Walking home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn in 2002, Dennis Flores witnessed several police officers terrorizing one of his students. Using his camera, he filmed the beating from a telephone booth where he was trying to dial 911 – until the police officers noticed his presence.
The result of his ordeal: a fracture, a head injury, and the destruction of his camera.
That was when he began to chronicle the Brooklyn neighborhood where he was born and now lives.
Flores, who is of Puerto Rican descent, began his struggle against injustice when he was part of Los Ñetas, a gang born in the prison system of Puerto Rico. Flores was 19 at the time, and studied photography at Kingsborough Community College.
“My first job was cleaning graffiti that I sprayed myself on Fifth Avenue,” he said, as an example of the community service he did as part of the group. His mentors were Richie Pérez and Vicente “Panamá” Alba of the Young Lords, the nationalist Puerto Rican group known for its fight against the displacement of Latinos in Chicago and New York in the 1960s and 1970s.
After the beating, Flores won his case in court, the first of many that he says has earned him a spot on the NYPD's blacklist. “The police say I do it to make money, and that's why they've got their eye on me.”
Spokespeople from the NYPD refused to answer questions about Flores' case.
Flores used the $270,000 that he won at trial to organize his efforts to monitor police activity.
More Guidance, Less Repression
Flores gives workshops to high school and university students on how to use technology to defend citizens' rights. He is currently a media and documentary film instructor at the Educational Video Center, an organization that strives to develop the skills of young documentary filmmakers.
“We make documentaries on the relationship between police and the community,” Flores explained. He has given talks on the issue at Columbia University, New York University, and Hostos Community College.
Know Your Rights is one of the films produced by his 15-19 year old students, which has spread across the Internet. “The police say that filming their actions is illegal, but we must prove it's unfair and that it's our right to do it.”
This past June, after the Puerto Rican Day Parade, more than 300 people gathered in the streets to listen to bomba music groups, a ritual that started in the neighborhood in 2000 and has caused tensions with police.
Like El Flautista de Hamelin, Flores and the bomba group used tambourines to call upon young people to gather together and they marched to the Lutheran Trinity Church.
“We held a barbecue for them and the problems stopped,” said Flores, remembering his most recent bitter argument with police.
Few locals doubt that Flores is committed to the people of Sunset Park, but not everyone agrees with the way he does things.
“He's done a great job, but he's provocative and negotiates very aggressively,” said one activist who did not wish to be identified.
Those who have known Flores for years say that he is first and foremost an activist.
“His experience as a gang member gives him the legitimacy to talk with the youth and convince them to make positive changes, because what we need here is more guidance and less arrests,” said David Galarza, one of the founders of Occupy Sunset Park.
Dennis Flores believes the same thing, and that is why, with his camera on his shoulder, he is always ready for action.