‘Crime Is a Construct': My Morning With the Park Slope Panthers
A Brooklyn man with politics ‘to the left of Lenin’ tries to organize a neighborhood watch. It didn’t go quite as planned.
In the last couple of months in Park Slope—the baby bjorn-wearing capital of bourgeois-bohemian New York—a thief absconded with $200,000 worth of jewelry in a smash and grab, three boys stole a bunch of iPhones off of subway riders, a ticked off customer attacked the owner of a bike store, $6,000 was stolen from an auto shop, and a beloved pet was catnapped from a bodega on Seventh Avenue.
But it was the death of a golden retriever mix named Moose that activated the residents of the South Brooklyn enclave.
Early in the morning on August 3, Moose and his owner—Jessica Chrustic, 41—were out on a walk when a homeless man who lives in the park gave chase. He hit them both with a large stick and threw a container of urine on Moose, while muttering about immigrants taking over the park. The dog died a few days later from internal injuries, after two emergency surgeries. The man who killed him is still at large.
A few weeks later, on August 20, Kristian Nammack issued a call to action on Nextdoor, a social media site for local organizing: “Do we want to organize a community safety patrol, and take our park back? Think what the Guardian Angels did to take back the subways in the 70s/early 80s. We may also get to wear cool berets. I’m being serious.”
Nammack, 59, had been part of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, and his financial consultancy firm focuses on themes of “climate, renewable energy, gender lens, racial equity, economic advancement.” “How about PARK SLOPE PANTHERS as a group name?” he suggested.
When I got to the inaugural Park Slope Panthers meeting—held last Saturday in Prospect Park, near where Chrustic was attacked—there were six people, including Nammack. We were overlooking a sloping meadow that was bathed in sunshine and filled with giggling kids and hipster couples on dates. It was one of those early fall days that reminds you why you’re willing to live in a city with more rats than human beings. Nammack was handing out pale yellow t-shirts that said “Park Slope Panthers” with a logo—two “P”s nested together—printed on the front.
Nammack explained that while we were all there because of Moose, there were other things to be concerned about. It seemed like there were more homeless people sleeping in the park, in the subway station, and on the trains and streets. There was more garbage everywhere in the neighborhood, more crappy vape shops and stores that sold Delta-8 weed, and more delivery guys on bikes blasting faster through crosswalks. Packages, bikes, and catalytic converters were getting stolen. Nammack told the group how he’d tried to help a local store owner while a group of 15-year-olds robbed his store. One of the teens had a knife.
The group—a few older, white women who love their pets; a young white man who said he was there for the sake of his younger sister’s safety; a forty-something Asian woman who wanted to “elevate Park Slope culture as a whole”—nodded along.
The Venn diagram for Park Slopers and Democratic voters is pretty much a circle. No one wanted to be labeled Park Karens. This made the whole crime-fighting thing a bit awkward: “It’s about finding a way that’s non-biased to report these things and have people feel like it’s safe here,” said Emily, one of the Panthers.“You don’t want to fall into that stereotype of privilege.”
A group of four who looked to be in their early twenties—three women and one man—rolled up about 15 minutes into the meeting. “Are y’all the Park Slope Panthers?” The one who asked was dragging a speaker on wheels and playing electronic music, presumably to drown out the meeting. “We are super not into you guys having your meeting or doing anything in the park.”
The young activist—who was white, wore glasses, grew up in Park Slope, and had a medical-grade face mask on, like his three comrades—was also super not into the cops, or anything resembling the cops. When Nammack told him we were taking turns introducing ourselves, the activist informed Nammack that he wasn’t “super into abiding by the structure that you’re setting up.”
Nammack asked them to just move along. When the glasses kid replied, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that,” Nammack invited them to sit, prompting the group of Conscientious Interrupters to decamp to a nearby tree to game plan. The park was filling. There were barbecues and birthday parties underway. Eventually the young activists decided to join the circle.
“What’s with you calling yourself the Panthers?” said another dude who had just appeared wearing a black hoodie and looking to be in his forties. He seemed more of a weathered activist, a bit more hardcore than the kids, and he didn’t want to wait his turn. He said his piece, followed by another newcomer named Damien, who wanted to join the group rather than protest it.
