A stolen magazine, and a tragic drama plays out
By Mary Reinholz
She was big and beautiful, a regal black woman in threadbare leggings and boots who might have given the likes of Queen Latifah a run for stardom in the movies or onstage if luck had been on her side.
But there she was, near a subway entrance in the late afternoon of April 3, apparently homeless and in police custody at Union Square and E. 15th St., accused of lifting a $3 copy of Back Stage from a Parks Department newsstand and throwing a punch at a clerk.
A police officer suddenly hurled her to the ground, kneeled over her and tried to pry open her clenched right fist.
What have you got in your hand? he shouted. She didnt struggle, but kept her fist tight, murmuring several times, I didnt do anything.
A reporter passing by who had witnessed the incident at around 4 p.m. identified herself to the police officer on the ground and asked why he was treating the woman in such a manner. He looked up in a fury, his teeth bared and snarled, Youre nobody here!
By then, a crowd of people began to gather as they emerged from the Union Square subway entrance at E. 15th St. On that block on the other side of Park Ave. S. the street becomes Lee Strasberg Way, named after the granddaddy of Method acting. One might have assumed the woman had been an aspiring actor, given that she had allegedly boosted a $3 publication listing casting calls and auditions.
Whats your name? the reporter asked after the imposing woman was hoisted to her feet.
Salena, she said, her eyes pleading. Will you come get me?
Another police officer, apparently from the 13th Precinct, pinned her arms behind her back. Dont fight me, he told her. Or youll be back on the ground again.
He hustled her toward a squad car, one of several that had pulled up opposite Union Square Park, police lights flashing. She did not resist. Asked why the suspect was being arrested, the officer answered with curt civility, For stealing, he said.
The crowd thinned out. It was the second day of Holy Week, but no one seemed to find the harsh treatment of an unarmed black female worthy of protest or appeals to Christian charity or street justice. One older man at the scene, when asked how he felt about a police officer roughing up the woman, shrugged.
Women can be stronger than men, he said with a nervous little smile.
Meanwhile, business resumed inside the forest green newsstand concession of the Parks Department where the larceny allegedly occurred. The clerk, who identified himself as Nassam Uddin, said the suspect had been reading a copy of Back Stage for 15 minutes when he asked her to pay up or leave, because she was blocking my other customers. But the woman, he said, only had one dollar on her. She went outside and obtained another dollar from another woman, he said, and then tried to buy the Theater District weekly.
He claimed that when he told her the price was $3, she grabbed Back Stage and bolted.
And she tried to hit me, he continued. He said he didnt believe the woman was homeless, but acknowledged she had been carrying a plastic bag, in which the police, he claimed, found the copy of Back Stage. They returned it to him, he said, and so the newsstand business got its dose of the N.Y.P.D.s Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect.
Uddin, 25, an immigrant from Bangladesh, said he had not called police, and it remained unclear whether the woman under arrest was an actress or a wannabe or someone seriously disturbed. At 8 p.m. that night, she was still being held at the 13th Precinct stationhouse on E. 21st St. and she is still acting irrationally, said Mike Sagnelli, the desk sergeant.
Asked about police procedures in dealing with people accused of stealing a $3 publication, the sergeant said, I wasnt there. But ordinarily we dont throw people to the ground. He added, however, that the stationhouse had received calls of a woman acting violently. He noted she would be getting a desk appearance ticket for theft and wont have to go Downtown.