Police Violence Commentary: Another NYPD Murder — Two Decades Ago
By Harvey Blume
To be killed — as in murdered — by police, you don’t necessarily have to be a person of color.
These days, when police killings of Black men and women are occurring with astonishing consistency, even in the face of the massive protest movement that has arisen in response, it may seem capricious to single out a police murder that occurred on August 30, 1999, in Borough Park Brooklyn. But it was among the most flagrant of its kind. Police were not wearing body cams that afternoon, and no videos have come to light, but, according to many witnesses, this would have to be counted as one of the most flagrant of police killings: it was in broad daylight when cops ringed around Gary Busch, coming out of his basement in his prayer shawl, and shot him, as one witness put it, “execution style.”
Busch was white and Jewish. That he was Jewish worked against him posthumously because, though initial protests against the police action almost resulted in an unprecedented Hasidic riot, Mayor Giuliani knew just how to divide and ultimately silence the voice of Jewish protest.
First published in The American Prospect, Volume 11, Issue 20. September 11, 2000.
Two months after the fact, New York City Mayor Giuliani, purportedly mellowed by prostate cancer, issued an apology of sorts to the family of Patrick Dorismond, the unarmed Haitian-American man killed by New York police in March. The mayor did not apologize for the killing itself or for having personally unsealed Dorismond’s juvenile police record the day after the event in a transparent attempt to defame Dorismond and justify the shooting, but he did say he regretted not having shown “compassion for … a tragic situation.” However meager this apology was, it is more than the mayor has ever extended toward the family of Gary Busch, the 31-year-old Hasidic man killed by police in Brooklyn just a year ago.
Gary Busch is the forgotten man on the roster of NYPD killings, a victim not only of 12 bullets fired by four policemen arrayed in a semi-circle around him, but of political and social circumstances that have conspired to make him invisible. Others who have suffered from NYPD overreaction or brutality –Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and Patrick Dorismond, to name but the best-known — have enjoyed some measure of public vindication, if only posthumously, largely because the communities from which they come have demanded it. Busch’s death, like Dorismond’s, points to systemic problems within the NYPD and a mayor all too quick to cover them up, but Busch did not get the kind of support from New York City’s Jewish community that Dorismond got from Haitian Americans. In the event, the Jewish establishment proved better at venting about the Holocaust, which takes no particular courage or insight 50 years after the fact, than at assessing and responding to injustice right before its eyes.
Going by his Hebrew name, Gideon, Gary Busch had been living in his one-room basement apartment in Borough Park for eight months when the police, summoned by a neighbor complaining about noise, came to his door on the evening of w. Busch was a ba’al teshuvah, the Jewish version of being born again. Ever since leaving medical school in 1995, when he was diagnosed with a chronic kidney ailment, he had pursued a spiritual approach to the world that led, ultimately, to his dedicating himself to Halacha, or the observance of Jewish law. In Israel he belonged for a time to a small sect of Hasidim whose rabbi claimed to have a letter straight from God by way of Rabbi Nachman, one of the forefathers of Hasidism. Back in the United States, he moved away from this group, whose practices of chanting and fasting tested the bounds of Orthodoxy, without sacrificing his ambition to lead a spiritually intense life. He lived for a time with his mother, Doris Busch Boskey, in Long Island but moved to Borough Park, a Hasidic enclave, because, as Rabbi Dov Sears, who talked to him frequently in Brooklyn, put it: “He wanted to be where the davenning [praying] was beautiful.”
When Gary Busch answered the door that evening in August, he was wearing a yarmulke, as always, as well as tefillin, or phylacteries, the small leather boxes the Orthodox bind around the arm and forehead during prayer. In addition he was holding a small hammer. This hammer took on inordinate importance in what was to follow, with police repeatedly stressing the fact that it was a “claw” hammer, as if that made it anything other than an ordinary household tool. If there were anything unusual about the hammer, it was that Busch had transformed it into a religious object, inscribing two of the Hebrew names of God–YHVH and Elohim — on its handle, and integrating it into his prayers: Busch’s fiancée, Netanya Ullman, reports that Gary called the hammer his “staff” and would sometimes hold it aloft while praying, making slow tai chi-like movements directed at the heavens.
Two of the policemen had encountered Gary Busch earlier that day, when called by a neighbor who may have been nonplussed by the fact that Percy Freeman, a homeless black man Busch occasionally fed, was visiting Busch. In any case, police found nothing amiss and took no action. On the second visit, police pulled Freeman out of the apartment, threw him to the ground, and handcuffed him. Another officer leaned over the railing above the door to the apartment and sprayed Busch in the face with pepper spray. Busch, screaming, evidently in pain and quite possibly unable to see–blinding being a common effect of pepper spray — rushed frantically up the stairs to the sidewalk, brushing against police on his way. It was this glancing and unintentional moment of physical contact that police reports were to magnify into an armed assault that could be neutralized only with deadly force.
