Michael was Murdered. Discovering Police Brutality in the death of Michael Stewart.
Whenever I tell people the story of what happened to Michael Stewart lately I start to cry. Even though he was killed over 36 years ago. In fact, sometimes his death seems worse to me now than when it happened. I’m not sure why. Is it because, at the time, his death was so frightening that I couldn’t bear to imagine the light disappearing from his eyes, his consciousness evaporating into darkness as a cop pulled a nightstick tighter and tighter against his neck? A bunch of burly cops and skinny, shy, friendly, pretty Michael, closed in the impenetrable metal box of a police van? Because I didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t understand what his death meant? Couldn’t bear to picture it? This wasn’t abstract news. This was someone I knew. Maybe the horror of it froze my emotions except for anger that something so wrong could happen. But I didn’t cry.
So why does what happened to Michael Stewart, so many years later, make me cry now? I wasn’t close to Michael. But his death changed me. Changed all of us in our circle on the Lower East Side in 1983.
We hung out once that I remember. Michael and I were both part of a circle around Madonna as she came up from the downtown scene, centered around Danceteria and other clubs like Mudd, Pyramid, Lucky Strike. Where Haoui Montaug, the Danceteria doorman and tastemaker who presented Madonna for the first time in No Entiendes, his knowing Danceteria cabaret, ruled. I was friends with Hauoi’s roommate Cathy, and with Madonna’s sometime roommate and best friend Martin Burgoyne. Michael and I were both in Madonna’s first music video, for Everybody, her first song. “I’m performing at the Garage, are you gonna come?” she asked me at Lucky Strike one night. “If you put me on the guest list,” I told her. Arrogant of me, in a way, but she just blinked those big heavy-lidded eyes and said ok.
After the concert, I ended up in Madonna’s limo with Martin and Michael. A limo — she had a limo! She dropped us off at the Pyramid around 3am — we were too hyped to go home. We danced to Dollar Bill Y’all, the bass throbbing through the roll in our hips and our smoky, giddy brains, swimming in the dark — the Pyramid was so black, an inky pool whose blackness made it seem bigger than it was. The song thrummed in our veins “dollar bill y’all, dollar bill y’all, dollar dollar dollar dollar dollar bill y’all.” Which we didn’t have but so what? We had the song. We’d been to the show, ridden to the club in a limo and were rolling in the dark. The night was perfect. We could laugh about how true the song was, laugh that we knew it was true but didn’t care and anyways the beat was sooooooo good.
When the Pyramid closed Martin invited me and Michael over to smoke some weed. We stood around his gurgling fish tanks with televisions in them — a Nam June Paik tribute, Martin pointed out proudly — passing a joint in the dim light of dawn, giggling madly, slipping down the wall to the floor still laughing. Michael half choked on smoke and laughter, then quieted as we sat there, his face open and alight. We were happy. Nothing could touch us. Afterwards, I walked around the corner, a couple blocks to my own apartment on Avenue B, just above Houston. Light out already, so I didn’t need to be afraid, the way I was if I had to walk home alone in the dark.
On September 15, 1983, police arrested Michael for supposedly tagging in the 14th St. subway station with a magic marker. It was around 3am, the same time we’d been dancing. He was on his way home from hanging out at the Pyramid to Brooklyn, where he lived with his family. He’d recently been fired from a job working security at the Pyramid because he wasn’t aggressive enough (and, at only 140 pounds, physically threatening enough), had lost his apartment, and was in-between things. But like the rest of us, he was optimistic and full of aspirations. He had a lot going on. He painted, hoped to become an artist. He’d recently modeled for Dianne Brill, a new downtown diva. Madonna’s rise made our little world seem full of possibilities for anyone who was creative and cool and unique in the way we thought we were.
But unlike most — though not by any means all — of us on the downtown scene, Michael was Black. And that got him killed.
Our life was dangerous. It was the early 80’s in New York City, crime was high, violence was always a possibility. The city landscape was hard; grey concrete, cold metal, trash-filled empty lots, darkness looming from side streets and doorways. The risk of being mugged, being robbed, hovered each time we stepped outside, antenna up, eyes darting, nerves humming. We vibrated with adrenaline, in the clubs, on the streets. For most of the years I lived on Avenue B, my heart would beat harder when I walked home, my breath tight in my chest. People sold drugs all around me, all the time. Shouts of “coke and dope!” drifted up through my 4th floor windows. People selling “works, works” sat on my stoop, grudgingly moving aside once they saw I wasn’t buying hypodermic needles. The streets were full of burned out buildings, their doors and windows walled up with cinderblock, with rough cave like entrances knocked out so lines of people could file through and cop heroin, shoot up. (I don’t exactly know — I never went in, just averted my face as I walked by, eyes down, afraid to look, maybe glancing sideways to see if anyone I knew was in line.)
