[UPDATE BELOW] A black teen died from an asthma attack that he suffered while fleeing an armed group that was shouting racial slurs at him, and now police may investigate the incident as a hate crime, the Daily News reports. 16-year-old Dayshen McKenzie was apparently chased through Staten Island backyards on the afternoon of May 27th, and took cover in a shed, where he collapsed, having left his asthma inhaler at home that day.
The chase appears to have resulted from a dispute between one of McKenzie's friends and a member of the other group. McKenzie and his friends ran into the other group at Checkers, a burger restaurant in Mariners Harbor, where that conflict escalated, witnesses told the Daily News.
"They guy said, 'You got a problem?' And my (friend) said, 'You got a problem?' and it went on," 19-year-old Harry Smith told the tabloid. "They left, and they came back three cars deep. The guy in the first car had a gun."
According to Smith, he and his friends, including McKenzie, sprinted away, trying to outrun the cars. Most of the people chasing them were reportedly white, while the fleeing teens were mostly black, and the group with the gun reportedly called them the n-word and other racial slurs.
When it became clear the police were coming, the group that had been chasing the black teens apparently bolted, at which point McKenzie's friends realized that the 16-year-old had collapsed. His friends dragged him out of the shed and threw water on him in an attempt to revive him, a witness, ex-NYPD officer and 9/11 responder Diane Fatigati, told the Daily News.
"I came out and said, 'What's going on?'" Fatigati recalled. "They said, 'My brother’s dead, my brother's dead! He's dying, he's dying!'"
Fatigati tried to save McKenzie, but by the time he was taken to Richmond University Medical Center, he was pronounced dead. In her view, Fatigati said, his death was the result of a hate crime.
Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime, the Staten Island Advance reports, and will apparently be reinterviewing witnesses to determine what exactly happened last Friday.
Earlier today, the Reverend Al Sharpton called for a federal investigation into McKenzie's death, noting its similarities to the 1986 case of Michael Griffith, in which the 23-year-old black man was chased into highway traffic by a group of white youths and struck and killed by an oncoming vehicle.
"[A]fter the Staten Island District Attorney's office (under the former prosecutor) showed questionable investigative skills in the Eric Garner case, we cannot in confidence rely on the DA's office to pursue this matter to the degree the community feels will bring justice to the family of Dayshen McKenzie," Sharpton said in a statement posted to Facebook.
Not long after that statement was posted, Staten Island DA Michael E. McMahon vowed to take the case seriously: he said that "we offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Dayshen McKenzie during their time of grief...This office takes any allegations of a hate crime seriously. At this time, we have spoken with members of the NYPD who are investigating and we will continue to speak with them as this matter continues to be investigated."
Appearing on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show this morning, Mayor de Blasio said that while the parallels between this case and the 1986 case are striking, we shouldn't rush to judgment.
"I don't know enough and the police don't know enough yet," the mayor said. "And I want to be very clear about that. We cannot rush to judgment on this. We need to know more. The parallels are obviously causing a lot of concern. We do not take any bias crime lightly. We’re very, very aggressive—the NYPD is very, very aggressive about following up on a bias crime, but we just don't know enough yet to determine what happened here. I think it is important that people take a breath while the police department has a chance to really investigate and get right to the facts of this case."
The NYPD is holding a press conference on the investigation in Staten Island this afternoon; we'll have updates after that concludes.
Update, 4:25 p.m.: At a press conference this afternoon, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said that McKenzie's death was not a hate crime, but rather gang related. The police believe the two groups had planned to meet for a fight the afternoon that McKenzie died.
"We have evidence, including video footage, that supports this was a scheduled street encounter between two rival groups," Boyce told reporters. "It has been determined preliminarily, that McKenzie died as a result of a pre-existing medical condition...There is no evidence, nor do we have any witnesses, indicating that it was assault."
The police won't release that video footage or the names of the parties involved, as they say the investigation is ongoing.
Police also said that Fatigati, who told the Daily News that the attack appeared to be a hate crime, has since retracted that statement and now says she was misquoted. Daily News reporters at the press conference challenged the claim that she was misquoted. Fatigati has apparently given police three different statements so far.
Fatigati told the Staten Island Advance that she never told reporters that the event was definitely racially motivated, but "it looked racial to me."
Boyce also called Sharpton's comparison of McKenzie's death to the 1986 Howard Beach incident "inaccurate and irresponsible."
Police "are not considering this incident to be a hate crime at this point," but Boyce said that "as is our practice, we will have the Hate Crimes units assist us going forward."