like other neighborhoods of oppressed people, there are powerful forces that make such simple things as walking on the streets hard and dangerous. First, thereís the Gowanus Expressway, suspended a few stories above Third Avenue. The expressway cuts through the Sunset Park neighborhood--some city plannerís idea of moving traffic "efficiently," damn the people living below. The steel girders of the expressway are anchored on Third Avenue, casting shadows and creating barriers. Trucks and cars zoom off the expressway and speed down the street. Crossing the avenue requires caution.

People in the neighborhood know that this danger exists, and they try to take it into account. But there are other unpredictable dangers for the people--especially the NYPD, which patrols Sunset Park relentlessly, in uniform and out, harassing, arresting, always keeping people in their sights. People know that this danger can strike suddenly and in a very deadly way--everyone knows about how cops in another part of the city shot down Amadou Diallo in a hail of bullets at the doorway of his apartment as he pulled out his wallet from his pocket.

On Saturday, August 4, 24-year-old Maria Herrera and her son and sister met this danger head on. Maria, eight months pregnant, was coming home after shopping for baby clothes. She took hold of Andyís hand and, with Dilcia at her side, started across the intersection as the light turned green. They were blind-sided, hit full force by a speeding minivan driven by a drunken off-duty cop who ran the red light. Maria, Andy, and Dilcia were killed on the spot.

The cop, Joseph Gray, reportedly had spent the previous 12 hours drinking--in the precinct parking lot with other cops, after he got off his shift Saturday morning, and later at a strip club named Wild Wild West near the precinct. His action took three young lives and shattered the lives of their relatives and friends. When his fellow cops arrived on the scene, Gray, in a cowardly attempt to cover his ass, said, "They darted out in front of me."

Gray was charged with manslaughter and drunk driving. A judge then let him stay out of jail, without any bail. The people were outraged--the judgeís action showed that those in authority view the lives of people in neighborhoods like Sunset Park as cheap and disposable. The systemís double standard was in clear view--how the authorities protect and cover for their enforcers in blue, while ordinary people are locked away, or even shot down by cops, for nothing.

Sunset Park is largely a working class Latino neighborhood where people have roots in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. On August 6, a candlelight vigil in the neighborhood turned into an angry protest of 1,500 people demanding justice at the 72nd precinct station house. Victor Manuel Herrera, Mariaís husband, told the demonstrators, "All I want is justice. I donít want the cop walking on the streets."

New York Mayor Giuliani, NYPD officials, and other figures in the cityís power structure routinely defend the actions of cops who kill and brutalize people. But faced with mass protest and outrage--and finding it difficult to excuse Grayís drinking spree and reckless driving--the authorities this time have come out sounding tough against the cop. Giuliani criticized the lack of bail for Gray and expressed sympathy for the family of the victims. Police officials announced they are disciplining several cops at the 72nd precinct. And in a hearing on August 10, another judge set bail at $250,000 for Gray, who pled innocent.

Whatever may eventually happen to Gray, itís clear that the actions of Giuliani and others in this case are based on a self-serving desire to protect their overall class interests. They want to portray Gray as a "rogue" cop, while defending the role of the police as brutal enforcers for the system. But Gray is not some "exception." His brutish, arrogant, and vicious behavior--speeding blind drunk down a city street, running over innocent people, and then denying responsibility--stem from the nature of the police as an occupying force over the masses of people. A force of armed thugs who think theyíre entitled to treat people like garbage because they have been given a license to brutalize and kill by those who rule this system.

On August 10, outside the courtroom where bail was set for the cop, people gathered and chanted "policía asesino." Victor Herrera said bitterly, "I want him to feel what I am feeling. My heart is alone, my family has been taken away. What he did has no price."


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