That Sickening Feeling Again

What I didn't have the heart to tell Mrs. Bell after her son's murder.

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I am sick to my stomach, and I really do not know what to say. My cell and office phones have been blowing up, and people have been emailing me nonstop because 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.

Not guilty on all counts.

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, with, more often than not, a person of color on the receiving end. Eleanor Bumpurs... Michael StewartAmadou DialloSean 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 American 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 fianceé, 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: governmental (local, state, and federal bills were going to be proposed, and task forces recommended); systemic 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 in the black community call "God-fearing, church-going folk."