By the time the Black Lives Matter protestors set out for Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick on July 26, the temperature outside was in the upper nineties. Police tactics at the almost unanimously peaceful demonstrations in lower Manhattan the night before had escalated to kettling and violent arrests, a fact which could not have been lost on the approximately 150 people marching, tailed at a distance of just a few yards by several NYPD vehicles with their emergency lights on.
Though much media attention has been given to the mammoth demonstrations happening in Lower Manhattan, particularly those that end in arrests and police violence, smaller demonstrations such as this one are taking place with unprecedented frequency, roughly 10 to 25 plus a day citywide since June. The enormous scale of these protests have lead to comparisons to those of the sixties; but unlike the protests fifty years ago, which were widely unpopular in their time, polling conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research indicates a majority of Americans approve of demonstrations held in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
Despite their widespread appeal, these actions are organized and undertaken amid considerable risk. Video evidence and court testimony prove the NYPD has and continues to engage in a pattern of brutality against protesters, but only a fraction of reported incidents lead to investigations. Police Commissioner Shea Dermot has gone as far as to refuse to discipline officers who skipped their own misconduct hearings.
The protestors spoke little among themselves. Mainly they chanted. Bushwick is still predominantly a Latino and working-class neighborhood, and Spanish remains the most common first language spoken there. Among marchers, a common chant was “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido” which translates into English as “The people united will never be defeated.”
Though Bushwick is far from the most incarcerated neighborhood in New York City, people who live there are nonetheless an astonishing 30 times more likely to be imprisoned than someone living in predominantly white Cobble Hill. As the marchers progressed towards Maria Hernandez Park, many stopped to watch them pass, some with raised fists.
Police vehicles continued to circle as the marchers entered the park, though there was a palpable sense of relief among the marchers at having arrived there without violence or arrests. Bed-Stuy based artist, playwright, musician and activist WILLIE the GENIUS performed the opening scene of his play, Willie Gets Naked! in a white cloak and black top hat. Written in black on his cloak were the words “B*tch, Paris is still burning, and Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”*
After Willie performed, flowers were placed along the edge of the platform where he stood. Willie asked protestors to name someone who devoted or lost their lives in the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights, then poured a libation in their honor.
When Bklyner encountered Angelica Pomar, she was holding a sign for her Uncle Dante Pomar, who was just 19 when he died after being chased by an unmarked police car on a pocket bike in Flushing, Queens, in 2003. Ms. Pomar, 21, was then 4 years old. At the time, Angelica and her extended family of 6 were living in a two-bedroom in the neighborhood. Dante was the first person she knew who died.
“I remember he was always fixing things, fixing things for people. For his friends.” Angelica said. “And then his wake, and this somberness.”
Dante Pomar is remembered by his friends and family as an adept and canny mechanic, capable of fixing cars, tiny bikes, and appliances. He and his father, Hector Pomar, planned to go into business together. According to a New York Times Article written about Dante’s death in 2004, Police Officials claimed Dante died after falling off his pocket bike, though those close to Dante remain disbelieving of the NYPD’s version of events. Internal Affairs unit claimed they did not find evidence of paint transfer, which would have indicated a collision occurred.
But in a 2013 article for the Atlanta Black Star, Dante’s Mother, Gloria Pomar, told a journalist that her son’s body had been gruesomely mangled by the crash; his skull was cracked open, and he had lacerations on his neck, torso, and leg. Gloria also claimed a witness saw Dante’s body on the ground after the accident, motionless and in handcuffs. A decade later, Gloria said Hector still spoke every day to pictures of his son.
After failing to provide a sufficiently transparent investigation into Dante Pomar’s death, the NYPD then crudely insisted that the real issue was the inherent dangerousness of pocket bikes, and lobbied successfully to ban them. But the absurdity of this notion – of using a death caused by policing to justify more policing – was not lost on Dante Pomar’s friends and family.
“This isn’t about pocket bikes being dangerous.” Millisa Nelson, then 17, told the New York Times in 2004, “It’s about a kid getting chased to his death.”
For the last sixteen years, the Pomar family has fought to uncover the precise circumstances of Dante’s death, becoming passionate advocates for families in their position. For Angelica Pomar, the trauma her family endured due to her Uncle’s death made them painstakingly protective of her.
“Throughout my childhood, I was a dancer. I was in competitions. I never hung out with my friends after school.” Ms. Pomar said. “My parents wanted me occupied like that.”
But for Ms. Pomar, growing up in a family devastated by policing has also meant coming of age in a home steeped in activism and political consciousness. “My grandmother took me to my first protest,” Pomar told me. In addition to the circumstances of her Uncle’s Death, Angelica’s own experiences with colorism in the Latinx had a profound effect on her worldview and activism.
“I realized the way indigenous and Latinx lives have endured is really similar to the way black lives have endured,” Pomar said.
Pomar’s parents did not have the opportunity to graduate from high school; while Pomar’s father would later study Criminal psychology at John Jay, his plans for a career in the field were cut short when Angelica’s mom became pregnant with her. It was therefore enormously important to Angelica’s family that she succeed academically, and pursue higher education in a field she was passionate about. She now studies Art and Design at FIT, and works as an Art Educator at the Museum of Art and Design.
But for the Pomar family, closure for Dante’s death remains unbearably elusive. For 16 years, they have grieved while enduring the simultaneous insults of the NYPD’s obfuscations and indifference. Instead of aiding Dante’s parents as they fought to know why their teenaged son did not survive an encounter he had with the police, elected officials moved to ban retail sales of pocket bikes in New York City.
For Angelica herself, justice for her family would entail recognition – both legally and morally- of the police’s culpability in Dante’s death.
“One thing I would like to see more people know is that he died of police brutality,” Angelica said. “And I wish the cops who killed him were in jail.”
Like so many whose lives have been affected by policing and police violence, Angelica is in favor of divesting from the police and carceral system; she also knows exactly where she’d like to see those resources reinvested.
“Definitely education and the arts,” Angelica said. “What if you want to become a cop and you haven’t been properly educated?”
But for the Pomar’s and the hundreds of New York City families in their position, it isn’t enough to change how the system operates; they are also fighting to change how people think. Above all, they demand that we question the necessity, morality, and sanity of an institution that saw fit to exert so much power against a defenseless and beloved young life.