Sep 8, 2015
Voices Carry: How El Grito Is Working to End Police Brutality
When the video begins, you can see several police cars arrayed like battleships, but you can hear only one siren, blaring from an unmarked cruiser that comes to a stop in the middle of Fifth Avenue, in Brooklyn. It’s the first sign that something is about to go down.
It’s minutes after 2am, but a small crowd has gathered. The person filming the scene swings around to the side of another cruiser parked in the middle of the road, where the next thing you see is an NYPD officer wrestling with a visibly pregnant woman. The officer has the woman’s arms pinned behind her back; he pushes her in front of the car, then pivots and drives her to the ground, belly-first. A second woman runs up to tell the officer that the woman he’s just tackled to the pavement—Sandra Amezquita, 5-foot-4, 44 years old—is five months pregnant. The officer rises and shoves the second woman, sending her tumbling across the asphalt. She lands in a heap about ten feet away.
“What the fuck?” an onlooker says. People start yelling, in Spanish and English. Someone else thinks the second woman, Mercedes Hidalgo, has fractured her arm in the fall. “She broke her arm!” he yells. And was this aggressive response even necessary? The first woman had attempted to intervene in the arrest of her 17-year-old son for carrying a “gravity knife,” a type of folding knife that can be swung open with the flick of a wrist. The law banning gravity knives dates to the mid-50s, and when it was originally introduced, it was to eradicate foot-long switchblades that were then-popular with street gangs. The NYPD’s interpretation of the law has since expanded, and now any common pocketknife that can be flicked open is technically illegal. But when Penal Code 265.01 is enforced at all, 86 percent of the time the person arrested is black or Latino.
As the reality of what’s just happened starts to set in, the situation becomes increasingly heated. A bystander runs out into the street to help Mercedes Hidalgo. More multilingual shouting, much of it directed at the police officers. It was yet another instance of overly aggressive tactics—some might call it “brutality”—exhibited by the 72nd Precinct of the NYPD, which patrols Sunset Park. “I’m putting this on the news,” the cameraman says. The distant sound of approaching sirens grows in volume. Then the video cuts out.
At some point last September, you may have watched the video on the websites of the New York Times, New York Daily News, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, or any number of other media outlets, because the man who filmed the incident did so for El Grito de Sunset Park, a community action and social justice group that, among other acts, routinely films the police in the neighborhood—with digital cameras, camcorders, cell phones, and GoPros strapped to their bodies—and publishes the footage on Facebook and YouTube, where it’s picked up by the media. This is called cop-watch.
Cop watch arose as a corrective to the power imbalance between police forces and the communities they patrol, when it comes to controlling the narrative of any clash between police and residents. Its central tenet—that the police will behave differently when they know they’re being watched—has taken on increased urgency in recent years, as viral footage in a legion of high-profile police brutality cases has upended official accounts, incited outrage and calls for transparency, and forced a national dialogue about aggressive policing tactics in communities of color.
The residents of Sunset Park are predominantly Hispanic and Chinese, and as such they are no strangers to aggressive police tactics. A week before the Amezquita incident, El Grito released footage of Officer Vincent Ciardiello kicking 22-year-old fruit vendor Jonathan Daza during an altercation at the annual Sunset Park Fifth Avenue Street Festival. Cops were attempting to disperse a group of street vendors, including Daza, whose permits had expired with the conclusion of the festival. Soon several of them were pinning a squirming Daza to the ground. He reportedly told them “I can’t breathe” before Officer Ciardiello entered the fracas just long enough to kick Daza in the back.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the police said Daza and his sister were arrested for assaulting officers, but the cellphone footage released by El Grito contradicted that story. It also proved that the cop who signed the deposition accusing the Dazas of assault couldn’t possibly have witnessed the event. In a rare move, Police Commissioner William Bratton suspended Officer Ciardiello for 30 days, although he wasn’t charged with assault himself. Charges against the Dazas were dropped five months later.
