• Garth Wolkoff

The Murder of Timothy Stansbury Jr.

Nineteen-year-old and unarmed Timothy Stansbury Jr. died on January 24, 2004, shot and killed just three short blocks from where I live now, in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Friends were holding a birthday party on the rooftop of one of the five-story Louis Armstrong Houses, on what was then only called Lexington Avenue, between Tompkins and Marcy Avenue. Stansbury opened the door to the rooftop from a stairwell, and was shot once in the chest, according to the New York Times, by police officer Richard Neri. Stansbury fell backward onto his best friend, my former student, Terrence Fisher, and the two, and a third friend, tumbled down the stairs, five flights down.

I had left Bed-Stuy--not with a purposeful "I'm outta here," but for a new job. From 1999-2003, I taught at Frederick Douglass Literacy Center in the Old Boys High School building on Marcy Avenue, just down the street from where Terrence and Timothy lived, and four blocks from where I live now, 19 years later. My students were 17-21. War, jail, or immigration had interrupted some their education. Others had transferred out of more traditional high schools for a variety of reasons. Some had diagnosed learning disabilities, and many went undiagnosed; some of my students aspired to take the GED while others wanted readmission into a "regular" high school. They were African, Caribbean, African American, Mexican, Central American. Many of them came from Bed-Stuy, and most had little money or support at home.

Like I said, I hadn't thought of it as leaving Bed-Stuy, exactly, but then the school closed. There is a part of gentrification that comes with the moving of professionals in and out of a neighborhoods. I don't know which part. I walked every day from my neighborhood of Clinton Hill, one neighborhood to the west of Bed-Stuy and the high school. Clinton Hill had started to gentrify by 1999. On one of my walks to work, a man in front of his house asked me out of the clear blue sky if I was a social worker, a teacher, or a cop, because, according to him, I had to be one of the three. Perhaps this is pre-gentrification. I wasn't aware then and I am not sure now. On my way to work, I didn't ask him what that meant to him--a 30-something white man walking to work in his Black community. A social worker, a teacher, or a cop. He had me pegged.

While at Frederick Douglass, I met Terrence, a smart and easily distracted teenager (easier than most) who didn't like to read, but flourished making documentary videos through an outside program that came into my class, DCTV (Downtown Community Television). DCTV had been coming to Frederick Douglass for a few years by then. Along with our documentary teacher, Melissa Lohman-Wild, our class made a video about the students' love of music. We interviewed shop owners--a barber shop, a record store--in the neighborhood. Terrence showed aptitude. We struggled but got Terrence's application to their internship program, and in the fall and winter of 2003-'04, Terrence began making a DCTV film about gun violence in his neighborhood. Then the police shot and killed his best friend.

Terrence's film, Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story, of which a clip is shown in this post, won the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking. Bittersweet.

I was close to Terrence, relatively speaking. He became one of my favorite students, in part because he was a likable guy, empathetic with a fine understated sense of humor, and in part because I felt guiding him toward something he was good at, even in my uninformed way--what did I know about video and documentary making-- was part of why I became a public school teacher.

I knew nothing about Bed-Stuy, except from a Spike Lee movie and from reputation: Bed-Stuy, Do or Die. Biggie Smalls. The Marcy Projects. Large African American and Caribbean American community. Activist and City Council member Charles Barron. Aaliyah. Big Daddy Kane. Shirley Chisholm. I knew that the building where I taught, Old Boys High, had been where basketball player Connie Hawkins went, Isaac Asimov, Max Roach, Anatole Broyard, and Aaron Copeland. But when when I knew Terrance, and then when police killed Timothy Stansbury, I knew very little about the community.

And, I imagine, neither did Richard Neri, although I don't know that for a fact. He was never indicted for the killing of Stansbury. In 2006, accord to the Times, the police commissioner took away his pay for a month, and stripped him of his gun, transferring him to the property clerk's office. After Stansbury's killing, Terrance and others led protests about the lack of accountability for Neri--a story repeated so many times across the United States and elsewhere. “'He should spend the rest of his life in jail,'" Irene Clayburne told the The Times. “That man killed my grandchild.” Neri was a housing officer and had had worked in that division of the NYPD for 12 years. When the door opened to the roof that night, Neri had been startled, he testified.

Neri lived in Wantagh, a New York City suburb on Long Island, 27 miles away. Long Island had its poverty and pockets of diversity, then and now, but also plenty of middle and upper class homes and towns homogeneously white. According to the 2000 Census, 97 percent of Wantagh's 18,971 people were white; .20% Black. Neri was 35 years at the time, about my age. He had never fired his gun while on the force, according to The Times. The internet does not seem to show a record of whatever happened to Officer Neri, other than his transfer, month without pay, and loss of his gun.

Terrance lives in Connecticut now. He is a construction worker, married with three small children. He doesn't make movies anymore, but he does make music. I hope to write more about Terrance in a later post.

The City of New York settled with the Stansbury family for $2 million in 2007. And, as pictured, Timothy's block on Lexington is renamed Timothy Stansbury Jr. Avenue.

That street sign. The feelings and memories of the Stansbury's family. Terrance's family. The Louis Armstrong Houses. The 79th Precinct around the corner from Lexington/Stansbury on Tompkins, which was the scene of so many protests in 2004.

Both Neri and I came into and left Bed-Stuy around the same time. Of the cop, social worker, and teacher, we made up two of the three. Both of us worked for the city. I don't feel good about cops shooting Black people, and I don't ever want to handle a gun. I hate guns. But we live on the same continuum, Neri and I. Perhaps. At the time I worked at Frederick Douglass, and at the time Neri worked at the Armstrong Houses, we entered from the outside into Bed-Stuy.

There is a community, and a question of what kind of self determination the community has--the community as a living and breathing organism. There are now a shit ton of middle class people along multiple racial and ethnic lines living here, and also non police, non social worker, and non teacher white people working in Bed-Stuy. There are poor people. There are Black people who have been here a long time, and many who do not like what is happening--all the building of new apartments, high rents, property value rising, strangers living in their midst, expressions of different cultures, classes, and communities within the community.

If my metaphor stands, that the community is an organism, then you can't come in and not affect it. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we're strengthening it or hurting it. The community, as it defines itself, asks the same question.

Where are we on the continuum?

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