Every generation, a crime tells a new story about New York. The murder of Tessa Majors is ours.
At the 26th precinct, the baby-faced boy had to empty his pockets and hand over his backpack. He was holding $6 in cash. In the backpack, he had a small collection of school notebooks, all blank —“You don’t take notes, man?” Officer Randys Ramos-Luna asked him — and a sheathed knife with a blue handle that he said he was holding for a friend. The boy had been brought in for trespassing, but Ramos-Luna upgraded the charge to possession of a weapon. He called the boy’s uncle to come to the station, and Roosevelt Davis said he would be there when he got off work.
The interrogation took place in a small, windowless room, large enough for one table and four chairs, and it was conducted by Wilfredo Acevedo, a detective sent from the homicide division of Manhattan North. No one called a lawyer. By the time he appeared in family court months later, the boy, who is 13 years old, did have a lawyer, from the Legal Aid Society, who kept pointing out that her client was a child. Repeatedly, she asked Acevedo about a long list of civilian complaints alleged against him: entering homes without probable cause or a warrant, aggressive language and profanity, withholding evidence, excessive use of force. Acevedo mostly didn’t remember those, he responded coolly. He also saw the child somewhat differently, as a juvenile charged with felony murder in the stabbing of Barnard student Tessa Majors.
At the Two-Six, on December 12, the boy and his uncle sat on one side of the table, the boy hunched against a wall at the far end with his winter coat on. Acevedo and his partner, Detective Christopher French, sat on the other. “You’re not a bad kid,” Acevedo said, at about 6:35 p.m. “I can see it in you.” A lot of the time, he added, you can be in big trouble if you’re somewhere with someone who’s doing something they shouldn’t do — as big as the person doing it. Acevedo told the boy there were video cameras throughout the park. He said he already knew what the boy had done and would be able to tell if he was lying. None of this was true, but in court the detective testified that bluffing during an interrogation is legal.
The detective asked the boy if his uncle — a diabetic who, in the videotape, called himself “a very sick man” and had looked after the boy since 2016, when the boy’s mother died — had taught him right from wrong. The boy answered yes. He was in the park with his friends, he said.
What happened next? Acevedo asked. “You have to be honest with me,” he said, “because this is very serious.”
The friends were a little older, both 14. They approached Tess and asked for her stuff, the boy said. “She gave it to them. Or, they got mad. And then … and then … She was probably refusing to give it to them and they got mad and then they probably took it from her.”
“No, no, no,” Acevedo said. “Not ‘probably’ again. I’m asking questions I already know the answers to. If you lie, you’re going to get in serious trouble.” He mentioned the stabbing.
“I don’t know about stabbing. I don’t know about stabbing,” the boy said.
“Be honest,” Acevedo insisted.
“I’m being honest. I don’t know about stabbing.”
Little by little, over about two hours, a story came out. It was around dinnertime. The three boys were in the park to rob people. They considered and discarded several targets before settling, finally, on Tess, a small 18-year-old with blue-green hair.
Everything happened very quickly, within two or three minutes. Tess refused to hand over her phone. There was a struggle. One of the older boys held her while the other tried to grab her belongings, including her phone. Tess yelled, loudly, “Help me! I’m being robbed,” and she bit the second boy’s finger, hard, so it bled. This same boy, the one who was bitten (and who police say robbed another man at knifepoint that same week), then stabbed Tess with enough force that the youngest boy, who was standing apart, could see feathers shooting out of Tess’s down jacket — “I think it was purple,” he said. After that, the older ones went through her pockets and then they all ran. At home, the boy walked the dog and watched videos on YouTube.
The uncle responded with disbelief and something like fury. This is not like school, where you get suspended for a few days. “This is your life,” he pointed out. “Do you see what you fucking got yourself into, ’cause you’re hanging out with the wrong fucking people instead of bringing your ass home?” And: “I told you about being a follower! You think I need this shit?” Roosevelt Davis was 47 years old, he said, and for his whole life he had never been in a police precinct house. “I didn’t raise you to be like this.”
When it was all over, Davis had to explain to his nephew that he was being taken into custody until the trial. The boy seemed not to completely understand. Davis, who is a tall man, hugged the boy hard and long and sobbed with a deep voice. He would come back when he could, he promised: “As soon as they call me, I’ll be here.”
