On Kimani

14 Mar

I did not know Kimani Gray. I never taught him, never met him. When the 16-year old was gunned down by police for suspiciously reaching for his belt on Saturday, I had no idea who he was. I likewise do not know Bob McManus. Before today, I had never read one of his articles, never met him. I do know for certain that Bob McManus never knew Kimani Gray, nor did he know the youth of East Flatbush, who out of anger, frustration, and certainly some mob mentality stupidity, went on to start a small riot, resulting in the looting of two businesses and theft of a cellphone in the aftermath of Kimani’s killing. I am certain he has never met or spent a minute with Ronald or Queenie, two of the young East Flatbush residents who shouted at police officers and let their anger at the murder of their friend bubble over into violent behavior. I know he doesn’t know these two people because I asked them. They are my students (one a former student, but more on that later.) In Bob McManus’ defense of Ray Kelly, the opinionist claims the cops were doing their job by shooting an armed “aspiring sociopath” as they “stared down the barrel” of his .38 revolver. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good temper tantrum, Bob. Not a single piece of evidence (outside of the department’s slowly developing reports on behalf of the two officers involve) confirms that Gray was pointing a gun at the officers. The police officers’ own statements suggest the boy was armed (something that is still under dispute) and that he had reached for his belt in a suspicious manner, as he was parting from a crowd of other men. They claim he then pulled out and pointed the revolver at police, when they shot him 11 times (although apparently, during this time, he didn’t fire at all, which seems like a waste of brandishing and pointing a gun.) If someone was shooting at me, and I had a gun in my hand (which I wouldn’t, as I don’t own a gun) I imagine my reflex would be to shoot back. Witness statements, of course, refute much of what the department has claimed on the officers’ behalf. In fact, there is still no clarity exactly where the source of the “pointing his gun at the officers” claim came from. But this isn’t about whether Kimani pointed a gun at officers before he was shot, it’s about what much of my writing is about: the dual nature of being human. The fact that humanity is a grey area, and that when people like Bob McManus try to make it a matter of black and white, it becomes an argument that cannot be solved, instead of a dialogue. It’s another step further away from finding a solution, and it’s dangerous. When people like Bob McManus think they know everything about a story that has two (or more) sides, even if they were never there and not involved, and they share that story (including the slander of a dead young man) with thousands of also-uninformed readers, you get the kind of populist trash rhetoric that leads to divisive hate, less empathy and understanding, and more situations like Saturday night on Church Avenue.

Kimani Gray may have been a member of a Hats set of the Bloods gang, or as McManus so hilariously simplifies it “an apparent gang member with a hefty criminal record” (petty larceny; and inciting a riot, which is generally an in-school offense as simple as tossing food in the lunch room.) He may also have been–as friends, family, and my students who knew him well have described–a thoughtful, kind, and decent young man, who had the street smarts, and general smarts to do great things in life. F. Scott Fitzgerald once described intelligence as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in one’s head at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I would say to be human is the nature of holding many disparate ideas, behaviors, and principals while retaining the ability to function. Just as the moral, principled leaders of government and members of the law can at once be wonderful fathers and husbands, and capable of committing immoral acts like adultery or abuse of power, so too can a young man from East Flatbush be at once affiliated with a gang or crew (most young men and women in Brooklyn will tell you this is the easiest way to stay safe) and be a serious student or athlete, great friend and son. Because it makes for easier argument to simply ignore Kimani’s humanity, McManus chooses to describe the one side of the young man he felt he knew: “an aspiring sociopath” (he fails to cite a source for this insidious claim.) It’s easy to ignore the humanity of a young man you did not know (just as easy as it is for liberals to ignore the human nature of the police, who may well have been acting reflexively in a moment of tension. For what it’s worth the NYPD has identified both as minorities.) But just because it is easy, and makes for better argument, doesn’t make it right. Certainly, the students I spoke to this week so a more complex side to Kimani Gray. At once boasting about his (and their own) rank within their crew, and bemoaning the loss of such promise in a young man with talent and personality, his friends showed off pictures from facebook, the last one of Ronald at the memorial where Kimani was killed, a red flag over his shoulder, tears on his cheeks, is particularly poignant for me. It says of Ronald, what I am trying to say is true of Kimani, and all of us humans (Bob McManus included): it speaks of complexity. On the one hand, we see the Ronald who was enrolled in my school for the reasons students end up here: his gang colors are evident, his thuggish clothes and demeanor reflect a life he values (which I do not, but also cannot comprehend). However, his eyes and the look on his face reflects something I can value, and can comprehend: hurt, confusion, and profound sadness at the loss of a friend whose life he cherished deeply. Ronald was asked to leave our school a few weeks back, after he was caught stealing from a staff member. My frustrations with Ronald that day, as well as many other times he found himself in trouble, do not obfuscate the fact that he was also charming, clever, and intelligent. In fact, it makes him, like Kimani, and like the officers who pulled the trigger, and (I assume) like Bob McManus, a human-being: fallible; capable of good and bad, and also redemption.

