NEW YORK — Constance Malcolm’s life has slowly started to get back to normal, as normal as it can get after a killing. But this week has dredged up bad memories. Her buoyant, warm smile falters, and tears well in her eyes as she looks at the picture. It’s of a 14-year old boy in a hospital bed, connected to a mess of wires and tubes. Gauze patches are taped to his head and he wears a dazed look on his face. Malcolm, now a mother of two, shakes her head to snap out of her dark reverie. Ever since she heard about what happened to Javier Payne her thoughts have turned to her son, his last frenzied moments, and his encounter with the police.
“He could’ve been dead,” she says flatly of Javier Payne, the boy in the picture. “Dead, just like my son. It takes you right back to that place when it happened to me.”
Malcolm’s first son and middle child Ramarley Graham was 18 when he was shot and killed by police officer Richard Haste in the bathroom of her home on the morning of February 2, 2012.
“Trust me,” she said. “I know what Javier’s mom is going through.”
She worries that her son’s death has not created a dent in the culture of the police department which she said is responsible for her son’s killing.
“I always said the police are out of control,” Malcolm said. “Everyone thought the officer who shot my son was going away, that he was going to jail. You always heard me say: If they get away with this, they’re going to keep doing it. And look what happened to Javier. It’s happened again.”
Eventually a judge dismissed the criminal case because of a technical error made by the Bronx District Attorney’s office. Malcolm said her son’s case wallows in legal limbo. She hopes that it will make it to a Federal Court where she can continue her search for justice. But she is not hopeful.
“They never owned up to what they did with me and my son, and now it’s happening again with Javier and his mother,” she said. “What do they think we are, animals? They keep treating us like we’re gorilla people. Our kids matter, too. When are they going to realize that? Are they ever?”
Malcolm hopes the outcome is different for Cherita Payne, the mother of Javier. The ordeal that Javier Payne, 14 — the boy in the hospital who sustained a punctured lung among other injuries after he was allegedly pushed through a plate glass window by police during his arrest last Saturday night — has intertwined the lives of two strangers miles apart. They have not met, at least not yet, but they are joined by reckoning with an act of violence against a child, by the bewildering experience of being thrust unwillingly into public life, and by the odd sensation of watching a private tragedy become a public spectacle.
“What I went through I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish it on the man who killed my son.”
But some critics think they are joined by a stubborn policy problem as well — one that has crossed over from tough-talking law-and-order administrations like Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s, to the current administration of Bill de Blasio, which took office boasting about its willingness to reach out to poorer and darker neighborhoods. It is the problem of police abuse, especially with young people.
“They get away with so much, it’s time for people to say enough is enough. We need answers for our loved ones who are getting hurt and killed. They get fired and go home to their families. I don’t have my son to go home to. We need more than protests. We need real policy changes.”
It can be difficult, she said, to negotiate the new obstacles that have erupted into her life and deal with the press and navigate the labyrinthine criminal justice system, but she encouraged Javier’s mother to not get discouraged.
“Don’t stop fighting,” she said. “They are going to make it difficult for her, I know, but she’s got to keep fighting because that’s her son. She could make a real difference with this case. He is alive. My son isn’t here to tell his side of the story, but her’s is.”
Until Wednesday, Javier was handcuffed to his bed. For Cherita Payne, the idea of fighting seemed overwhelming. She broke down into tears talking about how her son was manacled to his bed. But in a press release from the National Action Network issued Wednesday night, Rev. Al Sharpton said he spoke with Police Commissioner William Bratton and that officers have removed Payne’s handcuffs in his bed in the ICU at Jacobi Medical Center. It also announced an event this past Saturday morning at 9 a.m., at the National Action Network headquarters 106 West 145th Street.
According to the press release: “Rev. Al Sharpton and NAN are standing with the Payne family demanding justice and that the NYPD officers involved in this incident be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The police department has declined to comment on the case while the Internal Affairs Bureau continues its investigation. Mayor de Blasio did not respond to requests to comment on the incident; nor did Ritchie Torres, the City Councilman who represents the district in the Bronx where the incident occurred.
Cherita Payne and Constance Malcolm sit at opposite ends of a long process of media scrutiny, court appearances and the unpredictable chaos of public life. Payne is about to begin the whirlwind of being thrust unwillingly into the limelight. Malcolm is in the period where she is trying to return to the semblance of a regular life. But it is not easy. Her son’s death has permanently transformed her into a political activist. She works with other mothers whose children were killed violently in an effort to make a change to the law and police culture. She also reaches out to mothers, like Cherita, who find themselves contending with the twin tragedy of an injured child and disrupted life.
As she spoke, Malcolm looked down the block at her son Chinnor Campbell, 8, playing with neighborhood children. They fawned over Kassie, a Yorkie-Shitsu mix that Malcolm bought for her younger son to help ameliorate the pain of losing his doting older brother. She worries about what’s going to happen as he gets older.
She tries her best to avoid the subject with Chinnor, but she said it’s hard when he looks around expectantly for Ramarley at school events. Without notice, her son will blurt out: “Why did they kill Marley, mommy? Why?” Sometimes when officers pass by on the street he glowers and mutters how much he hates them.
If things don’t change, she worries that when he gets older he’ll be stopped by police and all the bad memories she has done so much to try to protect him from will come in a savage rush.
“He saw what happened to Ramarley,” she said. “He’s going to get shoved against a wall and he’s going to have all these flashbacks about what happened to his brother. What does it take? What will make them stop? What will make them stop this police violence?”
