By Jeff Mays and Jon Schuppe
HARLEM — In the immediate aftermath of a fatal Aug. 8 police shootout in Harlem, the neighborhood’s anger focused on the officers who fired dozens of bullets at two men fighting in the early-morning hours after a cookout.
The reaction was typical for a community with historically strained relations with the NYPD.
But as the dust cleared, the message shifted.
Instead of rallying against the cops, Harlem activists turned the blame inward.
They argued that if the two men hadn’t been struggling over a revolver, the police wouldn’t have opened fire. And if there weren’t so many young people on the street with illegal guns, they said, the police wouldn’t have such a good reason to react with such force.
“There is a problem with police in our community, but I think more people are starting to realize that maybe some of it is us,” Chester Asher, head of the social-justice organization Transform America, said outside of Taft Houses in East Harlem, where activists had gathered for a rally and to hand out job applications.
“Maybe we are our own worst enemy. Maybe we are realizing that in the end, we are the only ones who can change it."
The new line of thinking correlates with an uptick in gun violence. Shootings are up this year in all of the six police precincts that cover Harlem, according to NYPD statistics covering the first seven months of the year.
That includes a jump in shooting incidents from six to 20 in the 25th Precinct, 13 to 20 in the 23rd Precinct, 13 to 19 in the 32nd Precinct, and three to nine in the 30th Precinct.
Community activist Kirsten John Foy watched the reaction and saw “the beginning of a sophisticated dialogue” that was moving past the usual finger pointing and toward “our role.”
“Without the prevalence of weapons and violence in our community, police would not have the same moral or strategic mission to deal with violence in our community,” Foy said. “The beginning of addressing police misperception about violence in our community begins with us."
This argument is far from unanimous in Harlem. There are still many residents who see the shooting as another in a long list of cases of unjustified police force. There are many who believe they are disproportionately targeted by NYPD stop-and-frisk operations. Some of them recently formed a group that is trying to call attention to cases of police harassment.
But the new reflective tone is clearly gaining strength. Even the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Harlem firebrand and National Action Network president, has joined in.
“We need to deal with the police factor, and we need to deal with the factor that many of us are shooting each other and running around playing gangster and thug and creating a climate that causes pain for these families,” Sharpton said. “We have got to come to terms with this. The parents, churches and community leaders have failed to take a grasp of how serious this is."
Authorities are still sorting out how the Aug. 8 shooting unfolded. So far, police and witnesses accounts indicate that it started with Luis Soto, 21, of the Bronx, fighting with another man, 23-year-old Angel Alvarez of Harlem, after a cookout on Lenox Avenue near West 144th Street.
When Alvarez got the upper hand, Soto allegedly reached for a .38 caliber revolver in his waistband. Alvarez grabbed it and allegedly fired at police. Officers returned fire more than 45 times.
Alvarez was hit 23 times and lived. Soto was hit six times and died. One plainclothes officer was hit in the chest, but was saved by his bulletproof vest. A second officer was struck in the hand.
"It's just becoming too much now. The violence is overwhelming," said Jackie Rowe-Adams, one of the founders of Harlem Mothers SAVE, who has lost two children to gun violence. "Every few hours we are hearing about an incident where we are losing our young people and it's not the police doing the shooting."
On Friday night, the Rev. Vernon Williams set up a giant speaker and microphone outside Taft Houses. He brought with him dozens of applications for the city fire department, and challenged young men to fill them out and get off the streets.
“You want to get upset when NYPD is pulling the trigger but what about it when Pookie is pulling the trigger,” he said.
Slowly, men began coming out of the buildings to pick up job applications.