Op-Ed: Kevin Powell on The Sean Bell Tragedy

The Sean Bell Tragedy
By Kevin Powell

April 25, 2008

I 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 endangerment.
And 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 society 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.

What 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 own 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 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.

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 bride 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, mainstream 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 kevin@kevinpowell.net.

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9 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Kevin Powell on The Sean Bell Tragedy

  1. Clarification:
    1. Should have read…… “…. experience any repercussions.”
    2. Should have read….. “It’s cowardly and against nature to do otherwise.”
    3. Should have read…….”… there will be no buckdancing!”
    Finally, there have been many court decision that rendered the humanity of Black americans as less than human. Dred Scott decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, Berea v. Kentucky, to name a few. So this judge’s decision in the Sean Bell case should not be interpreted as final and moral.
    And why is that Black men have to walk on egg-shells, rather than the earth, to be mere men?

  2. In closing: Sean Bell, et al were the victims here in this matter regardless of the court decision. To argue otherwise is akin to blame a women for being rape because they were wearing a “provocative” skirt. It’s outrageous!!!!!
    The rest, involved in this matter, IMHO, are, basically, scum-bags. I mean all of em. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no rational justification for the shoot down of folks, out side of active warfare, particularly, if the folks in this instance thought they were being car-jacked!!!! Get the phuckoutta here! Their character is irrelevant as defined by the American system. I’ll say it again. Is there a place or time when or where white men in America have been, or, been so tormented or afflicted by governmental agencies, be they city, state, or federal to the extent that Black men have that defines, particularly, genocide??????? We, as Black men, do have to show more personal responsibility in the decisions we make in our socialization and all. No argument here. But at some point we have to be responsible men when people think they just phuck over us and not experience any repressions. It’s cowardly against nature to do otherwise.
    Simply blaming the victim, in this instance, again, is NOT the answer.
    Oh yes. Yawl can OB, HRC, and JM.
    Until the material conditions of our community changes with regards to the social indicators of humane existence, that are determine by others mostly not of our community, ether directly or indirectly are made more humane for us in all aspects of human endeavors. NO BUCK-DANCING! To put it mildly.
    I just could not let this shit close like this.

  3. CNorrison,

    Clearly stated

    Now why can’t the black leaders convey this message of personal resposibility, they may get less yawns and more credibility

  4. CNorrrison as I pointed out in my earlier post, I felt powell was exercising mental masturbation and not worth the read. But he, Powell, is considering to run for Ed Towns’ congressional seat/office in Brooklyn. Speaking of worthless leadership.
    But I do know, as elloquently stated by you and Charles, that both of you guys are onto something more tangible. The worthless ranting of the writer of the piece and placing ourselves, Black men, in high risk situations.
    Because we are Black men, we truly have to consciously not put ourselves into high risk positions/situations that could jeopardized our lives or limbs, outside of active warfare. As such, this whole notion is absurd, and, blatantly, a violation of one’s human rights. And because its done to a ‘specific group,’ in this instance, black men, among other matters, validates the latter claim. But that is story for another day.
    However, when thinking this thing through, one cannot complain or remedy the situation if you are dead as a result of placing yourself in a high risk situation. I can not think of any scenario where white men are so tormented / afflicted by various government agencies, be they state, city or federal, which makes the situation for us so perverse and tragic.
    We have to practice a ‘self policing’ for our survival. I think we should become models of ‘Darwinian Ideas’ for survival. Survival of the fittest. (So that we are clear, I’m not speaking of Eugenics.) That is, if you are not fit in mind, body, and spirit, you are at an extreme disadvantage for not “making it” or being sucessful in life in general, to the extent possible. That is, you place yourself, needlessly, in high risk situations and, as such, becomes fodder for, in this instance, these dangerous cowboys Too bad they can’t use or send these tough guys to Irag or Afghanistan. They could use them.
    Finally, I hardly feel 98% of our folks are not interested in this tragic decision. Something is working I just can’t figure it out yet. I was out of state recently and listening to Satellite radio and folks all over the US is talking about the decision and is pretty disgusted by it.

  5. Powell’s a self promoting hack (real world, politics, etc.) who fails to even say a single word of the foolishness of this matter (cops with guns as a matter of policy drinking alcohol while working). 4 hours in a strip club? I’m guessing they had 4 – 5 drinks each bare minimum.

    Powell just wants something to say and like most he’s take the low hanging fruit, the easy and obvious to take aim at. Unimpressive.

    As a commenting person has said, the people involved can pursue this through the process at this juncture. The real topic meriting discussion and editorial comment is the lack of interest and involvement in any protest of this decision. If you’re going to explore anything about this matter, that’s really what’s note worthy.