“I tell you,” she said, her hands gesturing animatedly. “People are afraid to have a young man in the Bronx. “Ramarley’s teacher has a sign that says, ‘I’m afraid to have a son.’”
Shock at a Middle School
Earlier in the day, around 3 p.m., Javier’s classmates and friends, boys who attend MS 22, in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, were alarmed to see the picture of Javier. Instead of memories, the picture produced outrage and incredulity. Again and again students couldn’t reconcile the picture, the story from the police, and the jokester they knew, an undersized whelpling who loved to make fellow students and teachers laugh.
“He’s a good kid,” said Yoseluis Montero, 14, who attends the Bronx Writing Academy, which shares a building with MS 22. “You never see him in any trouble.”
When Emmanuel Gutierrez, a classmate and friend from MS 22, saw the picture of Javier in the hospital he shook his head and his mouth twisted in resentment.
“They had no reason to do what they did to him,” he said. “He’s a funny kid. He goofs around a lot. He likes to make people laugh.”
Montero said he wished he could talk to the police commissioner and the mayor.
“I would like to tell them,” he said pausing to collect his thoughts. “That they wouldn’t like it if another police officer did that to one of their own little kids.”
Malik Nicholas, 15, begin to talk about how he hopes Javier feels better, when mayhem broke out in front of the school. A young woman was handcuffed and led away by school safety agents. Nearby, numerous police cars and vans packed the corner at the entrance to the school. A mix of school safety agents and patrol officers, guns swinging from their belts, paced the school’s perimeter.
One teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, struggled to restrain his anger as he talked about his feelings. He was leading a clutch of students down the street toward the play yard. They kept asking what was wrong, and he told them to relax as he talked about what happened to Javier.
“It’s really sad, it was really shocking to see his face,” he said. “It’s something you expect to happen to someone else’s students — you don’t think it could happen to one of yours.”
After listening to the police account, namely that Javier and an unidentified 13-year old accomplice punched a man in the back of the head after refusing the teens a cigarette, the teacher remained steadfast.
“No one has that coming, no kid deserves that,” he said. “We have plenty of worse kids at this school.”
The teacher said what he sees play out between adolescents and police at the school and in the community is dispiriting.
“I see the way the police interact with all the kids out here and it’s really upsetting, you know,” he said. “This is their community. And it doesn’t feel like the the police are working with the community, that they’re looking to work with these kids.”
Loyda Colon doesn’t have statistics on how many teenagers and young adults have encountered police abuse in the Bronx. But she recounted a telling anecdote that she said suggests the scale of the problem.
Recently Colon, 35, the co-director at the Justice Committee, put out a call for summer interns receiving some 200 applications. As she went through the applications she begin to see a pattern. Each of the applicants, aged 16 to 22 and all from the South Bronx or Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, had a troubling interaction with the police — getting cursed at, having their genitals grabbed, getting roughed up.
“It’s horrific what’s happening to these young people,” she said.
The Justice Committee is a Latino-led organization dedicated to ending police violence against the public. Colon said the incident involving Payne is indicative of a larger problem in the Bronx.
She thinks it has a lot to do with the tone set by the leadership. Colon cited a quote from Police Commissioner Bratton, when he was top cop in Los Angeles:
“Where you have guns, you have drugs. Where you have drugs, you have youth,’” Bratton said. “Where you have youth, you have gangs. Why treat them like four different diseases? When you go to a doctor, he treats the totality of all that are affecting your body. L.A. is not doing that in any way, shape or form,” Bratton said at the time.
Colon said: “It’s starts at the top. What are his officers supposed to think when he thinks children of color are supposed to be treated like a disease? What he say trickles down to his officers.”
The Justice Committee is hosting a Know Your Rights training seminar next Tuesday where residents can learn their rights during an interaction with the police and instructions on forming a local cop watch patrol, where citizens learn how to legally monitor police interactions with the public, and learn how to document incidents of violence. The seminar is taking place at the BronxWorks Betances Community Center.
A Mother’s Journey
Malcolm comes out of it sometimes and doesn’t know where she is. She calls it “The Zone.” She will climb into her car intending to go for a short ride and end up miles away from her destination and notice half an hour has gone by. It’s a place she finds herself disappearing into more and more as she moves further away from the morning a police officer kicked his way into her home and shot and killed her son.
Malcolm has returned to work as a nurse. She has fallen into a routine. She gets up at 6:30 a.m. to start. But she returns to a life that is simultaneously familiar and foreign. Something as simple as driving to work for instance, can summon sharp reminders of what is missing from her life. She knows right now that Cherita is losing her grip on her routines and how disorienting that can feel.
“I know my life will never be the same,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of changes in that mother’s life. I pray I get to meet her. I want to tell her to keep fighting.”
She hopes Javier’s mother braces herself for her son’s name to be sullied. She said she anticipates the police department to employ a similar playbook that it did with her son’s killing.
“I hope to God — and I have very little faith in him — that Bratton doesn’t drag this boy through the mud like they did my son. They will try to use his past to criminalize him. They are very good at doing that.”
Malcolm tries to take solace in the good memories of her son, how he is remembered by his friends and a neighbor.
“Our neighbors, they had a dog,” she said pointing across the street. “He always used to escape and come running across the street. Marley would always bring him home.”
A faraway, distracted look swept over Malcolm’s face as she talked about the memory. She said the dog died recently. It got hit by a car, she added. The dog, she said, was trying to find its way home.
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