Brownsville to mayor: Why isn’t 12 a mass shooting?

"It's sexier to call gun violence in Brownsville gang violence than it is to call it a mass shooting. But there were 12 people that were shot."

July 30, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Andre Mitchell (left) speaks at a march against gun violence July 29, 2019, just two days after two or more shooters left one dead and 11 others injured in a shooting at Brownsville's Old Timer's Day. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg

A rapidly formed coalition of anti-gun violence advocates and local elected officials marched through Brownsville Monday evening in response to the Saturday block party shooting that left one man dead and 11 others injured. Frustrated that the mayor would not label the violent attack a mass shooting, some members of the group condemned the media portrayal of Brownsville’s shooting as “gang-related” while labeling the California Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting — which occurred just a day later — a mass shooting.

Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to use the term on Sunday, saying “that phrase is usually reserved for a different type of situation.”

The coalition — which includes assemblymembers, councilmembers, local groups, the public advocate, the borough president and others — is called the Brownsville Rapid Response Coalition and will address future acts of violence in the neighborhood. On Monday, the group and others gathered by the playground where the shooting took place.

Frank Williams sits in the playground where two or more gunmen opened fire at Old Timer's Day in Brownsville on July 27, 2019. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg
Frank Williams sits in the playground where two or more gunmen opened fire at Old Timer’s Day in Brownsville. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg

“We know that this was a mass shooting,” Assemblymember Latrice Walker, who represents the area, said on Monday. “I have never seen 12 people shot in Brownsville at one time.”

Walker wrote a letter to the mayor on Tuesday asking him to label the event a mass shooting, saying that the designation would “trigger access to vital programs which would include emergency relief, crisis response efforts, training, and technical assistance for the benefit of the victims and communities affected by mass violence.”

State Sen. Roxanne Persaud also highlighted the difference between the responses to the California shooting and the Brownsville shooting.

“Everyone says, ‘Thoughts and prayers for the people of California. We are here with you,'” Persaud said. “When the shooting happens in Brownsville, what did people say? ‘That community is prone to violence.'”

“What took place on Saturday night was a mass shooting, and the media refuses to acknowledge it as a mass shooting,” said Brian Cunningham, executive director of anti-gun violence group Save Our Streets Brooklyn. “I think there are racial dynamics to that conversation. It’s sexier to call gun violence in Brownsville gang violence than it is to call it a mass shooting. But there were 12 people that were shot. I don’t know what the mayor’s motives are for his comments, but I know what I observed. In other communities where there are 12 people shot, they consider it a mass shooting.”

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Saturday’s shooting took place at Old Timer’s Day, a massive annual block party with live music

Some members of the coalition said they could not speak to the mayor’s word choice.

“I can’t comment on what constitutes a mass shooting. All I know is that it’s important for us to stand against gun violence and support our community,” said Wesner Pierre, who runs Brownsville In, Violence Out, an anti-gun violence organization in Brownsville. Three members of the group were at the block party and were knocked to the ground by people fleeing the gunfire.

Unnamed police sources released the victim Jason Pagan’s criminal record Monday to the Daily News, saying he had been arrested 26 times and was out of prison on parole. The Daily News headline was “No Stranger to Guns,” while the New York Post called Pagan a Bloods gang member.

No arrests have been made in the shooting.

Police are investigating possible gang involvement because 50 percent of shootings in Brownsville are gang-related, Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill said Sunday. While Brownsville’s 2018 violent-crime rate is nearly double the city average, crime has fallen dramatically in the past 30 years, as it has citywide. There were half as many killings in Brownsville’s 73rd Precinct in 2018 as there were in 2001, according to police statistics.

“I’m heartbroken. My child plays in that playground. I live right down the street and this is not the norm for Brownsville,” said Camara Jackson, executive director of Elite Learners, Inc., an anti-gun violence and youth-programming group in Brownsville. “Old Timer’s is an event that’s been going on for 56 years with little to no violence. The idea that it was a gang shooting has not been solidified yet. Not everything is a gang shooting and not everything is related to gang violence. It’s hurtful. It’s unfair.”

One councilmember talked about her own experience at the shooting, which happened during a massive block party, saying she hadn’t slept since Friday night.

“On Saturday, the last song we played was ‘Family Reunion,'” said Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who represents Crown Heights. She said community members were hugging and congratulating each other on another successful Old Timer’s Day. Others were sweeping up the streets. “We get to the middle of the block and we think we hear firecrackers and come to find out it’s gunshots.”

Ampry-Samuel said it’s not the first time she’s witnessed a shootout. “But it’s the first time I’ve been in a shootout right after Old Timer’s Day, with 12 people laying out on the ground,” she said. “I’m hurt. I’m traumatized.”

Michael Thomas, a former police officer, also said he thought it was firecrackers when the shots rang out. “We didn’t pay it that much mind or attention. Then we heard people screaming someone got shot and that’s when it became — I wouldn’t say a melee, because the cops really had it under control.” Thomas said he saw someone running who had been shot in the leg.

Passersby stopped to join the marchers.

“I don’t get how someone can be in a crowd like this and pull out a gun and just start shooting,” said Frank Williams, who was at Harlem’s rendition of the event when the shooting happened. Williams lives nearby and was biking when he saw the march happening and decided to join in.

There were 100 NYPD officers at the event before the shots broke out, according to Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill.

The shooting in Brownsville was potentially the worst New York City shooting since at least 2013, according to the Gun Violence Archive. It was also briefly the shooting with the most injuries in the country since the May 31 Virginia Beach shooting — until the California shooting took place on Sunday night.

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