(Photo: Sean Bell, fiance Nicole Paultre-Bell, and their daughter)
It was A cold cold day in February 2000. A few of us medical students, joined by a handful of members of the Newark, New Jersey community, stood on the main street outside the university hospital we worked at. We chanted, and we passed out information on Amadou Diallo’s wrongful death by cops in the NYPD, caused by 41 shots fired by plain clothed police officers who thought Diallo’s face matched that of a photo of a serial rapist they were after. He reached for his wallet as he ran up his apartment’s stairs, and they fired on him, killed him. 41 shots.
At several points we shouted on a megaphone: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…” until we reached 41. In that light, 41 bullets seemed like SO. DAMN. MANY. The police officers were tried away from NYC, in Albany, without a jury, because of the negative press and therefore “biased” chance they would have. They were all acquitted.
8 years later, I’m equally livid and deeply saddened at the verdict of a trial of 3 plain clothed cops who shot 50 rounds of bullets (17 months ago) at unarmed men — killing Sean Bell on the night before his wedding, critically wounding Guzman, a passenger in his car, in a completely reckless and incompetent act. One of the officers even stopped to RELOAD his gun.
The NYTimes has a telling graphic, attached to an article on the Sean Bell case, profiling the cases of several victims of excessive force by the NYPD over the years. Most of the police officers got off completely scot-free, after committing heinous crimes. Also included is a list of all the charges against each officer — again, all 3 officers were acquitted of ALL charges against them.
The cops negotiated to have the case heard solely in front of a judge (no jury), stating that there was too much negative press around their case and therefore they wouldn’t have a fair trial if a jury was involved. Most others don’t get this “privilege”, especially folks from communities of color.
The judge, in his verdict acquitting the 3 police officers of ANY crime against Sean Bell and Joseph Guzman noted, “Carelessness is not a crime.” He also cited prior incarcerations of the victims, and noted that he didn’t like the demeanor of some of the witnesses on the stand. Wow.
Holly at Feministe has a great post about how this is a feminist issue:
somewhere out there, there certainly are some feminists who would not describe this as a feminist issue, despite the bereavement of Nicole Paultre Bell (who changed her name after her fiance’s death) and their daughter. Some writers might point to the fact that Sean Bell lay dead outside of a strip club in Queens where he was having his bachelor party, to his arrest record, or to his blood alcohol level. They could bring up the ugly, misogynist fact that one of Bell’s two friends previously pled guilty to hitting the mother of his child. Or the reports that Bell’s other friend got into an argument when pressured one of the club’s dancers to have paid sex with their entire group, which she didn’t want to do. Or they could just describe it as men killing men.
I feel kind of sick even mentioning all of these details surrounding an unarmed man who was gunned down with his friends on his wedding day. But I’m bringing them up precisely because I want to point out that these details do not matter and never have. All feminists should be familiar with victim-blaming and shifting the spotlight away from the executioners, the rapists, the impersonal forces that do their best to eliminate and kill women, the brown folks of the world, the poor, the different.
The problem here, as Delores Jones-Brown points out, is that there is a systemic pattern of police officers shooting unarmed suspects. The problem is that this disproportionately affects communities of color. The black men who are most often slaughtered by such violence, and all the women and children in their lives too, their loved ones, friends and relatives. A system that is all too eager to exonerate “the thin blue line” and continue business as usual. All of these are feminist issues. Racism must be a feminist issue, for any kind of feminism that counts. Police brutality must be; the biases of the criminal justice system must be.
Kai Chang shared an insightful comment on Holly’s blog post:
By complete coincidence, two nights ago I found myself sitting at a bar in Westchester next to one of the lead lawyers in the trial; indeed he was defending the cop who reloaded his weapon and emptied a second clip into the car. This lawyer was already celebrating; he was drinking martinis and boasting that it was over and the defense had won. I sat quietly and stared at my food as my stomach churned. The lawyer bragged to the bartender that the defense had successfully discredited the prosecution’s witnesses as drug dealers and drunks. He said the defense had made the case that when you’re firing at a car, the explosive impacts of bullets on the car give you the visual impression that there is return fire coming back at you, which explains why they kept on firing at unarmed men. He said that the cop who had fired 31 times was so flooded with adrenaline that he did not remember reloading and erroneously thought his gun had jammed which is why he kept pulling the trigger. It was big laughs and toasts all around.
This is what happens when the humanity of some is valued over the humanity of others, in ways large and small. This is why I talk incessantly about the cognitive indoctrination and perceptual prisms which are so central to racist socialization. We are bombarded all our lives with cultural propaganda which dehumanizes people of color in general and injects a fear of black men in particular into our society’s very brain stem. That’s how it works. One day, you’re a young child watching Saturday morning cartoons in which racial stereotypes are exploited for humor; the next thing you know, you’re a scared cop pumping bullets into a black man, or a judge giving leniency to that cop, or a society with a prison system which looks like ours.
One of the cops, Detective Michael Oliver, stopped to RELOAD his gun and then continued firing at the unarmed men in the car. Alexander Jason, a forensics expert, shared this video of what 31 shots (with reloading) using the firearm that Michael Oliver would look like. 12.3 seconds. Wow. (thanks to Kameelah for the link). Reminds me of what 41 bullets aimed at Amadou Diallo must have been like, back in 1999.
Now, while NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly was out putting cops in the streets to prevent violent responses to the verdict of the cops charged with the killing of Sean Bell, people were peacefully protesting around the city and around the nation. Below are photos from Indymedia NYC And a powerful 1 minute video of New Yorkers protesting at Jamaica station:
(Thanks to Rosa for the links to the video and the photos)
Where do we go from here? There will hopefully be another trial regarding Sean Bell. But how do we prevent this kind of event from occurring again and again in our communities, disproportionately in communities of color? Kevin Powell notes that we are all Sean Bell, and until we realize this we won’t overcome this kind of pathologic behavior:
Plain and simple, racism creates abusive relationships. It does not matter if the perpetrator is a White sister or brother, or a person of color, because the most vulnerable in our society feel the heat of it. Real talk: this tragedy would have never gone down on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan or in Brooklyn Heights. I am not just speaking about the judge’s decision, but the police officer’s actions. Those shots would have never been fired at unarmed White people sitting in a car. Until we understand that racism is not just about who pulled the trigger in a police misconduct case, but is also about the geography of racism, and the psychology of racism, we are forever stuck having the same endless dialogue with no solution in sight.
And until America recognizes the civil and human rights of all its citizens, systemic racism and police misconduct, joined at the hip, will never end. That is, until White sisters and brothers realize they, too, are Sean Bell, this will never end. Save for a few committed souls, most White folks sit on the sidelines (as many did when we marched down Fifth Avenue in protest of Sean Bell’s murder in December 2006), feel empathy, but fail to grasp that our struggle for justice is their struggle for justice. They, alas, are Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo, and all those anonymous Black and Brown heads and bodies who’ve been victimized, whether they want to accept that reality or not. And the reality is that until police officers are forced to live in the communities they police, forced to learn the language, the culture, the mores of the communities they police, forced to change how they handle undercover assignments, this systemic racism, this police misconduct, will never end. And until Black and Latino people, the two communities most likely to suffer at the hands of police brutality and misconduct, refuse to accept the half-baked leadership we’ve been given for nearly forty years now, and start to question what is really going on behind the scenes with the handshakes, the eyewinks, the head nods, and the backroom deals at the expense of our lives, this systemic racism, this police misconduct, these kinds of miscarriages of justice, will never end.
We are all Sean Bell.