The woman who rented me my first sublet on B told me, very matter-of-fact, that living there was safe as long as I didn’t disturb anyone or get in the way of business, because the people who ran the shooting galleries and drug markets didn’t want robberies or muggings that would scare off customers. Which instantly made a bizarre kind of sense. I think she was right — in one of the worst neighborhoods in New York, I never got mugged. But I was still terrified every time I walked home at night with my waitressing or bartending tips. I’d keep the folded wad of bills either in my bra or my boots, alternating as I imagined the pitfalls of either spot if I should get attacked. Would they stick their hands into my bra looking for cash? Take my boots off — and maybe steal them too, the most precious and expensive piece of clothing I owned — and leave me sock footed on the street? Which would be worse?
Taxi drivers, on the rare occasion I could afford a taxi, would scold me, say a girl like me shouldn’t live in a place like this. What they meant, I’m sure, was a white girl like me — and probably, a girl as naïve as I didn’t know I was. My first few years on Avenue B, even my other East Village friends were afraid to come over there. Once Steven Petronio, the choreographer, then dancing with Trisha Brown, walked me back after a party at Lucky Strike, his gallant Italian-American side coming through. I was so grateful for his breezy confidence. Afterwards he told me he was so scared he ran all the way back to Avenue A.
I was so broke I hopped subway turnstiles sometimes, a lot of us did, scanning the station for police first, afraid but still taking a chance. Once a painter I knew tripped over the turnstile bar doing this, fell on his face and bloodied his nose. His girlfriend laughed as she told me, saying the cops felt sorry for him and so didn’t arrest him.
But when Michael was arrested for supposedly writing three letters on the tile wall at 14th Street, police handcuffed him so tightly that his hands turned blue, and threw him, face down, onto the concrete. One of them sat on top of him. He struggled, tried to run, screamed. They bound his feet, so he was trussed up like an animal. At one point, there were 11 cops around him. They put him in the back of a police van and took him to Bellevue Hospital. During that journey he was strangled, and when they got to Bellevue, he was dead. His face was blue from lack of air. At the hospital they resuscitated him, and kept him in a coma for 13 days until he died again. He was only 25 years old.
At the time, Michael’s girlfriend was Suzanne Mallouk, who was also the longtime lover and intimate companion of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Suzanne had split with Jean-Michel at the time, and had been seeing Michael; he lived with her for a while. In Widow Basquiat, a poetic memoir that writer Jennifer Clements did with Suzanne, there’s this description of what Suzanne saw when she went to see Michael in the hospital.
“The room smells of rotten meat. His face is covered in small cuts and bits of glass are visible in his flesh. (Later she learns that the police broke the window of the police car with his face.) His face is huge and swollen. His eyes are bloated, closed pieces of red and black meat. He has cuts and bruises all over his chest and legs. His head is wrapped in a gauze bandage… There are welts on his ankles and wrists. There is no place on his body that has not been hurt.”
Remember him laughing. Remember him dancing. Remember his smooth face, its tender surface, the simultaneous invulnerability and fragility of a beautiful boy with the world opening up to him, who belonged to an insular circle of friends who thought their creativity and cool made them immune.
Word got out. Stewart, a guy who worked at the Pyramid, started organizing the downtown community to protest, coordinating with Suzanne, who was working with Michael’s family and their lawyers. I knew Suzanne slightly through Susan Green, one of my best friends, who was close to Suzanne. Susan used to tell me stories about Suzanne and Jean-Michel; how he was the SAMO who wrote his name and cryptic slogans in Soho. How Suzanne supported him, and he’d painted all over her apartment. Jean was becoming famous by then. He and Michael looked alike; the short, artfully tousled dreads, the tender face, the thin frame in baggy clothes.
Stewart, solemn and respectful, presented Suzanne to us in a meeting at the Pyramid. She was so young, like we all were, round black eyes and a curved red bud of a mouth in a moon-pale face framed by black hair and heavy black eyebrows, her face, with its swooping, symmetrical curves, a kind of gorgeous mask. I’d seen her out, and marveled at how striking she was, how effortlessly sure of herself. There’s a famous photo of her with Jean-Michel, the two of them sitting side by side, him dark, her light, the same inscrutable, challenging look in their eyes. To me Suzanne was quintessentially and innately cool, a girl who represented an ideal, powerfully self-sufficient otherness.
