Wearing blue jeans, a brown sweatshirt and a matching baseball cap, an elderly black man leans on his cane and jostles with a digital camera near a corner store in Brownsville–an historically troubled, predominantly black and Latino neighborhood in eastern Brooklyn. “Didn’t you get it already?” asks a female companion, who watches from a respectful distance. “I just want to get it right,” he responds softly.
After rubbing his full gray beard, the man bends closer to the store’s brick exterior and adjusts a wrapped pair of brown Koala bear dolls he’d just set down. I’m standing close enough to hear the sound–Whrrr! Click! Whrrr! Click!–that his camera makes as it snaps twice. He takes a final glance and, with a noticeable limp, rejoins the woman as they proceed along the sidewalk.
Like the many others who have visited this spot, the man had come to pay his respects. The cotton Koala bears that he propped up alongside the wall of Lucky Supermarket has become part of a makeshift memorial for Zurana Horton. It was here, nearly a week earlier, where the 34-year-old woman was gunned down as a fusillade of bullets rained from the roof of a nearby apartment building.
On Oct. 21, just after 2:30 p.m., Horton–the mother of 13 children, whose ages range from 1 to 18–was leaving Public School 298 after picking up her daughter. Horton was merely one block away from the school when she arrived to Lucky Supermarket at the intersection of Pitkin Ave. and Watkins St. But she would get no further. While pedestrians scampered and ducked for cover as shots rang out, Horton was reportedly shielding several children. She was fatally struck in the chest.
“That could have been me,” recalls a witness who declined to identify herself. “[Horton] got hit and fell over. I couldn’t believe it.” Also hit was an 11-year-old girl, Cheanne McKnight, and a 31-year woman, Unique Armstead. Both were hospitalized and have since been released.
Days later, Andrew Lopez, 18, was charged with murder after he reportedly confessed to police that he was the shooter. Also arrested and charged were two of Lopez’ half-brothers–Kristian Lopez, 17, and Jonathan Carrasquillo, 22.
Gun violence has long plagued Brownsville–even with the New York City Police Department’s much-promoted reports on the city’s declining crime rate in recent years. So it’s rare for a shooting here to ever garner international headlines. But this incident has. The shooting turned out to be one of those crucible events in this city’s black community. It has splashed across the front pages and drawn a stream of prominent names to this spot, where Horton became the most recent symbol of urban decay.
For Brownsville residents, the makeshift memorial for Horton is hauntingly familiar. Lucky Supermarket’s windows carry a cluster of condolence cards and posters (“Rest In Peace Black Queen…Live Forever,” read one). Near the store’s entrance is a padlocked 3-gallon water bottle–which is nearly full to capacity with dollar bills–that includes a handwritten plea to aid Horton’s children. Two iconic red, black and green flags are on display. And the ground itself is lined with about 50 candles, which border a fading message scrawled in pink chalk: “Here Is Where You Lay and Here Is Where We Pray For Peace.” Immediately above that spot, local newspaper coverage of the incident is taped to the store’s wall, including a blaring New York Post headline: “Brownsville A Gangland Battle Zone.”
The Post’s foreboding war analogy doesn’t feel readily apparent on every corner of the neighborhood. It never does. Along Saratoga Ave., the sidewalks are lined with several churches, alongside multiple single- and two-family homes, including one adorned by a large Jamaican flag. Meanwhile, the blocks along Pitkin Ave.–the area’s busy commercial strip–boast local clothing stores, fast-food chains and retail outlets. Far more noticeable, however, is the sheer size of the police presence. On the southwest corner of Pitkin and Rockaway Aves., three NYPD officers are on foot patrol. Just three blocks northward, four more cops are doing the same.
Even when Brownsville was best known as a predominantly Jewish, working-class enclave during the early-to-mid 20th Century, the neighborhood had a criminal undertow as the gritty base of operations for local mob syndicates. Decades later, Brownsville, as it experienced a dramatic black population shift, was in the spotlight during a contentious teachers strike in 1968 over community control of public schools. These days, however, Brownsville is particularly notorious for a rampant surge in gun violence. It’s besieged by joblessness, deeply entrenched poverty and turf-fueled gang violence originating from inside 18 large public housing complexes, built side-by-side through the middle of the community. Shootings in Brownsville occur at a pace that has consistently ranked among the highest in the city.
As of last week, Brownsville 73rd Precinct recorded 24 murders–there were 28 all of last year, a 33 percent increase from 2009–while the number of shooting victims inched toward the 1,500 mark. Overall, all major crime categories are significantly lower than the early 1990s peak–but it doesn’t take much to remind New Yorkers of the frightening “bad old days,” when violent crime appeared random and ever-prevalent. We were reminded over the Labor Day weekend, too, when some 52 shootings reportedly injured 67 New Yorkers across the city–including Denise Gay, 56, who was fatally struck by a stray bullet as she sat on the stoop of her brownstone in Crown Heights, another Brooklyn neighborhood long plagued by guns. And now it’s happened again, with the death of Zurana Horton.
“Sure crime has dropped since 1990–the bloodiest year ever in New York City history. But there are still areas where crime and violence remain intolerable,” says Andrew Karmen, professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of “New York Murder Mystery: The True Story Behind The Crash of The 1990s.” “There’s certainly an illegal gun trade on the streets, but the solution goes far beyond police. The question becomes: how do we get young men to change their values in order to settle conflicts?”