Photo: Courtesy TessMajors.com
Morningside Park, where Tessa Majors allegedly encountered three 13- and 14-year-old boys and was fatally stabbed in the heart on the evening of December 11, 2019, has long had a reputation as a no-man’s-land. It belongs, jurisdictionally, to the City of New York, but in reality no one cares for it. Thirty skinny, overgrown, vertical acres, it forms a split-level boundary between the promontory where Columbia University and Barnard College stand, fortresslike, and the flats of Harlem, its elegant brownstones mixed with storefronts and public housing. Students regard the latitudinal footpath across 116th Street as the most expedient way to travel from the classrooms and dorms behind the high gates on campus to their friends and professors living in Harlem and the booming, fun restaurants and bars on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. (There’s a shuttle bus, but they say waiting for it is an annoyance.) At 6:43, Tess had entered the park from the eastern Harlem side; at around the same time, the boys entered too, by a different entrance. The wide, tiered, wedding-cake staircase where Tess met the boys descends steeply from street level into the park at its westernmost edge. In its absence, travelers would have to scale a cliff.
After being stabbed, Tess — bleeding profusely into her lungs — climbed up these steps, arriving finally at the hushed, tree-lined corner of Morningside Drive and 116th, diagonally across the intersection from the Italianate mansion where Columbia president Lee Bollinger lives. That’s where she fell, less than half a mile from the dorm complex she shared with 600 other first-year students. If Bollinger, the man who had presided over the university’s aggressive expansion into Harlem over the past decade, had looked out his east-facing window at about seven that night, he would have seen, in the distance, Long Island and Queens and, just across the park, the butter-yellow exterior of P.S. 180, where the three young assailants went to school, its hopeful, hand-painted slogan reading YOUNG, GIFTED AND HARLEM. He would also have seen Tess’s body just a few dozen yards from his front door.
Immediately, the murder felt to the community and the city like a buried memory of an earlier, more violent time. People growing up in Harlem in the ’60s and ’70s called the neighborhood of the university “up the hill” and their own “down the hill,” and they rarely if ever traveled the turf in between. Stories were legion of shootings in the park, corpses discovered, and encampments of the homeless. The safest course was to bypass it completely. In the daytime, “you stayed on top of your kids,” says one longtime Harlem homeowner. “You didn’t want them to pick up a crack vial or a hypodermic needle. The park was neglected. People could go do what they wanted to do. That was obvious.”
Anna Quindlen remembers arriving at Barnard in 1970 and being told, at part of freshman orientation, that should she accidentally miss the subway stop at the front door of campus, she should stay in the station, turn right around, and take the subway back downtown and never try to walk home through the park or Harlem itself. “Honestly, as a Barnard student, I never entered Morningside Park,” she says, “and I never thought that being warned against it was in any way notable. From the mists of time, I can’t completely parse out whether I was naïve or simply stupid, but the bottom line was: This is not a safe neighborhood. You can’t walk there. From today’s vantage point, I can see that this was racial code, but then I thought, Okay.”
Over the decades, the city got safer and the neighborhood did too. Murder, robbery, felony assault, and burglary — all these plummeted between 2000 and 2018. And in 2007, the gentrification of Harlem began in earnest, thanks in part to Columbia’s $6.3 billion expansion, the Manhattanville campus — a theater complex, a business school, and a science center with “none of the gates or walls that define traditional campuses” — which occupies 17 acres north of Morningside Park. The school saw itself, and sold itself, as a coveted entry-point to the city — bustling, jostling, diverse, and competitive, with all of the conflict pushed out of view. Barnard had already opened Cathedral Gardens, a swanky dorm with dishwashers, for 92 upperclass students on the park’s southeastern corner, and condo high-rises sprouted like beanstalks on the periphery. Ninety-nine Morningside offers “a final opportunity to own on Morningside Park”; 11 Hancock promises terraces and views of “peaceful Morningside Park.”
So a new generation of college students thought the park was mostly safe because, mostly, it was. There’s a dog run and a Greenmarket on Saturdays and a new playground near the foot of the steps where Tess was stabbed. But the park was not entirely keeping pace with the gentrification around it. Paths on the upper level were narrow and overgrown, their sight lines obscure. Lighting everywhere was terrible, the surveillance cameras ancient. Brad Taylor, an early Harlem gentrifier and architect who is president of Friends of Morningside Park, has a dream of Shakespeare performances on those wedding-cake steps. But he has been frustrated by a perpetual lack of funds. For years, he says, he had been complaining bitterly about necessary upgrades and fuming about the park’s status as a poor stepchild to Central and Riverside parks. The Central Park Conservancy has donations of about $50 million a year; Friends of Morningside Park, about $30,000.
Around the park, as everywhere in the city, gentrification has remained a source of tension. (Harlem is “block by block,” gentrifiers like to say.) And the new undergraduates who are drawn to the two schools arrive with the understanding, cultivated in the long shadow of the Central Park Five and the time of Black Lives Matter, that references to “muggings,” “thugs,” and “gangs” are racial stereotyping and not okay. In an email after our conversation, Quindlen relayed this perspective from her adult son: “In recent years the message he and his peers had absorbed was that Morningside Park was on a decided upswing, and that to assume otherwise was somehow racist.”