Justice, such as it is, remains elusive for the Amezquita and Hidalgo families. For weeks after the September incident, Sandra Amezquita had bruises on her abdomen, and reported vaginal bleeding. She also had a summons for disorderly conduct. Another resident involved in the complaint, Secundino Payamps, discovered he required surgery on a broken elbow. Amezquita’s son, Jhohan Lemos, got a black eye and multiple bruises on his face, and her husband was arrested for assaulting a police officer.
In July, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that handles complaints against officers, ruled that four officers from the 72nd Precinct had used excessive force in the arrests. The recommended penalty? The loss of up to five vacation days. It’s up to the Police Commissioner to make the final determination on the officers’ punishment.
At a press conference on August 4th, the families, along with their lawyer, Norman Siegel, condemned the light punishment, calling it a “slap on the wrist.” (CCRB chairman Richard Emery told the Daily News that Siegel “did not provide any evidence of his client’s injuries or allow her to tell her story.”) The Amezquita family is suing the city in federal court. “I want there to be real discipline for these officers, because all I want is justice,” Sandra Amezquita told a small gathering of reporters. She was holding her 7-month-old son, Kevin. He was born one month early. Siegel declined to elaborate on his health status before a scheduled September 17th court date.
“El Grito” means “the outcry,” and the term is loaded with historical significance. On the morning of September 16th, 1810, in the Mexican village of Dolores, a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gathered his congregation, amongst whom were several revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the Spanish colonial government. In the square outside his church, Father Hidalgo cried out for his parish and for Mexicans everywhere to rise up, throw off the shackles of imperialism, and take the country’s fate into their own hands. The event is known as El Grito de Dolores, and it marked the beginning of the Mexican War for Independence. Father Hidalgo’s grito has echoed through 205 years of history, becoming a rallying cry for populist uprisings in Puerto Rico and Cuba, and for Latino civil rights movements across the United States.
El Grito de Sunset Park began to formalize in 2003 following an incident at the Acosta family home on 47th Street. Around 10pm on the Fourth of July, fifteen friends and family were having a barbecue on the stoop when the 72nd Precinct captain, Dominic Gentile, drove up to the house, strode over to a boombox playing reggae music, and yanked the cord that extended through the window. According to the NYPD, Gentile was then verbally abused.
What, exactly, happened next depends on whom you ask, but what’s indisputable is that a large number of cops—at least 12—arrived at the scene, and the confrontation became violent. Eight members of the Acosta family, including a 12-year-old child, sustained injuries; 35-year-old Elena Acosta left with a fractured elbow, and 40-year-old Jose Acosta had a tooth knocked out. (Five officers also claimed injuries, ranging from bruises to an ankle sprain.) Photographs from the scene also show 62-year-old Margarita Acosta, the family matriarch, being dragged into a paddy wagon, her shirt torn entirely off, leaving her wearing only a white bra. One of the people who processed Margarita Acosta in central booking called an activist friend in Sunset Park to tell him that a half-naked grandmother had been dragged into the facility, black and blue with bruises. The activist’s name was Dennis Flores.
Flores grew up in Sunset Park and has been documenting cops in the neighborhood since the mid-90s. Back then he ran with a graffiti-writing gang and often courted trouble with law enforcement for “jumping on the tracks, painting trains, getting into fights,” he told me recently. Flores, known then to friends by his tag, Bose, was the one bringing a camcorder to these shenanigans.
By the time he was 12, Flores was being stopped-and-frisked. “That’s when it began—being harassed by cops, seeing racism and injustice and poverty, coming to grips with that reality as a teenager,” he says. Before long, he started taking pictures of the police officers who would follow him and his friends around the neighborhood. When he was 16, Flores was arrested “for being a menace with a video camera,” and went to jail. It was an occasion for some soul-searching. He had grown up in a household of Jehovah’s Witnesses, wearing ties and carrying a briefcase. “I got beat up for that,” he recalls, “because I had a suit in the fucking ghetto. Eventually I got tired of it and started fighting back. Out of fear, out of peer pressure, I got caught up in street shit.”