Karmen’s question is one that Bishop Willie Billips, 50, has been fully engaged in answering at the non-denominational ministry–Faith, Hope and Charity House of God–that he runs with his wife Karen, a pastor. By his own admission, Billips was “a bad boy” during the 1970s, when notorious street crews like the Tomahawks ruled the streets of Brownsville. “Back then, if you and your boys were fighting, it was basically a fistfight,” he recalls. “If you lost, tomorrow would still be okay. But it’s a whole different ballgame now.”
While Billips opted to change the course of his life years ago–he’s now the father of seven–his colorful past still provides some street credibility whenever he attempts to defuse long-simmering tensions among rival street crews. In recent years, he’s been actively involved in a series of intervention campaigns, ranging from “ceasefire” summits among local Crip and Blood members to gun buyback programs. Still, it’s the relative ease with which violence can escalate these days that is especially disturbing to Billips. It’s something he says he discovered firsthand recently.
After parking his car to enter a local convenience store on Blake Ave., Billips says he was brushed back by a speeding teenager on a bike as he got out of his vehicle. “I just looked back because I couldn’t believe that he went by me like that,” he explains. “But then he stopped, zipped down his jacket, put his hand inside the pocket and said, ‘You don’t like it?’ I just looked at him and said ‘May God Bless you.’ He just started riding his bike again. But that’s how quick things can happen.”
Last year, Billips joined Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly along with a group of local religious figures at One Police Plaza to announce the creation of a Brooklyn Clergy-NYPD Task Force. Newly equipped with a police radio, Billips was driving in to Brooklyn from Queens when he heard about the Horton shooting. After arriving at the scene, Billips later ventured to the 73rd Precinct, where he was part of a contingent that told Horton’s mother that her daughter died. “She only knew that something happened, but she didn’t know what it was,” Billips recalls. “I’ve taken parents to the morgue to identify their children before, but that was a very rough time.”
In response to the violence, the NYPD has designated Brownsville as an Operation Impact Zone, a controversial program that floods rookie cops into high-crime precincts. But for many criminal justice reform advocates, the effort to retrieve illegal guns has come at a steep price–namely, racial profiling and indiscriminate harassment of Brownsville’s youth.
Today, on Nov. 1, a group dubbed the Stop Mass Incarceration Network plans to conduct the latest in its series of nonviolent civil disobedience protests over the issue in front of Brownsville’s 73rd Precinct. Last year, more than 600,000 New Yorkers–predominantly black and Latino–were stopped-and-frisked by the NYPD.
A growing number of news outlets have investigated and discovered quotas for stops in precincts around Brooklyn. In a New York Times investigation last year, one officer acknowledged the practice of using broad trespassing laws for public housing as a pretext for racking up stops in Brownsville. Reporters found police made nearly 52,000 stops in an eight-block radius in the neighborhood over just four years. Just 1 percent of the stops yielded arrests and cops found only 26 guns.
“What they’re doing right now is stopping everybody and sorting them out later,” says Carl Dix, who conceived of the protests in October, alongside the noted scholar and activist Cornel West. “It’s unjust, unconstitutional and people should be outraged.”
But not everyone agrees. “What we’re seeing is black-on-black crime,” argues Billips. “You’re making a fuss about police–okay. But what are you going to do about this guy who’s trying to kill this other guy over here?”
An Easy, Deadly Trade
What everyone from cops to reformers can agree upon, however, is that easy access to guns is the core problem. But the effort to dampen the availability of illegal guns on the streets has long been a campaign full of irony in a city with some of the toughest gun laws in the country.
“What happened in Brownsville is a real tragedy and it shows how guns are flooding into poor communities,” says Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has campaigned aggressively against the ease of gun sales in Southeastern states, noting that huge volumes of guns seized in the city were purchased legally in Virginia in particular. “The bottom line is that many of the illegal guns that are being used in crimes here are coming from states with weak gun laws,” says Hilly.
The group is lobbying for passage of a series of state and federal legislative reforms, ranging from the adoption of microstamping technology to trace where weapons were first sold using shell casings to tougher background checks.
“Guns are easy to get. It’s as simple as getting your boy, getting in a car, and driving down to North Carolina,” Billips notes. “These guns are now landing in the hands of kids–13, 14 and 15-years-old. It’s real out here, man.”
Meanwhile, at the makeshift memorial for Zurana Horton, friends and strangers alike continue visiting the spot where she died, to witness the scene for themselves, pay homage, vent their frustrations, and reflect on the precarious nature of life on the streets of Brownsville.
“[Horton] must be looking down from Heaven and saying, ‘I can’t believe they’re calling me a hero,’ ” a middle-aged black woman said to me as she stared at the candles. “This is gonna be on the news for a long time.” In reality, the 24/7 news cycle has already made its inevitable shift elsewhere. Before I could raise the point, a tall, fair-skinned black woman raced over to pen a few words on one of the billboards. “This is fucked up!” she yelled.
After a week in which this corner saw a seemingly endless stream of elected officials, reporters, pedestrians, and curiosity-seekers alike, there was no one standing next to me when I heard the woman’s wails and sobs grow distant as she hurriedly walked away from the memorial.
Curtis Stephen is an award-winning journalist in New York City who has reported from London, Jamaica and India. He’s currently working on a biography of the late New York City radio DJ Frankie Crocker.