    This judgment is not a big issue in the Black community other than with a very tiny small handful of Sharpton’s circle. There’s no collective uproar, there’s no collective feeling of outrage, I don’t know a single person who’s pissed.

    Why and how that is, is indeed worth exploring and writing about. It’s fair ground statement to say “people don’t care too much about this”. Face it, that’s very much the case.

    I am a 34 year old Black Man, but I AM NOT SEAN BELL. I make different choices and decisions than Sean Bell. I am Diallo though, a man that walks out of front doors of Aparment Buildings.

    They’re not the same and melding them together is not valid. Sure, you have the right to go to a strip club in sketchy parts of Brooklyn and drink and leave at 3 or 4 in the morning or whatever it was…..and not be killed. Yes, you have that right.

    However you are a F’*cking fool if you think you can go drinking as a strip club till 2 or 3 am, then get in a car and drive and not have a good chance of being pulled over by the police.

    I think the statistics are that 1 out of every 4 drivers after 2am is legally drunk. Yes, I am serious, the cops know this and actively pull over cars, especially nearly nightclubs and strip clubs and sportsbars. Why? A high [percentage of the drivers are drunk and hazards.

    I drink alcohol. However I don’t drink when I know I am going to be driving on the roads after midnight. Why? 2 drinks in 1 hour = failing the sobriety test and a DUI/DWI cost about $2K minimum to handle, often as much as $5K (legal and processing fees).

    I caution my company too, if they are driving of the inherent high probability of being pulled over in certain areas after certain hours.

    Can we be honest? There are sections of Brooklyn where you don’t want to be Black after sundown. As Black people we know this. It’s not right, it’s not fair. Yes, you can scream and holler all night that you have the right to be Black and walk the streets of Bensonhurst or wherever at midnight or 2am.

    Sure, you have that right. But in the real world, all we’re saying is you have the right to be a fool and exercise poor judgment, that’s all. Yes, you have the right to stack the odds in favor of positioning yourself in a high risk environment.

    No, I am not Sean Bell and of course he did not deserve to be shot, killed, etc. You know Pro Athletes have programs within their leagues warning them about placing themselves in high risk environments. This might be a newsflash but a lot of Sh*t goes down at the strip clubs, especially after certain hours.

    When you’re a Black man, you should not have to have a multi million dollar contract to have to practice prudence and awareness of where you are placing yourself. Life is not fair. Is that news? You cannot give the cops or society and invalid unfair reason to kill or beat you. You don’t walk down the streets of Bensonhurst at 2am, you don’t make quick movements that cause a dumb white cop fear if you are pulled over.

    Let’s face it, there are high risk activities when you are Black. and if you are not cognizant of that, you better recognize. This whole, “I am Sean Bell” markething angle/theme is absurd and perhaps the reason no one cares and this judgment has resulted with a collective yawn by 98% of the Blacks in NYC is because unlike Diallo, not a lot of people can relate to drinking at a strip club at that hour of the morning. No excuse to be murdered by the Cops, but also no surprise to me.

  6. Mr. Powell writes passionately about the recent verdict. He has much to share and his voice will should be welcomed into and affirmed by our political process. Well done.

    I have only one thought to add.

    He quotes a friend who said “Black male lives are meaningless in America.” I would like to pose to those members of our community who believe that “no snitching” is an affirmative response to a tragedy like Israel Ramirez and too many others, that they need to recuse themselves on the sideines of this tragedy until they correct themselves. Once they confront their hypocrisy and take responsibility for respecting the meaningfullness of all black lives no matter who the shooters are, only then can they join with the rest of us when we criticize the system for not doing the same. In my eyes those who have information that should be made public about killers of innocents, and do not, are little different than a judge who can not see the guilt in his boys-in-blue’s execution of Sean Bell and who sets them free.

    All of the killers of innocents on our streets need to be removed.

  7. i was really upset at the amount of people showed up saturday for the march in harlem we marched from 145 st and lennox to 125 st across 125 st to 8th ave back across 125 st to 7 ave up 7 ave to 135 st to the precint then up 8th ave back to 145 st & lennox i was upset at all of the brothers and sisters standing on the side instead of joining in supporting this struggle one young lady in front of me kept shouting saying to the young people on the side join in we are doing this for you all but they did not budge i was really dissapointed because no matter what race it is latino ,black it affects all of us i am 37 i was holding number 43 along with another brother with a blue baseball cap we all had double numbers what i am trying to say is black brother and sisters should learn how to stand together or we are always going to be doomed i am very upset about all of the rap artist to they should of supported this struggle also we support their pockets with all of their finances it really is ashame.

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