On the sidewalk, Busch backed into a brick wall, still screaming and clutching the hammer on high, as if, according to one eyewitness, “this little hammer was going to protect him.” Four policeman surrounded Busch, with two others across the street and members of the Emergency Services Unit on the way. The cops ordered Busch to drop the hammer. When he didn’t, one fired. There was a short pause, then 11 more shots. Busch lay bleeding on the ground, fatally wounded and, for some crucial minutes, untended as police turned their attention to pushing back onlookers. To many of these, the sight of a man conspicuously arrayed in the garments of Judaism, and cut down as he impotently raised a hammer toward the sky, was likely a nightmare vision straight out of the European past they or their parents had escaped. One eyewitness, Raphael Eisenberg, told me: “I know what I saw. I saw a police execution.” In the days and weeks following the shooting, many witnesses came forward to say much the same thing.
Police canvassed witnesses, looking for testimony that Busch had been the aggressor. According to one onlooker, when they heard anything that did not fit this version of events, they crumpled the page they were writing on and moved along. Right there, at the site of the shooting, the cover-up had really and truly begun. In fact, it may have begun still earlier, during the shooting itself. One plausible explanation for why 12 bullets were fired at an unarmed man is that police were determined not to let one of their number take the fall for a manifestly bad shooting and, after a pause, covered that first shot with the deadly volley. In any case, the blue wall of silence descended directly after the shooting, when all four cops professed themselves unable to remember who among them had fired first.
Busch was dead on arrival at Maimonides Hospital, where he was maintained for hours as “John Doe,” as if the police had any doubts about his address or identity. Newscasters, at any rate, entertained no such doubts. It was from the 10:00 p.m. news that Doris Busch Boskey, Gary’s mother, learned that her son had been killed. Maintaining Busch as a John Doe was one of the many ways police deflected attention from the body and the site of the shooting for as long as possible. When Glenn Busch, Gary’s brother, arrived at the scene that night, he was shunted from Borough Park’s 69th Precinct, where his presence might have been a lightning rod for Hasidic anger at the police, to the 70th Precinct, which had the unhappy distinction of being the station house where Abner Louima had been tortured. Pressed by detectives to talk about his brother’s “mental state,” Glenn Busch, an attorney, got his first inkling that something was terribly wrong with police behavior in this case, and demanded, instead, to know “about the mental state of the police who killed my brother.”
Gary Busch’s mental state would loom as large as the claw hammer in police accounts. In the police story, Busch was a madman on a rampage, and officers did no more than was necessary to protect themselves and bystanders from harm. But portraying Busch as deranged was not without drawbacks for the police. There are clear protocols for officers to follow in encounters with the mentally ill, protocols that advise against the use of pepper spray; enjoin police to wait for the arrival of the specially trained Emergency Services Unit, which, in this case, officers knew was on the way; and stress that the “primary duty is to preserve human life…. Deadly physical force will be used ONLY as a last resort.” If, as they claimed, Gary Busch was mentally disturbed, then police were guilty of multiple violations of their own guidelines in dealing with him, and this fact was not lost on the press. But despite the charges of misconduct to which it exposed them, the portrayal of Busch as hammer-wielding madman worked to police advantage in the long run. Though it could not be substantiated, the image never fully dissipated, and it gave further pause to anyone disinclined to challenge police authority.
Because the police made so much of it, it is logical to ask about Gary Busch’s mental state and his character. According to Glenn Busch, Gary had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, for which he had been briefly hospitalized on several occasions. The disorder manifested itself most notably in Busch’s periods of depression and withdrawal, but also, perhaps, in his manic moods of religious enthusiasm. As Rabbi Sears pointed out, donning tefillin in the evening, as Busch did on occasion, is frowned upon by tradition, according to which only during the Talmudic era were Jews deemed worthy of wearing tefillin at any time other than at morning prayer. That he wore tefillin when custom discouraged it may well have been a sign that, as he confided to Sears, Busch saw himself as singled out, destined for a special purpose.
The classic portrayal of a bipolar personality in a religious context is Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, Gershom Scholem’s magisterial biography of the 17th-century Jewish messiah. Sabbatai Sevi went from the heights of elation, when he would violate Jewish law with a prayer of thanks to God for permitting that which was forbidden, to the literal depths of the Sultan’s dungeons, where he was made to abjure any notion that he was the promised one who would lead the Jews back to Palestine. Other studies of bipolar personality, notably those by Kay Redfield Jamison, show how deeply consonant this personality type is with both religious and artistic vocations.