Still, I wasn’t close to Suzanne, just to Susan, so that’s not why I joined the campaign for Michael Stewart. I joined because what happened to him felt so deeply wrong, in a way which threatened my world. Michael was one of us. An aspiring artist, like most of us, someone who wanted to create and be known. A familiar figure in the circles that moved through the Pyramid and other clubs. Someone who played with us. A friend of my friends. How could he have been murdered? How could he have been killed for tagging in the subway? Graffiti artists were cool. We were all going to Friday nights at the Roxy by then, in love with the hiphop emerging from the Bronx, in love with DJ’s scratching records and b-boys spinning and artists spray painting trains and Fab 5 Freddy in songs by Blondie. Keith Haring was becoming famous, and he’d started out by drawing on subway station walls. But while he’d been arrested a few times, the cops never hogtied Keith.
Downtown, in our dark clubs and on the dark streets where we were so contemptuous of pathetically uncool outsiders visiting from their safe, rule-driven life, we thought we were outcast outlaws braving the thrilling jungle of our downtown adventureland. But we never imagined the city coming down on us with brutal, sudden force, crushing us against the hardest surface. The police hurling us to the concrete, banging us against the walls of the van, beating our invulnerability into insensibility. No one was going to choke us with a nightstick. If the police could murder Michael Stewart, if the consequence of living outside the rules wasn’t an exhilarating burst of adrenaline but deadly pain and brutality, what did that mean for us???
We demonstrated in front of the hospital where Michael lay unconscious, walking in circles chanting “Michael was murdered.” Hauoi spoke at a rally in Tompkins Square Park. Suzanne organized fundraisers at the Pyramid and Danceteria, and Keith gave a big donation. We got signatures on a petition asking for an investigation, which eventually got 20,000 names
One day we read on the front page of multiple newspapers that the New York medical examiner had removed Michael’s eyes from his head and bleached them, whitewashing the burst blood vessels that were a sign of asphyxiation. He’d tried to hide the signs of strangulation. Michael died because he couldn’t breathe.
I remember reading that story — and I never read the news — and feeling shocked rage and incomprehension. Now I wonder at how innocent we were, when we thought we were so cynical and knowing.
Because nothing happened. Things seemed to come to a head when the medical examiner was exposed, as it became clear that Michael had been strangled and beaten to a pulp. A grand jury investigation was announced. I remember an instant of righteous exhilaration, thinking that we had helped force officials to act and that the people responsible for Michael’s death, and those who’d tried to hide their brutality, would be exposed and punished. But then Stewart told us to stand down. He said Michael’s family, and their lawyers, had asked that we stop demonstrating and organizing, for reasons he didn’t fully explain or seem to understand. He seemed dejected and frustrated that we had to stop. I was too. And I didn’t understand why.
There were no serious consequences. The medical examiner was fired two years later. A grand jury was convened, then dismissed. Another grand jury indicted six transit cops, but all of them were acquitted in a trial in 1985. Years later, Michael’s family did get a $1.7 million settlement. A nothing payment for the death of their son.
As it turned out, protesting got me the job at the Pyramid. Stewart was moving to San Francisco, and asked me if I wanted to take his job. I like to think it was because I’d helped with the protests, but maybe it was just because he saw I was someone who showed up on time and did what I said I was going to do. The job at the Pyramid led to other things. We all moved on. There was nothing we could do.
Michael’s death shocked other artists, most of all Jean-Michel, who kept saying “it could have been me.” Soon afterwards he did a painting on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio that showed Michael’s death. In 1985, Keith painted “Michael Stewart — USA for Africa” which showed him with his neck stretched into cartoon horror by a policeman’s nightstick. These and other pieces by artists in the downtown world — David Wojnorowicz, even Warhol — were part of a show about artistic and other reactions to Michael’s death at the Guggenheim last summer, which got a lot of attention.
Of course, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel are both dead, Jean of an overdose in 1988, Keith of AIDS in 1990 — which also killed Wojnorowicz and so many others. AIDS ended Hauoi as well, although Hauoi took his own life before the virus could. All of them killed, in a way, by the dangers we dared by the way we lived.
Martin died of AIDS still earlier, in 1986, when he was only 23 — even younger than Michael. Of the three of us who rolled to the pulse that blissful night at the Pyramid, sat giggling in Martin’s apartment at dawn, I’m the only one who’s still alive.
But Michael was the first. And Michael was the only one who was murdered.
Ever since then, I’ve taken it for granted that police can kill. Do I cry over Michael these days because, now, I know this happens all the time? Eric Garner, who also couldn’t breathe. So many many more. Do I cry because, all these years later, Michael’s murder seems more real than ever, more brutal, more — I want to say no no no, but it’s true — normal than ever? Because, even out here in the supposedly safe, conventional world where I’ve lived for so long, it’s no longer a gut-wrenching shock but a perpetually threatening possibility? Because I’m not innocent anymore?