While behind bars, Flores learned about an organization called the Ñetas, a mutual-protection group that sprang up in the Puerto Rican prison system to protect vulnerable inmates from abuse. (Some chapters have been prosecuted for drug trafficking, as well.) “They had a strict discipline about what it means to be part of a society that picks on people, and a philosophy for protecting the weak and not allowing corruption to exist,” Flores says. “It sparked something in me, brought me to a place where I confronted myself, the fears and challenges I had, and realized I’d been trying to prove myself as a badass, and that wasn’t me. I don’t want to be getting high and fighting my own people and creating chaos. That was killing us.”
The Ñetas provided Flores with an organizing principle to understand why American society is segmented by race and class; how that organization depends upon the subjugation of the poor; and why the prisons are filled up with black and Latino men. Their presence in Sunset Park also gave him something to do when he got out.
“Here we were, organizing marches against police brutality, painting over graffiti that I had painted myself on Fifth Avenue,” he says. “It was a pivotal, transitional moment in my life.”
One of the leading community organizers in New York at the time was Vicente “Panama” Alba. Alba had come up in the 60s civil rights movement as a member of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist group that advocated for its causes through radical, nonviolent means, like commandeering churches and hospital wings in poor neighborhoods to provide day care and health care. Later, he became part of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, which consulted with the City and with street gangs, including the Ñetas, about the problems of racial violence and police brutality.
“The Ñetas came out of the prisons in New York and began forming chapters in the streets,” Alba says, by phone (he now lives in Puerto Rico). “We began reaching out to them to teach them about their rights—how to protect themselves, how to defend the rights of people in their community. Some were only interested in gang-banging, but others actually wanted to move the organization forward. Dennis Flores was one of those young men.”
Alba and the well-known Hispanic rights activist Richie Perez helped the Ñetas organize a Racial Justice Day in March, 1995, to protest the death of Anthony Baez, a 29-year-old Bronx security guard who was put in a chokehold after accidentally hitting a police car with a football while playing a game of catch with his brother. Flores did security at the rally, which was heavily policed. He used his camera and tape recorder as a way to defend himself. He was nineteen years old.
“Documentation became a way of verifying what has been the problem in our communities with police for decades and decades,” Alba says. “There was a time when police violence in our community was always justified, always ignored.”
On October 10th, 2002, Flores’s life again changed forever. At the time he was working as a peer counselor at W.E.B. Dubois High School, in Crown Heights, teaching kids interview skills, resume-building, and how to apply for a job. After that day’s lesson, which included a skit about conflict resolution, Flores and friend walked a student to the Kingston-Throop C train station when they encountered two cops shoving a handcuffed black teenager face-first into the metal gate near the turnstile. “It wasn’t brutal, but it was excessive,” Flores remembers. “The kid was crying.” He fished his Kodak DC3400 from his bag and began taking pictures.
One of the cops cursed at Flores and tried to take his camera. Flores dialed 911 from the station payphone to report the incident, all the while continuing to take photos from 15-20 feet away. Then the officers handcuffed the teenager to the gate and approached Flores. One, an officer named Christopher Ballaera, yelled for him to “shut the fuck up,” and then told his partner to hide his badge. The cops pepper-sprayed Flores and his friend, and then radioed for emergency assistance. Flores can be heard on the 911 tapes saying “they’re spraying us with mace, they’re attacking us, they’re hitting a little kid over here and we started taking pictures of what’s going on, and that’s why they’re attacking us.” Twelve cops responded to the emergency call; they surrounded Flores, confiscated his camera, and, according to Flores, broke it by throwing it to the ground (during its investigation, the CCRB was unable to examine the camera, and thus could not substantiate this last claim). The officers handcuffed Flores, and Officer Ballaera struck him in the head with his walkie-talkie, causing a laceration that would require four stitches. Multiple officers stamped on Flores’s hands, causing permanent nerve damage in his fingers. Then they booked him for obstruction of justice, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct.