Busch’s occasional low moods, together with his periods of exaltation, during which he might bend or extend the norms of Judaism, seem to conform to the bipolar type. But however illuminating this may be about the conjunction of psychology and spirituality, it no more justified what happened to Busch on the evening of August 30 than Patrick Dorismond’s juvenile record justified his being shot by police the following March. Busch was a sought-after Shabbat guest in homes throughout Borough Park and the wider New York and New Jersey Hasidic communities in which he traveled. Hundreds of people from these communities attended his funeral in Long Island, many of them testifying to what Rabbi Sears characterized as Gary Busch’s idealism and his “talent” for human interaction. Busch was a seeker who learned over time to balance his deep religious feelings with the demands of day-to-day existence, in his last year completing a course of study in computer science and setting up shop as a free-lance Web designer. Most important: Never, except in the self-serving police reports issued after the shooting, had Busch been accused of violence.
During the night of August 30, a crowd of up to 1,000 Hasidim, some of them chanting “Cossack” and “Nazi” at police, took to the streets in Borough Park. Mayor Giuliani could sustain — perhaps even welcome — an adversarial relationship to New York City’s Haitian and West African communities, but the district that includes Borough Park had returned an 88 percent vote for him in the last election, and he could not hope to defeat Hillary Clinton in the anticipated New York Senate race without this Hasidic backing. Working late into the night, mayoral aides rounded up 20 Borough Park rabbis and community leaders for an 8:30 meeting at City Hall the next morning. With the mayor at his side, Police Commissioner Howard Safir announced that patrolmen had fired on Busch only when pepper spray failed to deter him from assaulting “two fallen officers, smashing his hammer repeatedly into one of them.” Safir boasted of “seven independent witnesses who confirm … [that] as he continued to hit the sergeant with the claw hammer, the police fired 12 shots.”
This account came apart almost as soon as it was delivered. The New York Times, for example, shortly reported that “investigators have been unable to find a single witness, much less seven, who described the shooting the way Mr. Safir did.” Readers of New York newspapers also learned that the city’s medical examiner was unable to find gunpowder residues on Busch’s clothing, indicating that all 12 bullets had been fired from a distance, rather than from up close, as would have been the case had any of the police been under attack. Stripped of Safir’s fabrications, the shooting of Busch could be seen for what it was, a police killing even more flagrant in its way than that of Amadou Diallo. In the case of Diallo, it was night; he had reached for a wallet that panicking police could claim they thought was a gun. No such circumstances pertained with regard to Busch: It was daylight when he was killed; he had no gun; and, praying in his apartment, he posed no threat to anyone.
With the police account in shreds, this was a moment political action could have shifted the focus of attention from Gary Busch’s supposed mental state and his claw hammer to, as Glenn Busch put it, “the mental state of the police who killed my brother.” Public pressure applied at this juncture would have made it more difficult for a hastily assembled grand jury, called a week after the shooting, to clear police of all wrongdoing before anything like a full investigation could be carried out.
However, the political will needed to contend with Giuliani and Safir was absent in New York City’s Jewish community. After meetings with Giuliani, the Hasidic leadership cut protest off at its source in Borough Park, plastering the neighborhood with leaflets that warned followers not to commit “Chilul Hashem,” or profanation of the name of God, by taking to the streets. In many ways, Hasidic docility is easier to understand than the indecision, disorientation, and indifference displayed by other Jewish groups. The Hasidim had a kind of quid pro quo going with Giuliani. He would offer them police protection of the kind they felt they lacked under David Dinkins, the previous mayor, and — regardless of the fact that he couldn’t offer them protection from the police itself — the rabbis, in turn, would guarantee a solid pro-Giuliani bloc at the polls. In addition, Giuliani was friendly to the kind of subtle erosions of the separation of church and state — as in privately funded vouchers for religious schooling — that played well in Hasidic neighborhoods. The same line of reasoning helps to explain the inaction of Agudath Israel, the influential organization of the Orthodox, which, according to spokesman Rabbi Avi Shaffran, “let investigation take its course [in the case of Gary Busch]. It did, and turned up little to be concerned about.”
But what could account for the fact that Tikkun magazine, organ of a supposed Jewish renewal and a supposed Jewish left, could wax eloquent on the subject of Amadou Diallo — with editor Peter Gabel intoning that Diallo’s fate filled him with nostalgia for the Black Panthers and made him long for “Malcolm X to resume his pulpit on the corner of 125th Street calling on blacks to arm themselves” — but have precisely nothing to say on the subject of Gary Busch? Tikkun was joined in this resounding silence by its opposite numbers in the Jewish establishment, including the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee.
