“The law doesn’t stand for us . . . All I want is some justice, and I’m in this battle till the very end. We have to keep it going so people don’t forget, because just like it was my mother, it could have been someone else’s mother.” —Mary Bumpurs
BRONX, N Y—This October 29 is the one-year anniversary of the death of Eleanor Bumpurs, a 67-year-old Black grandmother who was shotgunned to death by city police during an eviction procedure.
One year later, police officer Stephen Sullivan is still on the force, and the community is still fighting for justice.
We will never forget what happened
The killing of Eleanor Bumpurs stands as one of the most barbaric instances of racist police violence against the African American people.
The tragedy began months before the fateful day of her death, with the racist indifference and incompetence of two city bureaucracies, the Housing Authority and the Human Resources Administration (HRA).
Eviction proceedings were started against Mrs. Bumpurs when she was only one month behind in her $97/ month government-subsidized apartment, even though she had a good rent payment history. The HRA has emergency rent funds for seniors facing eviction, but these were never offered to Mrs. Bumpurs. Instead, an HRA psychiatrist who briefly interviewed Mrs. Bumpurs came up with the bizarre and legally questionable advice that she should be evicted, and upon her eviction taken to a hospital.
On October 29, 1984, the day of the eviction, the psychiatrist was nowhere around, but the city marshal came to evict Mrs. Bumpurs. When she refused to answer the door, the police were called, even though police are not supposed to be used in evictions, which are civil matters. A team of a half dozen officers from the Emergency Services Unit (ESU) arrived wearing masks and carrying shields, a long iron restraining bar and a shotgun. They forcibly entered the apartment. As she tried to dodge the restraining bar, Stephen Sullivan fired his shotgun at Mrs. Bumpurs. Though the blast destroyed her hand (and with it, a knife she was allegedly holding), Sullivan fired a second and fatal blast at her chest.
The police’s racist disrespect for African Americans did not stop here. They carried Mrs. Bumpurs, still alive but bleeding terribly, out of the building naked. A few weeks later when her family was allowed back into her apartment, they found part of her finger.
Under capitalism, money is more important than human life. A city investigation into the Bumpurs case concluded that the eviction was justified because Mrs. Bumpurs was behind in her rent. The bungling at HRA was dismissed as “errors in judgment.” The only action taken was to demote two supervisors and terminate the psychiatrist’s contract. As for Stephen Sullivan, the police department claimed he was “acting within guidelines.”
Outrage at the murder of Eleanor Bumpurs was immediate and widespread. There were demonstrations, marches, candlelight vigils and coalitions that were formed.
At the same time, Koch worked hard to thwart justice through blatant attempts to influence the grand jury that was convened to investigate the case.
The Police Benevolent Association (PBA) flexed its political muscles, staging a demonstration of 10,000 police outside the Bronx district attorney’s office, the largest demonstration of police ever held in the U.S. The PBA spent over $15,000 in radio advertisements defending Sullivan. Elliot Gross, the chief medical examiner, tried to aid the police by editing Mrs. Bumpurs’ autopsy report so it would not specify the number of times she was shot.
In January 1985, the grand jury indicted Sullivan on charges of second- degree manslaughter. The right wing continued its campaign, however, and succeeded in getting the charges dismissed in the state Supreme Court in April.
On September 26, a hearing was held in the appellate court on the Bronx district attorney’s appeal to reinstate charges against Sullivan. Once again, as they have done many times over the past year, people from the Bronx and the rest of the city packed the courtroom to show their insistence that justice be done.
Courtroom mobilizations such as these are one aspect of work taken up by the Eleanor Bumpurs Justice Committee (EBJC) over the last year. The EBJC is comprised of tenant leaders, welfare mothers, workers and grassroots community activists. Mary Bumpurs told Unity, “The EBJC is where the backbone is coming from now, steadily staying on the case.”
Carol Lucas, a member of the Welfare Action Coalition who has been active in the EBJC, told Unity, “It’s so important for organizations to work together, to get out there and educate people, knock on doors, get people involved. Some ‘organizers’ act too high and mighty; they forget where they came from. We need to make community people feel like they’re wanted, that they’re important, and teach them to be organizers. This is what we stress.”
In addition to keeping the Bumpurs case alive, the EBJC has addressed the general issues of police violence and tenants’ and seniors’ rights. For example, the EBJC has co-initiated, along with the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a citywide coalition of housing and tenants’ groups to demand a moratorium on evictions. With over 20,000 homeless, and a 2% vacancy rate of rental units, a severe housing crisis exists for the working class and poor in the city.
On October 29, the EBJC will sponsor a one-year commemoration program for Eleanor Bumpurs. A decision from the state appellate court on the re-indictment of Stephen Sullivan is also expected around that time. It will be an important time in the quest for justice for Eleanor Bumpurs and the ongoing struggle against racist police violence.