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Bernstein writes: "Thirty-two years ago, in 1984, I was teaching media activism in an alternative high school in the South Bronx with filmmaker Chela Blitt. We were getting ready to begin a documentary with the kids on the social, political, and economic reasons why their neighborhood looked more like Hiroshima after the war than a neighborhood in New York City. But instead, we changed gears and produced with the kids the documentary film '12-Gauge Eviction,' which chronicles the close-range gunning down of a 67-year-old, arthritic grandmother named Eleanor Bumpurs."

Eleanor Bumpurs. (photo: unknown)
Eleanor Bumpurs. (photo: unknown)

Remembering the 12-Gauge Police Eviction of a 67-Year-Old Grandmother in the South Bronx

By Dennis J Bernstein, Reader Supported News

18 July 16


hirty-two years ago, in 1984, I was teaching media activism in an alternative high school in the South Bronx with filmmaker Chela Blitt. We were getting ready to begin a documentary with the kids on the social, political, and economic reasons why their neighborhood looked more like Hiroshima after the war than a neighborhood in New York City. But instead, we changed gears and produced with the kids the documentary film “12-Gauge Eviction,” which chronicles the close-range gunning down of a 67-year-old, arthritic grandmother named Eleanor Bumpurs, in the Sedgwick housing project in the Highbridge Section of the South Bronx.

And we got off to a swift start. One of my students had heard the shotgun blasts through the walls and halls of the high-rise. In no time, with our cameras and recording equipment in tow, we were filming through the broken keyhole into the murder scene, where Eleanor Bumpurs was snuffed out of this world for being late on her rent. She owed the city about $400 dollars back rent, which she claimed she was withholding until the city came in and did some necessary plumbing and heating repairs.

Social Services called in the police, and what unfolded next was obscene, extremely brutal, but not all that uncommon. A half-dozen special duty New York City cops arrived at the front door of her small apartment, armed with mace, tear gas, shields, nets, clubs and side arms, but finally decided that nothing less than a 12-gauge pump shotgun fired at close range would do the trick. The first blast from the shotgun took Bumpurs’ hand off. The final blast blew the back of her head off.

The cops claimed they had no choice. They were facing mortal danger, claiming Eleanor Bumpurs, mother of seven and grandmother, was wielding a butcher knife. They claimed the shoot was clean. The local corporate press took it from there. Many press accounts, informed by the police of course, characterized Bumpurs as being “emotionally disturbed” and “deranged.”

My students jumped all over this. One student, a Junior named Douglas, who lived in the projects and had ear-witnessed the shots through the walls – led us to the crime scene. He guided us to the floor where Bumpurs had lived and died, and to the senior citizen center, the library, and other parts of the projects where the residents would congregate. And the kids started to ask questions and interview residents about the police killing of Mrs. Bumpurs.

“If the lady was so mentally disturbed,” pointed out one resident, “people wouldn’t have asked her to babysit their kids.” The resident knew of several parents who had entrusted Bumpurs to babysit their kids for them, until her arthritis became too severe to “chase the little ones around.” One Housing Authority supervisor, Michael Pierson, told the kids, “She just seemed like a quiet individual to me.”

That evening, my students carried their cameras to an outdoor prayer vigil at the projects and interviewed friends and relatives of Bumpurs, as well as a few local politicians who had come to pay their respects to the slain grandmother. “It’s amazing that any time a black or Hispanic is killed like this, it’s police procedure,” said the Rev. Wendell Foster, who was then a Bronx City councilman. Sound familiar? One resident told the student investigators, “A couple of weeks ago a dangerous animal escaped from the Bronx Zoo, and they captured it with a sleep dart and brought it safely back to its cage in the zoo. Around here” said the resident, who requested anonymity for fear of police retribution, “cops treat black folks worse than zoo animals. They’ll risk their white skin to save an animal, but they’ll murder us on the spot.”

I have to believe that it was the thorough and unrelenting investigative work of the students, along with a local independent newspaper, The City Sun, that forced the court’s hand, making them deal with some of the real facts of the case, rather than let most of the local the racist corporate press marginalize Bumpurs as a community danger, a crazed black woman who was willing to kill a cop to avoid paying her back rent.

After reviewing extensive testimony, a grand jury indeed voted for an indictment for second-degree manslaughter against Officer Stephen Sullivan, who cut down Bumpurs at close range with two quick blasts from his department issued pump-style shotgun. However, subsequently, a state judge dismissed the indictment against Sullivan, asserting the evidence was “legally insufficient” to indict Sullivan for manslaughter or any other offense.

In an interview after the ruling, when asked if under similar circumstances he would do the same thing, Sullivan replied, “Yes, I would,” according to The New York Times. And New York City cops have been killing people of color non-stop before and since. Here’s a partial list published by The New York Times:

  • Jose (Kiko) Garcia, July 3, 1992: During a struggle with police officers in the lobby of an apartment building, Mr. Garcia, a 23-year-old Dominican immigrant who the police said was carrying a revolver, was shot twice by Officer Michael O’Keefe.
    What happened: Later that year, a grand jury cleared Officer O’Keefe, supporting the officer’s assertion that Mr. Garcia reached for a gun before he was shot.

