A Queer Black Man Was Killed by the NYPD—and His Community Wants Answers

"We do not know what actually happened."

More than a week after police shot and killed a queer black man in the Bronx, a grieving community has been left searching for answers.

Mourners gathered on Monday evening, April 22, outside of Hill House, an affordable housing complex in Morris Heights, eight days after 32-year-old Kawaski Trawick was pronounced dead following an altercation with law enforcement. Initial reports claimed Trawick charged at officers holding a knife and a stick after police were called to the scene. Neighbors called 911 claiming he was threatening people in the building’s lobby.

After tasering the suspect, officers reportedly shot Trawick four times. He was rushed to Bronx Lebanon Hospital in critical condition, where he soon died of his injuries.

But the neighborhood residents, friends of the victim, and activists who came together for the Monday vigil believe the NYPD should be fully transparent about the circumstances that led to Trawick’s death. The officer who shot him, for example, had reportedly turned on his body camera. That footage has not been released to his family, community organizations, members of the media, or the public.

“We do not know what actually happened,” Jason Walker, the HIV/AIDS campaign coordinator for VOCAL New York and an organizer of the rally, tells NewNowNext. “What we’ve heard from residents and other sources have contradicted the NYPD’s account of what happened.”

After community organizations spoke with neighbors about the incident, Walker says they learned there were major discrepancies in accounts about where the shooting took place. Some say he was inside his room when the altercation took place, while others claim he was not. While local news coverage alleged he was on the fourth floor at the time of the incident, others said he was on the first floor.

Brian Brigantti
Activists and members of Trawick’s local community gather to remember the deceased.

Despite demands to clear up these questions by releasing the body cam footage, those requests have not been accommodated. At the time of writing, the NYPD has also declined to reveal the names of the officers who were at the scene, whether they plan to investigate the killing, or if the patrolmen have been disciplined.

Yul-san Liem, a co-founder of the Justice Committee grassroots organization, says the lack of transparency from police is concerning to advocates.

“We’re concerned because whereas in previous cases, we’ve gotten names of officers involved in killings within 48 or 72 hours,” Liem tells NewNowNext. “If you look at the Saheed Vassell case, we didn’t have the names of those officers until they were leaked several months after Saheed was killed. We don’t want to see that same lack of transparency happen again.”

Brian Brigantti

Vassell was killed in April 2018 after police dispatchers in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, believed the pipe he was carrying with him was a gun. A year after his death, Attorney General Letitia James announced no charges would be brought against the officers who killed him.

The incidents bear striking similarities. Both of the victims were black. While Vassell had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, friends of Trawick claimed he had been experiencing acute mental distress in recent days. Victor Jennings told the New York Post he had advised Trawick to take medication for an undisclosed mental illness before the incident, suggesting the victim may have been off his meds at the time of his death.

But one difference between the killings is that Trawick allegedly identified as bisexual. A member of the New York ballroom community, he reportedly worked as an aerobics instructor and enjoyed voguing.

Liem claims these intersections often put a target on individuals’ backs during interactions with police.

“People of color—and black folks in particular—are disproportionately impacted by the NYPD’s abusive practices,” she says. “But when folks having other types of vulnerabilities—for example, being gay, queer, or openly trans, being low-income, or being a person who may have a mental health diagnosis or is in emotional distress—all of those things elevate your risk.”

With almost no information from the NYPD, activists are calling on the attorney general’s office to intervene. They’re hoping to discern what deescalation tactics, if any, were utilized by police officers prior to the confrontation with Trawick to avoid fatal injury.

“We see broadly there’s little to no deescalation put forward by police before resorting to violence,” Eliel Cruz, communications director for the New York City Anti-Violence Project, tells NewNowNext.

But activists claim it isn’t merely the police who failed Trawick. Since his death on April 15, there’s been very little coverage of the incident, and they say some of that reporting has been troubling. The opening paragraphs of the Post report describe the victim as a “muscle bound man” who went by the name of “Chaos,” which Walker says sends the implicit message that he was “hypermasculine and hyperaggressive.”

Brian Brigantti

Meanwhile, the New York Daily News disclosed that Trawick had been taking HIV medication, effectively outing him as HIV-positive.

“For them to use his HIV status and talk about his physique to make him threatening, it builds a narrative of a justifiable homicide,” Walker claims. “It was completely ridiculous and dishonest to who he was. Some of our media here did an awful job.”

Those who came together to remember Trawick on Monday hope to rewrite that narrative by focusing on the deceased’s humanity. The 30 people who withstood the harsh downpour to attend the intimate, emotional vigil carried candles along with photos of the victim. In one, Trawick is pictured in a black mesh top as he gazes off-camera. Another reads, “Gone too soon.”

In keeping with that message, gatherers released 32 white balloons to honor every year of Trawick’s life. But according to Cruz, activists remain fearful their calls for compassion, justice, and accountability will continue to be ignored.

“There’s been such little attention paid to [Trawick’s death],” he says. “We are worried this will be brushed underneath the rug.”

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.
@Nico_Lang