But beginning in the spring of 2019, the NYPD noted a surge of robberies in Morningside Park, 17 compared to seven the year before, and at the 26th Precinct, police detected a pattern. The suspects in most instances were young teenagers and children — just 12, 13, 14 years old — often the same kids over and over. Activists in Harlem argued with a grim logic that these were the heirs of the 2014 NYPD anti-gang raids on the Grant and Manhattanville housing projects, in which young men were rousted out of bed by cops in helmets with nightsticks and more than a hundred indicted; those young men had younger siblings, the activists said. “Some of the kids have been arrested 15 or 16 times. They’re not long-term thinkers. They’re not afraid of consequences. They’ll commit these crimes in broad daylight,” says Jason Harper, communications chief at the Two-Six. In April, Bob Lederer, a middle-aged gay-rights activist, suffered a traumatic brain injury after being beaten by a group of young teenagers.
The community activists knew what was going on — and, having watched the neighborhood for decades, understood what kind of conflagration could erupt, even today. “I want to tell you,” Taylonn Murphy said to me, sitting in his office at Manhattan’s family court, where he works to help people navigate the system, “that was our worst fear: that someone from up the hill would come down the hill and one of the students would be killed.” Murphy’s own teenage daughter, a basketball phenom nicknamed Chicken, had been murdered in a gang shooting in 2011.
But no one knew what to do. Or what to say. Or how to say it or to whom. At semi-regular meetings up at Columbia, stakeholders — Taylor, reps from Parks and the university, local politicians — would listen to Harper’s crime report. “Barnard hasn’t attended,” Harper told me. “They weren’t disinvited. They hadn’t expressed interest.” (Barnard says it receives regular briefings from the NYPD.) When Tess and all the other first-year students arrived on campus, no one mentioned the spike of crime in the park. A mandatory safety briefing was part of their orientation, they say, but it was worthless. “We had all been out the night before. We were all falling asleep. They stressed basic safety information. There was nothing specifically that I can remember about, ‘Don’t go in Morningside Park after dark,’ ” says Sasha Hochman, who is from Philadelphia. “I personally did not pay attention,” recalls Tehila Cherry, who is from San Diego. She remembers talking to her parents on the phone a few weeks after she arrived on campus. “They asked if I felt safe walking through New York, and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I feel totally safe.’ And my dad was like, ‘It’s good that you feel safe, but don’t be naïve.’ ”
This past September, Brad Taylor wrote his umpteenth email to Mark Levine, the city councilmember for the area, begging for three full-time Parks patrols to be dedicated to Morningside. “This request is completely reasonable,” he wrote. In November, Taylor counted 23 street lamps out in Morningside Park, at least five in the area at the base of the steps.
One of the accused leaving court on February 15.
Above: Another arriving at court on February 19.
Photo: William Farrington/Polaris.
The murder occurred on a Wednesday night during Finals Week. In the libraries, laptops and phones were open and glowing — texting, thinking, flirting, writing, commiserating, and cramming all part of the same mental stream — while back at the dorm, some found it necessary to take brain breaks, to do laundry, or to watch a crappy movie, as one first-year told me, like 50 Shades of Grey.
The first text came at around 8:30 p.m. “Barnard Public Safety Police are investigating a robbery/stabbing inside Morningside Park,” it said. “Suspect is a male wearing a green jacket and a mask. Please avoid the area.”
This was weird, but not too weird. Barnard, like nearly every other college or university, has to comply with the Clery Act, a federal statute that requires schools to alert students of crimes on campus; at Barnard, and at Columbia too, students receive regular safety warnings about robberies and assaults on school property. But soon rumors began to travel. This was a murder. The victim was a Barnard student. She was a first-year, one of them. Sketchy news reports outpaced the internal notifications, and parents began texting, calling, sending links. The second text came in at 10:30. The incident did involve a Barnard student, it said. “Expect email shortly, including information about counseling hours.” In the dorms, the first-years began to panic, “Oh my God, holy shit, it could be anyone. It could be your best friend.” Text chains with dozens of people on them were circulating, pleading, “Say that you’re here.” In the library, young women began to close their laptops and go in search of their friends.
Confirmation came at 11 p.m. in an email from college president Sian Beilock’s office. “Mourning the Tragic Death of a Barnard Student,” the subject line said. Earlier that evening, a first-year named Tessa Majors had been killed — “off campus,” it said, in Morningside Park. The email was sincere, even anguished, but these two little words, “off campus,” reflected a lawyer’s touch, a self-protective assertion, in writing, defining the costs and risks of living in a big city as beyond the jurisdiction of the college recruiting students there.