  • Ernest Sayon, April 29, 1994: Mr. Sayon, 22, was standing outside a Staten Island housing complex when police officers on an anti-drug patrol tried to arrest him. Mr. Sayon suffocated because of pressure on his back, chest and neck while he was handcuffed on the ground.
    What happened: A grand jury declined to file criminal charges against any of the three police officers involved, apparently concluding that the officers had used reasonable force in subduing Mr. Sayon.

  • Nicholas Heyward Jr., Sept. 27, 1994: Nicholas, 13, was playing cops and robbers with friends in a Gowanus Houses building stairwell when Officer Brian George, mistaking the teenager’s toy rifle for a real gun, shot him to death.
    What happened: The Brooklyn district attorney decided not to present the case to a grand jury, saying the real culprit was an authentic-looking toy gun.

  • Anthony Baez, Dec. 22, 1994: Mr. Baez, 29, a security guard, was playing football outside his mother’s Bronx home when a stray toss landed on a police car. Mr. Baez died after an officer applied a chokehold while trying to arrest him.
    What happened: Francis X. Livoti, who had been dismissed by the force for using an illegal chokehold, was convicted on federal civil rights charges and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, two years after he won acquittal in a state trial.

  • Amadou Diallo, Feb. 4, 1999: Mr. Diallo, a 22-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was killed by four officers who fired 41 times in the vestibule of his apartment building in the Bronx. They said he seemed to have a gun, but he was unarmed.
    What happened: In February 2000, after a tense and racially charged trial, all four officers, who were white, were acquitted of second-degree murder and other charges, fueling protests. The city agreed to pay the family $3 million.

  • Patrick Dorismond, March 16, 2000: Mr. Dorismond, 26, an unarmed black security guard, was shot dead by an undercover narcotics detective in a brawl in front of a bar in Midtown Manhattan, after Mr. Dorismond became offended when the detective asked him if he had any crack cocaine.
    What happened: By late July, a grand jury declined to file criminal charges against the detective, Anthony Vasquez, concluding that the shooting of Mr. Dorismond was not intentional. The city agreed to pay $2.25 million to his family.

  • Ousmane Zongo, May 23, 2003: Mr. Zongo, 43, an art restorer, was shot and killed by a police officer during a raid at a Chelsea warehouse that the police believed was the base of a CD counterfeiting operation.
    What happened: In 2005, Officer Bryan A. Conroy was convicted at the second of two trials and sentenced to probation. The judge placed the blame for the killing primarily on the poor training and supervision by the Police Department. The city agreed to pay the family $3 million.

  • Timothy Stansbury Jr., Jan. 24, 2004: Mr. Stansbury, 19, a high school student, was about to take a rooftop shortcut to a party when he was fatally shot by Officer Richard S. Neri Jr., who was patrolling the roof.
    What happened: A grand jury decided not to indict Officer Neri. In December 2006, he was suspended without pay for 30 days, permanently stripped of his gun, and reassigned to a property clerk’s office. The city agreed to pay the Stansbury family $2 million.

  • Sean Bell, Nov. 25, 2006: Five detectives fired 50 times into a car occupied by Mr. Bell, 23, and two others after a confrontation outside a Queens club on Mr. Bell’s wedding day. He was killed.
    What happened: After a heated seven-week nonjury trial in 2008, the judge found Detectives Gescard F. Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper not guilty of all charges, which included manslaughter and assault. In 2012, Detective Isnora was fired, and Detectives Cooper and Oliver, along with a supervisor, were forced to resign. The city agreed to pay the family $3.25 million.

  • Ramarley Graham, Feb. 2, 2012: Mr. Graham, 18, was shot and killed by Richard Haste, a police officer, in the bathroom of his Bronx apartment after being pursued into his home by a team of officers from a plainclothes street narcotics unit. Mr. Graham was unarmed.
    What happened: A grand jury voted to indict Officer Haste on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter, but a judge dismissed the indictment a year later. Prosecutors sought a new indictment. In August 2013, a grand jury decided not to bring charges in the case. The city agreed to pay the family $3.9 million.

  • Eric Garner, July 17, 2014: Mr. Garner, 43, died after Officer Daniel Pantaleo restrained him using a chokehold, a maneuver that was banned by the New York Police Department more than 20 years ago. The officers were trying to arrest Mr. Garner, whose death was attributed in part to the chokehold, on charges of illegally selling cigarettes.
    What happened: A grand jury, impaneled in September by the Staten Island district attorney, voted not to bring charges against Officer Pantaleo. The city agreed to pay the family $5.9 million.

  • Akai Gurley, Nov. 20, 2014: Mr. Gurley, 28, was entering the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project with his girlfriend when Officer Peter Liang, standing 14 steps above him, shot Mr. Gurley in the chest. The police described the fatal shooting of Mr. Gurley, who was unarmed, as an accident.
    What happened: Officer Liang was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter on Feb. 11, 2016. He was then fired from the department. The Brooklyn district attorney did not seek jail time.

Dennis J Bernstein is the executive producer of Flashpoints, syndicated on Pacifica Radio, and is the recipient of a 2015 Pillar Award for his work as a journalist whistleblower. He is most recently the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.

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