Viral Video of Far Rockaway Traffic Stop Outrages Community

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In January 2018, Sean Marcellin was pulled from his car near Beach Channel Drive and Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway and tased multiple times by a member of the New York Police Department. A dozen officers surrounded him as he laid on the ground. Marcellin also alleges he was kicked in the face by one of the officers. His gender and race shouldn’t matter, but he is a black man. The video, recorded by a bystander in Far Rockaway, captured the entire ordeal. The footage shows an agitated Marcellin speaking to a plainclothes officer from his car. Marcellin is frustrated by the fact that he was pulled over and twinges of anger are apparent in his inflection. We hear Marcellin disputing the charge with the officer, who appears to have stopped Marcellin for failure to use a turn signal. During the altercation, Marcellin made several threats to the police officers and their families, including their children.

The five minute video is filled with harsh language and the upsetting image of a tased Marcellin falling to the ground surrounded by a dozen officers. Jay Brown Sr., the bystander who filmed the altercation, claims that Marcellin did indeed use his turn signal and that the first words out of the officer’s mouth were, “Give me your f–king license now”. In the video, one of the officers turns to the camera and says, “I asked for his license six times, he’s been refusing since then. He’s now going to get locked up or get a summons, depending on my mood. Simple as that."

The incident is currently under review by the NYPD, whose protocol demands a review anytime a taser is involved. However, the police will not assess the actions of the plainclothes officer until the internal probe is complete. Though Marcellin was freed with no bail at his arraignment hearing, he was charged with a host of crimes, including driving without a license, resisting arrest, obstructing government administration, and making terroristic threats.

Since the video surfaced on January 16th, it has had a polarizing effect on the Rockaway community. Dozens of community members turned out for the 101st Precinct Community Council Meeting on January 17th, many of whom believed that the police officer had crossed a line of excessive force by tasering Marcellin. They claimed that instead of working to de-escalate the situation, the police officer’s temperament set the tone for the interaction and contributed to it’s escalation. Joannie Guerra shared these sentiments, remarking at the Community Council meeting that “Whether this man was right or wrong, the police have no business feeding into that and escalating the situation as far as it went.” Others place the blame on Marcellin, taking the viewpoint that he could have avoided the whole situation by following the law in the first place and that his threats towards the officers and their families warranted the officers’ harsh response. Marcellin’s father told the media that his son “…should have just complied with the police. I always talk to him about this”. He went on to say that he has taught his son to “stay calm and just give them what they want” when interacting with police officers.

Marcellin’s demeanor throughout the encounter shouldn’t be the deciding factor on whether he should be treated like a human being. Our paradoxical society somehow expects ordinary citizens to keep their cool under life threatening circumstances, yet is quick to pardon a police officer for “fearing for their life”. It’s easy to get upset when you feel like you are being profiled because of the color of your skin. Some argue that it’s also easy to get upset when someone threatens your children, and we should judge the anger of both parties with the same sensitivity and understanding. But why should we judge the demeanor of an average citizen the same as the demeanor of a police officer, whose dealings with unruly citizens is a routine part of their job? We must ask ourselves: Why are citizens continuously expected to act like trained professionals in these instances? Why is it necessary for twelve armed officers to tase and surround a unarmed man?

For people of color in Far Rockaway, the video evoked deep tensions that went beyond this particular incident. Many witness or experience police violence as a part of their everyday lives. Despite Marcellin’s undeniable vulgarity and disorderly demeanor during the incident, many present at the Community Council meeting could relate to the feeling of being at one’s breaking point when it comes to interacting with the NYPD. This makes it all the more frustrating to listen to the 101st Precinct tout the great success of their Neighborhood Policing Program. Despite it’s good intentions, many community members see a disconnect between how the program is described by the NYPD and how it actually happens in their communities. At the Community Council meeting, Malachi Davidson of the Rockaway Youth Task Force pointed out that many community members aren’t even aware of the program: “It’s often said that there’s great things coming out of it and helping the community, but we just don’t see it. I want to see some accountability. If this is really supposed to be improving relationships out here, I want to see it happen. I want to know that it happened. A lot of people in the community still don’t know about the program itself and that says a lot.” But then, transparency has never been one of the NYPD’s biggest strengths.

This incident represents an example of using social media for good. Thanks to Jay Brown Sr., Sean Marcellin’s case will garner increased scrutiny due to its heightened visibility. The Rockaway Youth Task Force has already spoken out against the treatment of Marcellin by the NYPD and are looking forward to working with the 101st Precinct Community Council to resolve this issue fairly and transparently and improve the relationship between officers and young people of color.