The CCRB later substantiated the claims of physical abuse, and the charges against Flores—supported in part by falsified paperwork filled out by Officer Ballaera—were dropped. The City settled a civil suit brought by Flores for $270,000. He used some of this money to finance a 2006 trip to Mexico, where he joined the teachers’ protests in Oaxaca, helped train locals how to document human rights abuses, and dodged paramilitaries trying to arrest dissidents. He used the rest of the money to buy cameras, computers, a police scanner, and other recording equipment to outfit a cop watch organization in Sunset Park. “That incident [at the subway station] made me realize I can’t be cop-watching by myself,” he says. “Or I’m gonna get my ass beat.”
Back in Brooklyn, Flores mobilized a group of friends and volunteers to respond to incidents like the one involving the Acosta family; to perform security at community events like the annual Puerto Rican Day parade in Sunset Park, a frequent catalyst of clashes between cops and residents; and to perform regular cop watch patrols in an attempt to ward off overly aggressive responses to minor quality-of-life infractions, like drinking beer on the stoop or playing traditional bomba and plena music too loud. That activity constitutes the bulk of El Grito’s work.
Flores has also become an expert at more subtle tactical maneuvers: organizing consciousness-raising events, like town hall meetings with law enforcement and Know Your Rights campaigns; getting private sitdowns with local governance; training residents on the ins-and-outs of cop-watching; and filing Freedom of Information Law requests. He’s currently pursuing footage from an NYPD security camera on Fifth Avenue that would have expediently exonerated 17-year-old Enrique del Rosario, who was struck in the head with a baton during a wrongful arrest at last year’s Puerto Rican Day parade. Officer assault charges against Rosario were eventually dismissed when El Grito’s footage showed that he was not acting as an aggressor. (The footage also shows a high-ranking officer telling the person filming that it’s “illegal to photograph,” which it’s not.) But Flores and Rosario’s lawyer believe the D.A.’s office offered the deal to avoid a trial that would have introduced embarrassing footage from the NYPD camera as evidence.
So Flores filed three FOIL requests for the footage. Each was denied because the department, after a “diligent search,” could not locate the records, according to the denial letters Flores received. He finds that explanation lacking. “It’s digital footage that they archive,” he says. “How can they not find it?” He plans to sue the department for withholding the footage.
“I realized that this was our way of fighting back,” he says. “The way the cops react to cameras; there’s power in that. They don’t know how to deal with someone who can question them, who can disarm them. And everybody gets to see it. They form their line and we form ours, like a line of scrimmage in football. That works. One person can’t do this; it takes a community with principles, beliefs, shared values, people to watch over each other. I believe that to the core. One person is gonna get his ass beat, but when we’re all there for the right reasons? As corny as this sounds, we can move mountains. We can do anything.”
El Grito envisions its primary role as empowering the community through education and awareness. As Sunset Park starts to gentrify, that mandate increasingly includes public space, housing, and infrastructure issues. “We live in a community where there are a lot of immigrants, many of them undocumented,” Jay del Aguila, a longtime El Grito collaborator, told me. “Because of that, they can be fearful about spreading the word. But they still have rights, and that takes work.
“El Grito is not an end in itself,” he added. “It’s about inclusion, dialogue, listening, empowering. We’re not letting the police own the narrative on crime issues, nor letting the land developers own the narrative on gentrification. That’s the outcry. These are communities that have not felt they’ve had a voice. Now they’re seeing glimpses of how powerful their voices can be.” He and Flores have talked about ways to expand the model to other cities.
There’s been no more hopeful example of that empowerment than this year’s Puerto Rican Day parade. For decades, after the end of the official parade in Manhattan, scores of Puerto Ricans have returned home to Sunset Park to continue the revelry in their streets, only for a non-negligible number of them to get billy-clubbed and pepper-sprayed by the police. This year, for the first time in 20 years, Flores received a permit to organize the Sunset Park Puerto Rican Day parade. On June 14th—a beautiful, sunny day—more than 8,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue, waving flags, chanting, pounding on wooden pandero drums, and dancing in the streets. The cops were there, and so was El Grito, with their cameras. But they didn’t need them, because no one was arrested.