Categorized | Bronx, Crime, Dominican, Featured

Deli Worker’s Death Inspires Community Activism


Reynaldo Cuevas, a 20-year-old Dominican bodega worker, was shot and killed on September 7 by a New York City police officer in Morrisania, which is in the poorest congressional district in the country.

News trucks, cameras and reporters lined the block outside the Ortiz Funeral Home in Washington Heights one early September evening. Inside, tear-soaked faces gathered around a young man’s rosary-adorned hands. The occasion was the wake of Reynaldo Cuevas, a 20-year-old Dominican bodega worker, held two days after he was shot and killed on September 7 by New York City police officer Ramysh Bangali.

Part of a tribute shrine to Reynaldo Cuevas at the bodega where he was shot. Credit: LANCE DIXON

Cuevas’s death came a week before a hearing in the case of Ramarley Graham, a young black man shot and killed by a police officer in the South Bronx. In Morrisania especially – part of the 16th U.S. congressional district, the country’s poorest– these shootings feed frustrations that can pour into the streets – as protestors have done at least three times to demand justice in the death of Reynaldo Cuevas.

“It’s degrading. There’s a lot of frustration and anger—enough is enough,” said Tony Riley, a carpenter, who has joined the Cuevas protests.

On the night he died, Cuevas was working in Aneury’s Deli on 169th Street and Franklin Avenue, a small storefront not very different from others that fill the neighborhood. Three armed men attempted to rob the store. A passerby called 911 and police arrived shortly after.

Police say that when they reached the bodega entrance, the robbers fled to the rear of the store and downstairs. Cuevas and the owner, his uncle Jesus, ran out the front, where Cuevas collided with officer Bangali, who was responding to the robbery call.

According to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, Bangali “accidentally discharged his weapon.” But many in the community have a very different perspective. At press conferences, vigils and protests, some in the neighborhood have called the shooting “murder” or even “genocide.” Police released images from the store’s security video, but the pictures stop just after the shooting – a fact that some in Morrisania alleged was done to conceal police mishandling of the wounded man.

“The rumor is that they dragged the body off to the ambulance,” rather than handling Cuevas with care that might have enabled emergency medical workers to save his life, said Robb Harrington, a former real estate agent and Morrisania resident. Police have not formally responded to these and other charges from the community.

In the weeks following the shooting and the wake for Cuevas, protestors have held vigils at Anuery’s Deli and organized three marches to the 42nd police precinct headquarters in the Bronx.

The marches, also called “speak-outs,” are an effort to show police the bitter feelings in Morrisania, which is 96 percent black and Hispanic, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. When the crowds reach the precinct they vent their uncensored rage to police community affairs officers, who follow the marchers and then stand guard outside the precinct as the marchers hurl chants like, “Take to the streets and f—k the police! No justice! No peace!” and “NYPD! KKK, how many kids have you killed today?”

As the strong words permeated the neighborhood at the first rally on September 12, a few police officers looked out from the precinct’s second floor windows. But no police official addressed the crowd.

Community gathers outside the 42nd police precinct in the Bronx. Credit: LANCE DIXON

Among those at the first march was Margarita Rosario, the founder of Parents Against Police Brutality. Rosario’s son Anthony and her nephew, Hilton Vega, were killed by two police officers 17 years ago. The officers were never charged, though the Rosario and Vega families received a $1.1 million “wrongful death” settlement from the city in 2009.

Looking at the group of about a hundred protestors, Rosario said she was sorry this group was so much smaller than the crowds who came to Cuevas’s wake “The way you’re going to get justice is bringing out people,” said Rosario.

Three days later, Take Back the Bronx, a community group that frequently protests police actions, organized another rally that featured the uncle of Oscar Grant. Grant was a young, unarmed black man killed by a police officer in Oakland, Calif. in 2009 when the officer thought Grant was reaching for a weapon.

The uncle, Cephus Johnson, sought to rally spirits at the Cuevas protest by pointing out that in his nephew’s case, the police officer who fired the shot was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison.

“We gotta unify. Tell your friends how important it is to come out,” Johnson urged the Bronx marchers. “A conviction is possible” in the case of Reynaldo Cuevas, he promised.

The crowd cheered at the suggestion of charges against officer Bangali. But the Morrisania marchers’ demands remain unfulfilled. Though Bangali was put on administrative leave after the shooting, no charges have been filed against

“It’s a pretty poor community—a community that needs help,” Rosario said. “I guess that’s why the police come and do what they want, especially in the Latino community.”

The marchers were not present at a Sept. 27 public meeting with the 42nd Precinct’s community council. But precinct Commanding Officer John Bloch said in an interview that he respects the community efforts to express frustration – though the more provocative chants heard from the marchers are not helpful.

“If you’re coming with profanity and stuff, that gets us nowhere,” Bloch said. “I think there’s more constructive ways to get your point across.”

Inside Aneury’s Deli, friends and acquaintances say Reynaldo Cuevas’s absence is evident.

“He was always on point. If you tried to steal a chip or something, he was always right there to catch you,” said Angel Garcia, 15. “It’s mad quiet, it feel different.”

According to friends, Cuevas was working to get money to send to his wife and 3-year-old daughter in Santo Domingo. His death comes two years after his father, Maleno, was killed—the result of a robbery in the Dominican Republic when two men tried to rob him of a chain.

Community member, Christina Gonzalez, holds sign emphasizing Cuevas’s motivation for working at the deli–to support his daughter in Santo Domingo. Credit: LANCE DIXON

A few weeks after the shooting, a community shrine dedicated to Cuevas that once sat outside Aneury’s Deli was moved across the street. Melted candle wax spilled onto the sidewalk, and empty bottles sat filled with dirty rainwater. By early October, a month after his death, the shrine had disappeared; the only remaining tribute is words dedicated to Cuevas etched into the graffiti-lined walls.

But the case goes on. Police arrested three suspects in the robbery, and they also face charges of murder for the death of Reynaldo Cuevas. Jose LaSalle, a community activist, said calls for charges against officer Bangali will continue; Cuevas’s family is scheduled to join an October 28 forum protesting police violence in Hispanic communities.

“We’re not going to stop coming here,” said LaSalle. “We’re not going to stop making noise.”


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