“With broken hearts,” the email began, “we share tragic news.” Paulette Arnold, a junior, was in the basement of her dorm, not 500 feet from where the attack occurred, putting her clothes in the washer when she received the email. “I collapsed on the ground, heaving,” she said. “My legs went jelly.” Paulette had met Tess in the first weeks of school, when Tess attended a meeting of Rare Candy, the online music magazine Paulette helped to edit. Now, throughout the hallways where the first-years lived and where a group had recently commandeered a communal bathroom at midnight to help Tess dye her hair seaweed green, you could hear people scream.
Tess was tiny and feminine and among her peers had started to use they/them pronouns, although she didn’t insist on it. A friend at Tess’s Barnard memorial said she wore too much eyeliner or exactly the right amount, depending on your point of view. But more than that she was “bold,” as a fellow first-year put it. “Challenging,” said a Barnard administrator. “Fearless,” said someone who had known her for a very long time. She was disarmingly direct. She came off, especially to other first-years just finding their place in a new pecking order, as almost intimidatingly confident, though others put it differently. Tess was just supersmart, the kind of kid who loved Latin, who read From Beirut to Jerusalem at 15 on a family vacation, and who as a little girl catalogued all the indigenous wildflowers of Virginia, where she lived, but was not so into ticking boxes in any kind of rote or careerist way, this longtime intimate says. “The weirdest thing about you was her favorite thing about you,” a close friend said at her memorial down in Charlottesville.
When she was a baby, she sometimes wore a onesie that made her look like an astronaut, and when she did, her father, a novelist and an English professor, would sing this made-up song: “Future baby, future baby / Goes so good with biscuits and gravy.” And then, in a deep voice, he would intone, “One day in the future, all babies will be this good.” In her senior year at her private high school, Tess seemed to recapitulate that lesson of inherent goodness in a speech she gave to incoming freshmen. Wearing an ironical nunlike dress and white ankle boots, Tess described her younger self as snarky and anxious — qualities she knew kept others at a remove. But the distance was self-protective, she explained: “I personally did not understand why someone would be mean just for the sake of it.” As she grew older, she came to understand that knowing other people was worth the risk. “Expect the best from others,” she said. “It’s okay to be disappointed when people aren’t kind.”
Sasha Hochman met Tess on the fourth night of school when they went out with a big group of first-years into the city, and while they never became close friends, Sasha liked seeing Tess in the elevator or the cafeteria. Her smile, Sasha says, gave her a feeling of reassurance and closeness; it promised adventure. After Tess’s death, Sasha deferred one final paper, for a class called Educational Foundations. And the paper, when she wrote it, was in the form of a letter to Tess on the subject of appropriate justice for the alleged perpetrators: “What would justice look like in your case, Tess? I know that you would think it’s not as simple as punishing the teenagers who attempted to rob you and ultimately caused your death. That it’s about looking at the whole system and asking why those teenagers were robbing people in the first place. That any step toward justice must include considering Columbia’s relationship to Harlem.” Barnard is proud of its legacy of graduating generations of independent-minded, accomplished women, and Hochman, like the other students I spoke to, didn’t want Tess’s murder used to incite fear or anxiety about walking alone, about being female, or young, about using public spaces. She ended her paper with a quote from Anna Quindlen, who famously said she “majored in unafraid” at Barnard. Hochman wants to major in unafraid. She knows Tess would have too.
A candlelight vigil for Majors in Morningside Park on December 15.
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images/2019 Andrew Lichtenstein
The morning after the murder, Morningside Park was crawling with police. Banks of blinding lights, powered by generators and with enough wattage to illuminate a night baseball game, were rolled into the park and stationed at previously dim intersections. Cop cars drove up on the sidewalks, and the machine-gun chop of helicopters filled the air. “I’m not going to say it was unbelievable, but it was crazy,” says Derrick Haynes, a neighborhood activist who is also a basketball coach. “They had police at the park entrances and exits, around the park, police on horseback. They had the little scooters riding around the perimeter. It was something I’ve never seen in Morningside Park. Very rarely do we get police on horseback in the parks in Harlem.”
It felt to the neighborhood like an invasion. Overnight, before anyone had the time to process this violent death, let alone to properly mourn or responsibly gather evidence and facts, the murder had become a focal point in the nation’s most tribal fulminations. It was the fault of “the city’s socialist leftist corrupt politicians,” tweeted former NYPD commissioner Bernie Kerik the day after Tess’s death. Even Mayor de Blasio vowed on Twitter to expand “the NYPD’s presence in the area IMMEDIATELY. We will keep this community safe, arrest the perpetrators and ensure nothing like this can happen again.”
