Monday, December 22, 2014. Three days before Christmas, four days before Kwanzaa begins, and the sixth day of Hanukkah. The calendar says this is a time of merriment and happy anticipation, but in New York City, and especially in the borough of Brooklyn, it is also a time of mourning and reflection, tension and anxiety.
Two days ago, in the mid-afternoon of Saturday, December 20, two officers with the New York Police Department were killed by a lone gunman, while they sat in their marked patrol car. Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were shot execution style by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, right near the Tompkins Houses, a public housing complex.
I have lived in Brooklyn my whole life, and as vast as it is, I am familiar with most streets in this borough. I wanted to pay respect to the memory of these two officers, and see how this space is being turned into a makeshift memorial to these two late members of the NYPD. Thus I drove over on late Monday morning, approaching from the west on Marcy Avenue. I found an empty parking spot on Tompkins Avenue, and noticed a disheveled Baptist church across the street. Parked in front of it was a school bus for a religious Jewish yeshiva (school), the name written completely in Hebrew-Yiddish letters. I mention this because “Bed-Stuy”, as it is usually called, is more and more a highly diverse neighborhood. African-Americans and Latinos live here, as do growing numbers of “hipsters” and other young upwardly mobile adults of various ethnicities, as well as highly observant Jews, mostly of the Satmar Hasidic sect.
If you descend the steps of the Myrtle-Willoughby Avenues subway train stop on the “G” line, where cop-killer Brinsley fled and shot himself, you will see a diverse group waiting for the G. People of the above-mentioned groups are peering down the tunnel, waiting for the G (known for having erratic service). People working at nearby Woodhull Hospital get off here; Woodhull is where the two officers were rushed to, after being shot. There are six public schools within a few blocks of this train station as well as the site where the cops were killed.
As I walked over to the memorial, I saw several vans parked at curbs, representing the major television outlets. Klieg lights were set up on the sidewalk. Two police officers stood silently as people came to examine the memorial that was growing in size. Someone placed a candle on the ground while I was there. Other people stood and gazed at the many items, while others snapped photos. A few customers entered Mike’s Pizza, the eatery on the corner, just steps away from the memorial and where the cops were killed. A Brooklyn 12 camera man, bundled up against the cold, inspected a tripod.
There was a poster board that read “WE ALL MOURN WITH YOU,” and it had stickers from the NYPD, FDNY, teachers’ union, and other work groups. There was a large US flag hanging sideways on the wall (tacked up to a metal door) as well as red-white-and-blue bunting, bows, and ribbons. Dozens of candles, most white, and of various sizes, stood on the sidewalk. Some were lit. Dozens of flower bouquets lay in two piles. A four-foot menorah held candles as well. There were other signs propped up against the brick wall, such as “Gone But Not Forgotten,” “RIP Ramos,” “BlueLivesMatter,” “Our Prayas Goes Out For There Families and For Entire Police Dep.” There was also a teddy bear, a blue mylar balloon, and a plastic cross.
Sad. Mournful. The situation in NYC and in many parts of the United States is fragile; there has been growing anger directed at police departments and policies in recent months. Then this happens. So many things come to mind: the horror wrought by guns, the way anger and frustration can spark violence, the immense pain of death coming just prior to holidays that emphasize joy and family gatherings, the reputation of a neighborhood that has tried to rise above crime and poverty. It is not a happy time in my beloved Brooklyn.
Ellen Levitt is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013). (And hopefully a book about NJ one day, if her publisher gives the green light.)