As the sun began to set last Thursday, a large crowd filled the intersection of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street. Next to a barbershop near the corner was a candlelight vigil where posters of Vassell hung.
As more and more people converged at the spot where Vassell died at the hands of the NYPD, residents expressed outrage about police violence in their community.
“I was just sad and angry, I started crying,” said Annette Nottingham, a Crown Heights resident. “Every year, we got to go through this.
“His parents are mourning, they have to go bury their child now,” she added. “No mother is supposed to bury their child, the child is supposed to bury the mother.”
Police responded to three 911 calls last Wednesday about a man holding what appeared to be a gun, but turned out to be a metal pipe. Four officers, including three plainclothes cops, arrived on the scene. According to reports, they almost immediately fired at Vassell.
Vassell was shot between seven and nine times, according to the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office, including once in the head and twice in the chest.
NYPD soon released an edited surveillance video showing Vassell pointing the pipe at several passersby, as well as the transcripts of the 911 calls.
At an unrelated press conference on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the shooting a “tragedy by any measure.” But he also said the shooting was not a “garden-variety situation,” and that officers responded to what they believed was a matter of life and death at the scene.
“That’s an exceedingly difficult, tense, split-second decision that has to be made,” de Blasio said. “But we can’t judge until we do a full investigation.”
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office of special investigations and prosecutions has opened a probe into Vassell’s death, promising an independent comprehensive and fair investigation.
Vassell, a mentally ill man who was reported to have bipolar disorder, was a community fixture. Nottingham described him as a peaceful person who would sometimes do odd jobs, like sweeping up for local stores.
“Never tried to harm anyone,” she said. “Always helpful.”
Gail Fernandes, who has lived across the street from where the shooting happened for 12 the last years, said she saw Vassell everyday.
“He was mentally disturbed, yes, but he had days where he was the sweetest person you could ever meet,” she said. “He used to come and do odd-end jobs. He used to beg on the corner every night.
“Every night, he’s out here, we all know him,” she added. “The cops cannot say this is their first interaction with him, they met him before. They came here on many disturbance calls.”
According to reports, while the neighborhood officers knew Vassell, the officers who responded to the scene did not.
Fernandes said said the shooting was unacceptable, especially because it felt too close to home.
“It could’ve been me, it could’ve been my brothers,” she said. “It could’ve been my family member or somebody closer to me.”
Community members lashed out at the NYPD at the rally. Nottingham said the community has a “poor” relationship with the police, partly caused by a lack of communication.
“If you walk down the street and you say good morning, they don’t say good morning. We don’t know their names,” she said. “When we see the police, we go the other way because in our community, they’re not here to protect us, they’re here to hurt us.”
Fernandes said in the 12 years she has lived in her Crown Heights home, she has never seen officers respond to her building. She noted that her father has almost been robbed, but police never responded to the scene.
“But whenever they come out here, it’s because they feel the need to terrorize us,” Fernandes said. “They’re never out here to look for our welfare and our well-being. Never.”
As the outrage grew last Thursday, Nottingham said a lot of people wanted to riot or fight the cops. But she wanted the community to stay positive, and not resort to violence.
“Let’s not resort to tearing up the stores in our community,” she said. “Don’t tear up the cars or fight with the police.”
As night fell, the rally turned into a march, as demonstrators walked down Empire Boulevard to the 71st Precinct. When they arrived, the police officers set up metal barricades around the precinct building.
Protesters lined up around the building. Many shouted at the police officers, who tried their best to not respond. The interactions often became tense, including when a few demonstrators rattled the barricade.
But the protest remained relatively peaceful throughout. Prior to the march, Lorna Vassell, Saheed’s mother, spoke about her slain son.
“Saheed came from a good family, they had no right to shoot him down the way they did it,” she said. “Saheed was well-loved by everyone.
“They murdered my son,” she added, “and I want justice for him.”