Nammack picked up the thread again. Back during the Occupy Wall Street days, he informed us, they took turns speaking. “I think it’s your turn, then your turn, then your turn, then your turn, then your turn,” he said. When it was his turn to introduce himself, Nammack said, “I have a non-profit and two companies. I’m too busy to run a neighborhood watch group, but I can’t help but be community-concerned.” He was from Long Island and had lived in Sweden, which he loved because it was “less hierarchical.” Nammack said he was “left of Lenin” when one of the activists accused him of being a vigilante. (When Tucker Carlson reached out to have Nammack on his show, he told Carlson to “fuck off.”)
As far as the name, and the fortysomething dude’s problem with it: “There’s two statues of panthers at an entrance to the park,” Nammack pointed out, gesturing toward the two limestone pedestals designed by Stanford White. The panthers had been sculpted by Alexander Phimister Proctor, and had been there since 1898.
Didn’t matter. “Using the Panthers as your group’s name is kind of abhorrent to me,” said one of the girls. She was white, wearing cut-off jean shorts, loafers with socks, and a Baggu purse. “It feels antithetical to what the Black Panthers would stand for.” The next girl to speak said her name was Sky. She, too, was white, and had also grown up in the neighborhood: “It’s easy to be wrong about who you’re going after, particularly when those are some of the few black people still living in the neighborhood, and they’ve been pushed out on the streets by all white, ultra-wealthy people.”
“We can be the tigers!” suggested Dionne, the middle-aged woman next to me. Sweet Dionne.
But what should they reasonably do about the man who had killed Moose? He’d reportedly been spotted swinging a stick on Flatbush Avenue, chasing down another woman and her dog in the park while screaming, “Let’s see some action here!” The kid with the speaker spoke up: “So, it sounds like this person has been pushed out of an unimaginable amount of systems.” He added that the assailant was probably “neurodivergent.”
“Crime is an abstract term that means nothing in a lot of ways,” said Sky. “The construct of crime has been so socially constructed to target black and poor people.”
“Right, yeah, I agree with you!” countered one of the older folks, who seemed confused.
Damien—the one black guy here, who had emigrated to Park Slope from Trinidad and Tobago—chimed in. “Just to levelset the room, we’re not here to cause harm or be vigilantes to anyone. Maybe we could work together to find a solution, because I don’t fucking know what the solution is, but we all want the same thing.” Do we?
A woman in a blue jumpsuit approached the group, pulling her gray hood over her blue cap that read “ACAB” (as in, “All Cops Are Bastards”) in big white block letters. Her name was Cece.
She suggested we could build a community where we all took care of each other and no one ever had to call the police. Someone else said, “I get angry and lash out at people when I’m hungry and haven’t slept well and people are being mean to me all day.” Another observed, “I’ve never killed a dog, but we’ve all hurt people.”
If you enjoy Common Sense, support our work by becoming a subscriber today:
A homeless person named Minx joined us: “The biggest threat that I feel is from people like you.” And then Minx started tearing up. “You have the power to hurt me so much more than I have the power to hurt you.”
Now Nammack was trying to prove his bona fides. Did he mention Occupy Wall Street? And Sweden? All of this was Reagan’s fault for slashing social services. “I saw someone whose shorts were covered in dried blood and his hand was bloody,” relayed CeCe, but she didn’t call the cops on him. “My brother has dementia and there were points where if you got near him he would bite you,” Dionne confided. Finally, Nammack had to go. He said he’d follow up with everyone over email with “next steps.” Nammack asked Damien if he wanted to head the working group to come up with a mission statement. Sky asked if it could be on a Google doc so “we can all feel comfortable participating,” since we hadn’t exactly established a “philosophy of safety” quite yet.
The next day Nammack emailed everyone—minus the kids who’d interrupted. “Their youthful disruptive method is not what will move us forward so I am not including them in this initiative right now,” he explained. He booked a room in the library for the next meeting, and one of the older women was going to bring some information on self-defense and how they might get pepper spray.
But then the meeting was pushed a week because someone was visiting friends in Connecticut, and then Nammack was busy with Climate Week. In the meantime, Nammack met with two staffers at the office of his local council person, Shahana Hanif, about the dangerous homeless man with the stick. “They said their biggest concern is that the perpetrator is not arrested and sent to Rikers because they are concerned for his wellbeing!!!” he wrote in an email to the group.
Soon after, Nammack woke up to red graffiti on the sidewalk outside his front door:
“Don’t be a cop, Kris.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece said that the Occupy Wall Street movement took place in 2008. In fact, it took place in 2011.