Then, in a radio interview, Ed Mullins, the head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, alleged that Tess had been in the park buying pot, blaming the murder on hands-off policing. (Tess apparently did have a bag of marijuana in her pocket when she encountered the boys, but the altercation was not part of a drug deal.) This was a dog-whistle aimed at law-and-order hard-liners lamenting the erosion of police authority in the years since Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. Tess’s parents, who had remained mostly silent, were infuriated to see their daughter deployed as a political puppet, and released an excoriating statement. Mullins had “intentionally or unintentionally directed blame on Tess, a young woman, for her own murder.” In a pained email, someone in Tess’s inner circle wrote, “Tess was a big-tent person.”
In addition to the extra NYPD officers, Columbia University security promised more cars, more foot-patrol officers, more shuttle buses, and more escort services. Brad Taylor got his Parks patrol officers, six of them, stationed full time in a little house by the playground. A longtime Harlem homeowner looked at the police presence cynically, as a performance designed to quell the race-based anxieties of white people in Harlem and Morningside Heights. All the cops were the city’s answer to an unasked question: “What are you going to do to protect us from the natives?,” as he put it to me. “The undertone is jungle drums.”
Echoes of the Central Park Five were obvious to everyone: a photogenic white victim and suddenly every young black male in Harlem was under suspicion. But the intervening years had inverted the optics, as well as the emotional and political response. In the late 1980s, the city’s climate of racism and fear propelled the wrongful conviction of innocent teens. Now, in an era of heightened vigilance and activism, a whole culture’s protective instincts kicked in, insisting that young black suspects sought by police could be seen as casualties as well. “How can we talk about crime without talking about all the reasons crime happens in the first place?” asks Amari Gaiter, a junior who is a member of Columbia’s Women of Color Pre-Law Society, which produced an open letter to Beilock and Bollinger demanding fair process for any suspects.
The day after the murder, Iesha Sekou, who runs an anti-violence program in Harlem, started getting phone calls from concerned parents, telling her about police coming to their apartments unannounced and without warrants and stopping children riding on bikes. “There was this rush to pick up young black boys. And the language was like, ‘Boys are running around, jumping people, beating up people in the park.’ Some people even said the police were swabbing their children’s mouths and taking their picture. We got calls that the police were going to people’s homes, knocking on doors, intimidating them.”
The language used by police and the press to describe the suspects was concerning, too. “Young and violent. Young and violent,” Sekou points out. “Violent. Violent. Violent.” Sekou went on local news to denounce the language. “It’s stigmatizing young men and boys. If you live in that area and you’re young and in the park, you’re violent. That’s not fair to the people who live in the neighborhood, and it gave the consent to be treated certain ways by the Police Department and by the community.”
“This angelic-little-white-girl thing, it’s just too much,” said Monica Dula, a Harlem resident and an attorney at the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx. “I’m so concerned that they are going to use this as an opportunity to just fuck with young black people and Latino people all day and all night.”
At the same time, everyone is trying to wrap their heads around what happened. “This murder is really horrific,” Sekou says. “I’m a mother and a grandmother. I wouldn’t think that 13- and 14-year-olds would want to take someone’s life. A hand holding a knife and entering someone’s body. That’s a lot.” At this point, she and her friends in the neighborhood prefer to reserve judgment. “I want to be in a still place and hear the facts.”
On the day after the murder, the baby-faced boy was walking near the corner of 119th Street and Morningside Avenue, not far from the park, with a group of six or seven friends, boys and girls, including one who zoomed ahead on a skateboard. A few, including the boy, were wearing the khaki pants that identified them, possibly, as students at P.S. 180, a uniform school. Spotting the group from his unmarked police car, Officer Randys Ramos-Luna made a U-turn on Morningside Avenue. On his department cell phone, Ramos-Luna had several stills from video taken in the park the previous night. The video was poor quality, the stills dark and blurry, faces unidentifiable. But, as Ramos-Luna testified later in family court, he could make out what people were wearing, and at least one had on khaki pants, a black coat with red zippers, red sneakers, and a book bag with a white logo.
The boy and his friends ducked into the vestibule of a building on 119th Street, and together with two other officers, Ramos-Luna followed them in.
It was then, Ramos-Luna testified, that he noticed that the boy’s clothing matched one of the figures on his phone. Ramos-Luna asked what he was doing in the building, and the boy “said he was visiting his cousin,” Ramos-Luna testified. But when the police officer asked him what apartment the cousin lived in, “he hesitated and said, ‘Um, um,’ and then said he was inside the vestibule because he was getting warm.” Ramos-Luna took the boy’s name and address and the phone number of his uncle, his guardian. Then the boy looked at the pictures from the park. He peered down at the phone, then stepped away, picked up his leg and regarded his own foot. “Oh,” he said, according to Ramos-Luna, “these are the same sneakers.” Back on the sidewalk, Ramos-Luna told his colleagues that he was going to arrest the boy for trespassing and bring him in for questioning.