In his long rant, bouncing from blaming a 16 year-old for getting shot but grown and fully trained adult men, to claiming that stop-and-frisk is somehow responsible for a lower murder rate in New York City than Detroit and Baltimore, McManus said a lot that didn’t make sense to me. But he did say one thing that made a lot of sense: he suggested that before we blame the police commissioner or the police, we should start by blaming “the culture that created the initial confrontation in the first place.” Now, by this McManus may have meant the culture of Kimani Gray’s world (one he may well have simplified to hip-hop, gangs, guns, and a few other buzzwords), but I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he means American culture at large. And I agree. One of the essential factors of this culture that “lead to the initial confrontation” is an inability to understand–or even try to understand–people who’s lives are opposed in experience and value to ours. Police struggle to understand kids on the street, and paint them with a single brush, and the kids in turn do the same for police. A journalist describes a kid he has never met as being “lethal beyond imagination” because he may (or may not) have pointed a gun on a late night, in a dangerous neighborhood, at two men, in plain clothes, whom he may (or may not) have fully processed were officers of the law. We simplify the other into black or white (no pun intended) and we yell on our soapboxes about being right. Mr. McManus, I’d like you to meet Ronald, he was a friend of Kimani’s.


2 Responses to “On Kimani”

  1. John Ripton March 20, 2013 at 5:00 pm #


    The basic humanity of your appeal to Bob McManus – and by extension to all of us – to seek understanding rather than ascriptive definitions of others is essential to improving relations across the visible and invisible borders of our lives. That youth pay most dearly and most often for our collective failures to do so is the tragedy of our history as a species. They perish by millions in our conventional wars, they are the first to die in famine and, yes, they die in our streets. Pablo Neruda gave desperate voice to the heinousness of this violence in a poem about the Spanish Civil War. Below are several lines in his own words from the poem he titled “Explico Algunas Cosas” (I’m Explaining a Few Things), followed by my translation. Neruda addressed this poem to someone, real or imaginary, who wondered why Neruda didn’t write of the beauty of his homeland and youth.

    y por las calles la sangre de los niños
    corría simplemente, como sangre de niños.

    [Five stanzas later he concludes]

    Venid a ver la sangre por las calles,
    venid a ver
    la sangre por las calles,
    venid a ver la sangre
    por las calles!

    [ translation of these lines]

    and through the streets the blood of children
    ran freely, the way children’s blood does.

    Come and see the blood in the streets,
    come and see
    the blood in the streets,
    come see the blood
    in the streets!

    While then it was Franco’s black planes bombing Spanish cities, it is now unmanned drones hammering villages in Pakistan or Yemen, police officers shooting children in our cities and, yes, children shooting children. But, just as you suggest, the invisible hand at work in all this violence is ignorance. Ignorance of how the resources that sustain life and give hope are denied to many while sequestered by a few. Ignorance of how poverty violates human rights. Ignorance of how our consent to these injustices are manufactured by pervasive, intrusive electronic media that hypes freedom as choices in the marketplace and promotes justice as something that can be bought and sold. Ignorance of how all of this social deformation and devaluation gets packed into an explosive charge that strikes down the life of Kimani Gray. In a prescient remark about this very point Martin Luther King warned shortly before his life ended that “the bombs in Vietnam explode at home – they destroy the hopes and possibilities of a decent America.” Every bullet fired today, every missile launched somewhere in an impoverished land explodes in the city streets of America. And all of this wasted life, combined with ignorance and fear of what politically must be done to foster hope and nurture progress for everyone, eats away the moral fiber of our shared (but also unshared) lives. This condition is not wholly, or even largely, a grand conspiracy; it is essentially ignorance of how institutions, values and practices that sustained one era are the very forces that destroy another, of how these forces shape the behavior and expectations of one and the other.

    Don’t misunderstand my point. I do not pretend to know Kimani Gray. I do not know whether he was “troubled” or whether he was directly “oppressed” by gang violence or poverty or anything else. I do not know his home or his neighborhood. What I do know, however, is that his death is an injustice whether it was an intentional act or not, whether he actually had a weapon or not. And, I agree with you as well, that police officers can also be victims of the same violence. When “the center cannot hold,” when the power of understanding is eclipsed by ignorance, “things fall apart.”

    Kimani Gray, as you point out, was known by his friends, was certainly loved by those close to him, and, like all young people, deserves to live and likely would be alive today if the world in which he lived was less riveted by ignorance and more concerned with the lives of young people everywhere.

    I appreciate your voice of reason, Geoff. I feel terrible about Kimani and pray his family and friends will find solace somehow.

    John R.

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