As for the Forward, New York City’s largest Jewish weekly, it did, initially, allot space to Dov Hikind, a state assemblyman from Borough Park, who arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting and, from the first, refused to credit the Giuliani/Safir version of events. Hikind wrote, “In my 17 years in office, I have been a strong and consistent supporter of the police department…. But do not expect a knee-jerk reaction from me when deadly mistakes are made. I cannot and will not close my eyes.” But then, in an editorial, the Forward quickly reverted to Cold War form, worrying far more that the Hasidim would wind up as political putty in the hands of Reverend Al Sharpton than that the circumstances of Busch’s death would be covered up and forgotten. The editorial refers to Giuliani in clubby fashion as “Hizzoner” and faithfully repeats the crucial elements of Safir’s story, calling Busch “an unbalanced ba’al teshuva … killed after threatening a policeman with a hammer.”
One of the peculiar — and to the Forward, unsettling — consequences of the shooting was that it did bring some of Reverend Al Sharpton’s most bitter enemies around to seeing the point of campaigns against police brutality. Writing in The Jewish Press, generally the most right wing of the city’s Jewish weeklies, Rabbi Shmuel Kunda compared the Jewish community’s willingness to accede to the police version of events to the “reaction in the black community to the murder of Amadou Diallo. The noise and protests continue to be heard throughout their neighborhoods, and rightfully so!”
The Jewish Press has continued to keep Busch’s death before its readership, striking at various Hasidic prejudices along the way. To many Hasidim, Yankel Rosenbaum, killed by blacks during disturbances in Crown Heights in 1991, has taken on the status of a martyr, whereas Gary Busch, killed by police, has seemed a more equivocal case. Kunda has attacked this bias head-on: “In truth, was the murder of [Gideon] Busch any less brutal, any less senseless, any less cold blooded than that of Yankel Rosenbaum? Was it less painful for his family and friends? Does it deserve less of a response and attention from us? … Think about the message that our indifference sends to all the New York City cops and to their brass and to the man in City Hall.” And in March, long after most other organs of opinion had forgotten Busch, a Jewish Press editorial asked: “Why is Hillary Clinton only concerned about how Amadou Diallo’s death pointed to systemic problems in the NYPD but not Gideon Busch’s? … how is it that our glorious Jewish leaders have yet to utter any criticism of Mayor Giuliani’s shameful role in closing off any investigation of the NYPD’s role in Busch’s death?”
The Jewish Press has been joined in its consistent stand on Busch by Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, a liberal group with roots in the Upper West Side B’nai Jeshrun congregation, but these are the exceptions. Consider, for example, the behavior of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL has taken no stand on the shooting of Gary Busch, but when the Whitney Biennial opened in March, the organization was quick to oppose the display of an artwork by Hans Haacke, in which some of Giuliani’s especially demagogic remarks about art (along with some of Pat Buchanan’s racist remarks) are displayed on the wall in Fraktur, the favorite typeface of the Nazis. In a press release, the ADL registered its opposition to this piece on the grounds that “Mr. Haacke’s use of Nazi imagery … trivializes the horrors of the Holocaust and denigrates the memory of the six million Jews and others who were killed by the Nazis.” How so? Haacke’s piece did not mention the Holocaust. Is the ADL implying that anyone who refers to Hitler or the Nazis must first tag on a few ADL-approved sentiments about the Holocaust? Perhaps the ADL’s addled stance — silence with regard to Busch, activism with regard to Haacke — should be seen as a sign of deep deracination within the organization. Or perhaps it’s simply easier for the ADL to chase Holocaust ghosts than to confront a living, and easily angered, New York City mayor.
The affair of Gary Busch can be broken down into three parts. The first is the killing itself. I got a feeling for the loss Gary Busch’s family sustained when I visited his basement apartment with Doris Busch, who has maintained the residence in his memory. Gary had been close to his mother throughout his life — Glenn Busch tells me they had a common artistic temperament — and several of her paintings were on the walls, including a seascape and a country lane. It was in this apartment that I also met Netanya Ullman, Gary’s fiancée, a tall, warm 25-year-old woman who shared Gary’s passion for Judaism and who came to Borough Park the night of the shooting expecting to accompany Busch to a friend’s wedding.
The second strata of the Busch affair is the cover-up, signs of which remain evident in the apartment itself, torn apart by police in the immediate wake of the shooting in a frantic and fruitless search for drugs or weapons. The third element of the Busch affair is the inability of New York City’s large and powerful Jewish community to react. This, no doubt, is partly due to a few too many deals struck between the Hasidic leadership and the Giuliani regime. It is due, as well, to a rift within the Jewish world that separates ultra-Orthodox Jews from others and that prevents united action. Then, of course, it’s more prudent in New York City today to denounce Hitler than to challenge Giuliani, and if one does the former loudly enough, it is almost possible to disguise one’s fear about doing the latter. Finally, the effects of Halachic correctness (HC) on political response cannot be underestimated. HC has taken the place of PC in the lives of many Jews, among whom a newfound fussiness about the fine points of liturgy serves to dull awareness of inconvenient political realities.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.