Harlem residents Calvin Hunt and his son, Cameron, outside a court where one of the accused appeared.
Photo: Richard Drew/Shutterstock
During the interrogation, the boy implicated his two older friends. Community leaders say all three have “devastating” family histories, and that this boy, even more than others his age is particularly impressionable and vulnerable to peer pressure. Derrick Haynes is speculating, but he fixates on an early news story according to which one of the older boys dropped the knife before the murder and the boy picked it up and handed it back. Haynes believes that only a child who’s too eager to please would do such a thing. “That’s how much of a good kid he was,” Haynes says. “I’m the youngest one, I’m going to pick the knife up and give it to them. He should have just left it. It would have changed the whole scenario.” (It’s not clear whether the knife in his backpack was the murder weapon.)
At P.S. 180, the parents were reeling. Seven years ago, after the death of Taylonn Murphy’s daughter Chicken, the school had been the site of a meeting between worried parents and the cops about an escalation in warfare between two local gangs, but as the neighborhood has gentrified, P.S. 180 has changed, too; it is now that precious commodity, a “hot” public school. In 2015, it introduced a Spanish-language-immersion program, attracting the fashion designers, educators, salespeople, and genomics experts who had recently moved to Harlem. By last year, even families zoned for the school were put on waiting lists; annual PTA fund-raising soared to $100,000 from $40,000 in four years.
But in part because of the rate of neighborhood change, the middle school at P.S. 180 remained a more challenging place. The savvy, ambitious parents who are transforming the school in its lower grades are also ambitious for their kids. By the third and fourth grade, the high-achieving kids at P.S. 180 are testing out to gifted-and-talented programs. By sixth, all the best students have left for the screened schools in the zone: Booker T., Columbia Secondary, or Westside Collaborative. So while the elementary school at P.S. 180 is overflowing, the middle school is moribund, “an add-on,” says Genisha Metcalf, who is the head of the PTA. It has a lot of empty seats, making it a convenient place for the Department of Education to dump troubled kids with nowhere to go.
The killing, and the coverage of the killing, were so awful that parents immediately began talking about transferring their kids out. Metcalf was furious that a police car was suddenly parked outside the school every day and at the implication that somehow the school culture was to blame. “You didn’t put the bake-sale table up, so it’s on you,” is how she puts it. The problem wasn’t the school; it was the whole inequitable system that sorts and ranks kids and fails to support, or even sometimes to notice, the kids who need the most help, those who are homeless, or live in foster care, who have behavioral or learning or psychological problems. (In the upcoming trials, we will see all this, she promised.) Why aren’t programs in the neighborhood talking to one another — the Police Athletic League, and the library, and the churches, and the university — creating an easy-access network of places where kids feel welcome? On the night of December 11, Metcalf says, “things were open! It wasn’t 11 p.m. We’re like, ‘School’s out at 2:30, good luck, we’ll see you at 8 a.m., maybe.’ ”
After the arrests, she says, “there wasn’t a groundswell. No one was saying, ‘This is our community. These are our kids. We’ve got this.’ ” Instead, the response was self-protective and fragmented. In the weeks before Christmas, the DOE held a meeting for concerned parents at the school, but it didn’t include the NYPD, Columbia, or Barnard, and the DOE point person turned out to be David Hay, who shortly thereafter was arrested on federal child-pornography charges. Columbia and Barnard hold programs in the school, but they are piecemeal. There’s so little unity or visionary leadership in Harlem, Metcalf says. “But if we don’t get past this awkward silence and talk about the elephant in the room, which is gentrification, and keep on saying, ‘I’m just over here eating my avocado toast on Frederick Douglass Boulevard,’ we’ll never get anywhere.”
Metcalf keeps a picture on her phone. It’s a flyer, produced by the Guardian Angels, the vigilante law-enforcement group, that was plastered all over the signposts in Harlem in the weeks before Christmas, including right outside the school. It shows a photo of one of the 14-year-old boys, the result of an unusual decision by the NYPD to publicize the face of a juvenile when its search for him stalled. “Teen suspect on the loose,” it said, using words like “hunt” and “vicious.” “The lens when you’re a black mother with a black child in your community, you’re enraged,” Metcalf told me. “I can tell you I know ten young men who look like this young man.” Fathers, she added, took the poster campaign especially hard. “I saw them taking the posters down and ripping them up,” she says, an emotional response to this face that might have been their own 20 years ago. And then there were the parents of older children who were friends with these kids, who might have invited them home. What conversation were they supposed to have? Their kids hear the word killer and wonder, “What does that say about me?”
