Kevin Powell: The Sean Bell Tragedy

April 25, 2008I am sick to my stomach and I really do not know what to say right this second. My cell and office phones have been blowing up all day, and people have been emailing me nonstop, to let me know that Detectives Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora, and Marc Cooper, the three New York […]

April 25, 2008I

am sick to my stomach and I really do not know what to say right this

second. My cell and office phones have been blowing up all day, and

people have been emailing me nonstop, to let me know that Detectives

Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora, and Marc Cooper, the three New York

City police officers accused of shooting 50 times and

murdering Sean

Bell, were found not guilty on all counts: Oliver, who fired 31 times

and reloaded once, and Isnora, who fired 11 times, had been charged

with manslaughter, felony assault and reckless endangerment. They faced

up to 25 years in prison if convicted on all charges. Cooper, who fired

four times, faced up to a year in jail if convicted of reckless


that’s it: Sean Bell, a mere 23 years of age, out partying the morning

before the wedding to the mother of his two small children, dead, gone,

forever. Sean Bell and his two friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph

Guzman, all unarmed, ambushed by New York’s finest. His last day,

November 25, 2006, is marked as another tragic one in New York City

history. How many more? I once heard in a protest song. How many more?But

I knew this verdict was coming. I have lived in New York City for

nearly two decades and, before that, worked as a news reporter for

several publications throughout the city’s five boroughs, and I cannot

begin to tell you how many cases of police brutality and police

misconduct I covered or witnessed, more often than not a person of

color on the receiving end: Eleanor Bumpurs. Michael Stewart…Amadou

Diallo…Sean Bell. This is not to suggest that all police

officers are trigger-happy and inhumane, because I do not believe that.

They have a difficult and important job, and many of them do that job

well, and maintain outstanding relationships with our communities. I

know officers like that. But what I am saying is that New York,

America, this


as a whole, still views the lives of Black people, of Latino people, of

people of color, of women, of poor or working-class people, as less

than valuable. It does not matter that two of the three officers

charged in the Sean Bell case were officers of color and one White.

What matters is the mindset of racism that permeates the New York

Police Department, and far too many police departments across America.

Shooting in self-defense is one thing, but it is never okay to shoot

first and ask questions later, not even if a police officer “feels”

threatened, not even if the source of that “feeling” is a Black or

Latino person. That

is a twisted logic deeply rooted in the America social fabric, dating

back to the founding fathers and their crazy calculations

about slaves being three-fifths of a human being. And in spite of

Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, and other successful Black

individuals, by and large the masses of Black people, and Latino

people, are perpetually viewed through this lens of not being quite

human. William Kristol of the New York Times wrote what I felt was an

incredibly ignorant and myopic March 24th column implying, strongly,

that we should not have conversations about race in America, that such

talk was dated. This piece was in response to Barack Obama’s now famous

meditation on race. But Kristol, like many in denial, had this to say:

“The last thing we need now is a heated national conversation about

race… Racial progress has in fact continued in America. A new national

conversation about

race isn’t necessary to end what Obama calls the ‘racial stalemate

we’ve been stuck in for years’— because we’re not stuck in such a

stalemate… This is all for the best. With respect to having a

national conversation on race, my recommendation is: Let’s not, and say

we did.” Well, Mr. Kristol, what, precisely, do you think Black New

Yorkers are feeling this very moment as we absorb the Sean Bell

verdict? Or do our thoughts, our feelings, our wounds, not matter? “Black

male lives are meaningless in America,” a female friend just texted me,

and what can I say to that? Who’s going to help Nicole Paultre Bell,

Sean Bell’s grieving fiancé, explain to their two young daughters that

the men who killed

their daddy are not going to be punished? I remember that

November 2006 day so vividly, when word spread of the Sean Bell

killing. And I remember the hastily assembled meetings by New York

City’s de facto Black leadership—the ministers, the elected officials,

the grassroots activists—at Local 1199 in midtown Manhattan where it

was stated, with great earnestness and finality, that after all these

years, we were going to put together a comprehensive response to police

brutality and misconduct. There were to be three levels of response:

governmentally (local, state, and federal bills were going to be

proposed, and task forces recommended); systemically within the police

department (comprehensive proposals were called for to challenge police

practices or to

enforce ones already in place); and via the United States Justice

Department, since any form of police brutality or misconduct is a

violation of basic American civil rights. We met for a few months after

the Sean Bell murder, divided into committees, then the entire thing

died—again. There was a lot of research done, many hearings that were

transcribed, much talk of a united front, then nothing, not even an

email to say the plan was no longer being planned. Anyhow,

in the interim I spent a great deal of time, more time than I’ve spent

in my entire New York life, in Queens, mainly in Jamaica, Queens,

getting to know Sean Bell’s family. I was particularly struck by Sean

Bell’s mother, Valerie Bell, and his father, William Bell. Two very

decent and

well-intentioned working-class New Yorkers, who had raised their

children the best they could, who were now, suddenly, activists thrust

into a spotlight they had never sought. The parents are what we the

Black community calls “God-fearing, church-going folk.” Indeed, what

was so incredible was how much Mr. and Mrs. Bell believed in and

referenced God. But that is our sojourn in America: when everything

else fails us, we still have the Lord. And there they were, holding a

50-day vigil directly across from the 103rd precinct, on 168th Street,

right off Jamaica Avenue and 91st Avenuein Jamaica, Queens, in the

dead-cold winter air. They and their family members and close friends

taking turns monitoring the makeshift altar of candles, cards, and

photos. And I remember how we had to

shame local leaders a few times into supporting Mr. and Mrs. Bell with

donations of money, food, or other material needs. While much of the

media and support flocked to Nicole Paultre Bell, Sean Bell’s fiancé,

and the sexiness of her being represented by the Reverend Al Sharpton

and his lawyer pals Sanford Rubenstein and Michael Hardy, the media did

not pay much attention to Sean Bell’s parents and their kinfolk at all.


was especially striking was the fact that Mrs. Bell got up every single

morning, made her way to the vigil area, then to work in a local

hospital all day, then to her church every single evening. She reminded

me so much of my own mother, of any Black mother in America who has had

to be the backbone of the family, often sacrificing her


health, her own wants and needs, her own hurt and pain, to be there for

others in their time of need. Mrs.

Bell always told me that she truly believed justice would be done in

this case. She really did. I never had the heart to tell her that it is

rare for a police officer to be found guilty of murdering a civilian,

no matter how glaring the evidence. Nor did I have the heart to tell

Mrs. Bell that the media and the defense would seek to destroy her

son’s image and reputation, that Sean Bell would be reduced to a thug,

as an unsavory character, to somehow justify the police shooting. Nor

did I have the heart to tell Mrs. Bell that this pain of losing her son

would be with her the remainder of her life. I did not share my

suspicion that the parade of Black leaders, Black

protests, media hype—all of it—was all part of someone’s carefully

concocted script, brushed off and brought to the parade every single

time a case like this occurred. I have seen it before, and as long as

we live in a city, a nation, that does not value all people as human,

there will be more Sean Bells. “I

am Sean Bell,” many of us chanted in the days and weeks immediately

following his death. Yet very few of us showed up to the hearings

after, and even fewer had the courage to question the vision, or lack

thereof, of our own Black leadership who accomplished, ultimately,

little to nothing at all. And very few of us realized that the

powers-that-be in New York City have come to anticipate our reactions

to matters like the Sean Bell tragedy: we

get upset and become very emotional; we scream “No Justice! No Peace!”;

we march, rally, and protest; we call the police and mayor all kinds of

names and demand their resignations; we vow that this killing will be

the last; and we will wait until the next tragedy hits, then this whole

horrible cycle begins anew. 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


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. Our

current leadership needs us to believe all we can ever be are victims,

doomed to one recurring tragedy or another. It keeps these leaders

gainfully employed, and it keeps us feeling completely helpless and

powerless. Well, I am not helpless nor powerless, and neither are you.

To prevent Sean Bell’s memory from fading like dust into the air, the

question is put to you, now: What are you going to do to change this

picture once and for all? Mayor Bloomberg said this in a statement:”There

are no winners in a trial like this. An innocent man lost his life, a


lost her groom, two daughters lost their father, and a mother and a

father lost their son. No verdict could ever end the grief that those

who knew and loved Sean Bell suffer.”No,

the grief will never end, not for Sean Bell’s parents and family, for

his fiancé and children. But Mayor Bloomberg, you, me, we the people,

can step up our games, make a commitment to real social justice in our

city, in our nation, and, for once, penalize people, including police

officers, who just randomly blow away lives. Sean Bell is never coming

back, but we are here, and the biggest tragedy will be if we keep going

about our lives, as if this never happened in the first place.And

a long as we have leadership, White leadership and Black leadership,


leadership and grassroots leadership, that can do nothing more than

exacerbate folks’ very natural emotions in a tragedy like this, we will

never progress as a human race. Instead a true leader needs to harness

those emotions and turn them into action, as Dr. King did, as Gandhi

did. In the absence of such action, so many of us, especially us Black

and Latino males, will continue to have a very nervous relationship

with the police, even the police of color, for fear that any of one of

us could be the next Sean Bell.Kevin Powell is a Brooklyn, New York-based writer, community activist, and author of 8 books. He can be reached at