Eleanor Bumpurs would have been 102 years old this month if she were alive. But for being four months behind on her monthly rent of $98.65, the disabled elderly Black woman, remembered for her gloomy-looking 1981 photograph, was shotgunned to death by NYPD officers, an example of how Black folks have been vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence since time immemorial.
The 67-year-old’s killing indeed drew widespread media coverage and public outcry from Black leaders, who demanded changes in policing. The tragic death of the mother of seven and grandmother of 10 occurred on October 29, 1984, in her Bronx apartment as the police made efforts to evict her.
Months before Bumpurs’ death, her rent payment history was good but that didn’t stop authorities from starting eviction proceedings against her when she was only one month behind. Records showed that the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) had emergency rent funds for seniors facing eviction, but Bumpurs was denied such funds.
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Rather, the HRA brought in a psychiatrist, who spoke with her for a short period before advising that she should be evicted and hospitalized over what he deemed to be psychosis.
On October 29, the day of her eviction, the city marshal came to evict Bumpurs but when she refused to answer the door, the police were called. Housing authority workers requested NYPD assistance to evict her after telling it that Bumpurs “was emotionally disturbed, had threatened to throw boiling lye, and was using a knife to resist eviction.”
A team of a half dozen officers from the Emergency Services Unit (ESU), wearing masks and carrying shields and a long iron restraining bar as well as a shotgun, broke down her door and forcibly entered her apartment, a 1985 Unity Newspaper reported. The team found inside the apartment Bumpurs, 275 pounds, naked, and allegedly holding a 10-inch kitchen knife. They then attempted to subdue Bumpurs, but in the struggle to do so, one officer shot Bumpurs twice with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Here’s how the Unity Newspaper reported it: “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.”
That wasn’t the end of Bumpurs’ woes as reports said the police carried her out of the building still naked and when her family came back to her apartment weeks after her death, they found part of her finger.
Soon, Bumpurs’ killing sparked local and national outrage. Demonstrations, marches, and candlelight vigils that were organized to protest her murder and the rising police violence in the city, led in the pursuit of legal justice for Bumpurs.
Investigations did commence in her case but concluded that her eviction was justified because she was behind on rent. Sullivan was later indicted on manslaughter charges and acquitted.
The city in the end paid the Bumpurs family $200,000 to settle a civil suit but not without grassroots organizing led by Mary Bumpers, the daughter of the deceased. Mary, alongside Veronica Perry, whose 17-year-old son was shot and killed by the police, led a grassroots initiative in New York City to fight police violence in Black communities in the 1980s.
At the end of the day, the NYPD “changed its guidelines to require a senior officer to be on hand before police confront an emotionally disturbed person,” according to a report. The police also began to carry less-lethal weapons, including tasers, and since then, they are only supposed to use deadly force if there is an immediate threat to someone’s life.
But what do we see today? It’s unfortunate that circumstances surrounding Bumpurs’ death still achingly linger on, as evident in the excessive police use of deadly force and racial discrimination in the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, among others.
But Black communities have shown in the wake of recent protests that they will never rest until they see the end of police killings of Black people in the United States.