Up at Barnard, grief settled on the campus like a fog. Every student was told she could go home for break early, or request extensions on papers or exams, no questions asked. The college kept the counseling center open and added extra staff.
Some privately wondered why this grief was so different, larger than that following other tragic deaths of young people. “While any murder is shocking,” one professor reflected, “I was a little bit surprised at how shocking people found this one. I mean, this is a big city. These things happen.” Around the time of Tessa’s murder, two other Columbia students died, and these were met with the usual administration condolences and list of campus resources: a hotline, a chaplain, the open hours of psych services. “It’s pretty desensitizing. It’s terrible,” says one Columbia junior, who reflects on the inadequate job the university does of dealing with depression and suicide, which (unlike park murders) are widespread. When he gets one of these emails, “I look to see if I knew the person. It’s very strange, but on some level it’s like, Shit, another one of those. Another one bites the dust.”
But the murder of Tessa Majors was different. Parents urged their daughters to come home as soon as they could — “They needed that, too,” Paulette Arnold observes — but the daughters were torn, because out in the regular world, no one could possibly understand what they were going through, the sense (which in some weird way was amazing) that everyone knew everyone else’s thoughts, that you could spy another Barnard student crossing the street, lock eyes, and understand. One first-year described looking around her dorm room where Tess had very recently been and resting her gaze on all the objects her living body had so recently physically touched — a bed, a bookshelf — and nearly having a panic attack. Lots of young women were having nightmares: “I was walking down Broadway in broad daylight and feeling threatened by everything and scared.”
At sunset on December 15, Barnard and Columbia students flowed eastward to the steps in Morningside Park, some holding candles, for a vigil in Tess’s memory. Emotions were running high, though some students dared to complain in low voices about the study time they were sacrificing to attend the event while friends shushed them angrily. It was creepy and morbid to be on the steps after dark, not soothing or uplifting. And upon arriving at the park, the grieving students found the gathering of hundreds had the tone more of a political rally than of a commemoration: The whole thing felt off. Neither Bollinger nor Beilock was present but sent surrogates instead. Students stood around as one local politician after another took hold of the mic and harped on a pet cause of or solution to the horrifying violence that had occurred where they stood. There were calls for more police, better police, different police, especially police who patrol on foot and know the neighborhood; for more sophisticated surveillance cameras; for after-school programs for youth and social workers in schools and good summer jobs. City Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez, who represents a district far to the north of where everyone stood, called out elite institutions for not doing enough to support the neighborhoods they inhabit. Reporters were hovering everywhere, remembers Paulette Arnold, badgering students, “seeking out the ones who looked more distraught. My friends and I were crying, we were pulling tissues out of our bag, and I heard someone say, ‘Ooh, that’s a good shot!’ ” Hecklers interrupted at every point.
In the spring of 2019, when Tess was still in high school, Barnard and Columbia undertook a massive rethinking of their approach to the issues of race and student safety after a Columbia senior named Alexander McNab refused to show his ID at the high Barnard gates. Within minutes, McNab was encircled by six campus security guards and pinned to a cafeteria counter, his arms behind him, like a fish. McNab yelled, “Take your hands off me,” repeatedly, and a cell phone video rolled.
Everyone in the world saw the video, it seems, and it became the occasion for anguished, campuswide soul-searching. Students of color said they were frequently targeted by campus police, leading to arbitrary stops and ID checks. White students mostly agreed, while students who disagreed stayed silent. The administration held listening sessions. The security guards were put on administrative leave, and Barnard’s director of public safety was replaced by Amy Zavadil, a former dean with a background in equity compliance. President Beilock also hired a consulting firm to investigate the incident, and on August 15, she wrote a letter to the whole community, vowing “to take the necessary steps to address any racial and other forms of bias and inequitable enforcement of campus policies.”
According to the consultant’s report, the biggest safety hazard had nothing to do with race. T&M Protection Resources found safety procedures at Barnard to be haphazard and informal. Its recommendations were for the college to better codify its mission: to train officers, to articulate policies, to collaborate better with Columbia security, to be more transparent with Barnard students, and to “conduct an independent and comprehensive physical security assessment of the Barnard campus.”
