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AFP/Getty Images

For Whom the Bell Tolls (Part II)

"Perchance, he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him" – John Donne


Part one of this essay appeared as a blog on Blackprof during the fall of 2007. At that time, the 'Bell' in the title referred specifically to Mychal Bell of the Jena Six. I serialize the title here not because of my love for Hemingway (or Donne for that matter), but to revisit the theme of death and valueless black life in the criminal justice system. Sean Bell, like Mychal Bell before him, did not receive fair treatment under the law. The Bells' lives are seen as less than that of their white counterparts, whether those counterparts be racist high school bullies or racially indoctrinated officers of the law. It is interesting that of the officers involved in the shooting, the black cop shot the least, (4 bullets); the mixed-race cop shot 11 times, and the white cop shot 31 times. I read this sliding scale as corollary to the effects of the racial and social indoctrination or our nation's police forces.

But the deadly confrontation between Sean Bell and his friends with those undercover detectives was not just about race. This confrontation had as much to do with the manifestation of black masculinity in the public sphere as it did racism – institutional or personal. It had as much to do with gender and gender roles as it did with race.

The first tip to the gendered underpinnings of this tragedy is the scene of the crime. The Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica, Queens is by many accounts a seedy strip club, a grimy spot where the officers were conducting an undercover investigation of a prostitution ring – not of the Spitzer variety. Having been in a strip club once or twice in my life, I can personally attest to the pumped-up testosterone levels among the men in attendance. Shootouts at strip clubs are not an uncommon occurrence. These shootouts occur inside and outside the club depending on the security of the club itself. Since these detectives were undercover, they, too, were likely cloaked in their most masculine personas, and as pumped-up as the people they were there to police.

Trent Benefield, Joseph Guzman, and Sean Bell were celebrating Bell's last night as a bachelor. Have you ever been to a bachelor party? Even as we concede that these victims were profiled by the undercover officers, we must also understand that their susceptibility to be profiled stems from limits placed on the expression of black masculinity in the public sphere.

Though the outcome from the night of the shooting was horribly tragic, the confrontation between the police and these young black men is sadly like thousands of confrontations between young black men and other young black men on the streets of our inner cities.

And police are socialized by the same forces as those they are sworn to protect. Often, we kill each other because violence has become the central mode of masculine expression in our communities. The bells will not cease to toll for us unless we correct the perceptions about what is expected and acceptable masculine behavior.


James Braxton Peterson is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University and the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, Inc.