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.”
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 Avenue in Jamaica, Queens, in the dead-cold winter air. There they were, 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 flocked to Nicole Paultre Bell, Sean Bell’s fianceé, and the sexiness of her being represented by the Rev. 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, an unsavory character, to somehow justify the police shooting. 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 then we disperse and wait until the next tragedy hits, and the 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. This tragedy would have never gone down on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or in Brooklyn Heights. I am not just speaking about the judge’s decision, but the police officers’ 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 neither 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.”