Paulette Arnold and five other students wrote as much in a letter to President Beilock two nights after Tess’s death. On December 13, an assault occurred under Paulette’s dorm window, and Barnard didn’t notify anyone for almost two hours. “Even though the assault did not involve a Columbia or Barnard student,” they wrote, “multiple students saw the incident from our windows, and it’s unbelievable that we had to learn of information from outside sources to prepare ourselves.” They continued: “There has been increased crime in the Morningside Park area since last year, and there was an extremely violent attack in April that students were never notified about. Despite the park technically being off campus, it is dismissive to disconnect Barnard from the greater Morningside Heights area.” In an email to me, Beilock said it’s a balancing act: “We discussed the importance of urban sense and safety with our students, but at the same time want them to experience the wonderful neighborhood that Barnard calls home.”
In retrospect, Coleman Hughes can see how Alex McNab and Tessa Majors are ensnared in the same seemingly borderless conversation about safety and race. Hughes isn’t just a Columbia undergraduate; thanks to a series of provocative essays on race in America for Quillette, he’s also become, over the past several years, a hero of the “intellectual dark web,” a loose group of thinkers who reject the shibboleths of liberal culture (while keeping some distance from the Trump-era right). With both cases, Hughes believes public safety has been collateral damage in the effort to expunge racism. Among the woke majority, “there’s a dismissive attitude about proactive safety.” The McNab incident was handled badly, Hughes agrees, “but safety actually matters. It’s not an empty word.” He continues, “Alex McNab was a student. But he could have not been a student. That’s the thing. He could have had a knife in his pocket. That was unsayable at the time. But sometimes people do have knives in their pockets. Just because the kids come from terrible circumstances doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes have knives in their pockets, and people will do intellectual gymnastics to avoid confronting that paradox.”
Over the course of February and early March, certain things have become normal to the baby-faced boy. He enters the small courtroom after everyone is present — sometimes his uncle, always his aunt (taking notes in a scrupulous hand on a small legal pad). Large legal teams occupy two large tables, each spread with stacks of files and pads and Post-it notes. The boy is escorted in by an officer with a gun, his hands cuffed behind his back. His body has adapted to the way the cuffs come off and on: He shifts his shoulders and angles his wrists to help out the officer with the key.
He wears a dark winter coat with a gray stripe on the hood that says Calvin Klein, and he keeps it on for hours, even when the courtroom gets stifling, until finally he removes it and then you can see what he’s wearing — often a baseball shirt, white with blue sleeves. He has nervous habits. He pulls at his lips, sometimes plucks at the front of his hair. The tabloids have said that he has a hard time paying attention, but this isn’t altogether true. He sometimes falls completely asleep, with his head on the table cupped in his arms, but more often he is doodling or writing or frequently talking to his lawyer, tapping her shoulder and whispering things behind a cupped hand as if he were telling secrets in school.
These preliminary hearings went on for weeks; their purpose was for Judge Carol Goldstein to make rulings on admission of evidence. While awaiting his trial in April, the boy has been held at Crossroads detention center, a place sometimes referred to as “gladiator school.” Whatever happens, this boy will get off easy, compared to his friends. His age means that even on a felony-murder charge, he will be tried in family court; his file will remain sealed; if convicted, he will serve five to nine years. But 13 is the boundary. The older boys are both 14 and, charged with murder and robbery, will be tried in the youth part of the criminal court. If convicted, they will serve five years to life.
In the courtroom, there’s another frequent visitor. He sits in the corner farthest from the boy, near the door, on a hard, narrow, uncomfortable bench. He shifts positions, leaning forward and back, crossing and uncrossing his long legs. This is Inman Majors, Tess’s father. Majors takes his job as Tess’s representative seriously. He wears a dark suit and dress shoes and a metallic blue tie the color of Tess’s eyes. He looks like Tess, except his face is rounder and bleak. This is one of the people who insisted that all of the memorials for Tess be named “celebrations,” that they be saturated with music — Sly & the Family Stone and Paul Simon and Violent Femmes — that people dance and sing if so moved, that the lyrics to “Prom Queen,” Tess’s song about falling in love with a girl, be printed on the back of the program. “I’m stuck in my head cuz ’m falling so hard / And I know that she’s still up with the stars.”
One day in February, the boy’s lawyer, Hannah Kaplan, argued for the fifth time for parole. At that point, the boy had been held at the detention center — where he is “the youngest, and the smallest” — for 55 days. Kaplan pointed to the boy’s recent progress report: He had only been acting out a little bit and only with some of the younger staff, refusing to do things like get out of a chair. The boy was getting good grades — “outstanding,” in fact, in science, creative writing, and art. He needed to be home. He needed to be in school. His uncle and aunt would agree to any restrictions; they would follow all rules. Furthermore, “my client is not alleged to have stabbed the victim,” she said. “He did not touch her or take her belongings.”
At the word victim, Inman Majors made a loud and involuntary gasp, as if he were taken suddenly by surprise. For the fifth time, Judge Goldstein denied the boy’s parole.