On Queen’s Boulevard, the Night Sean Bell’s Killers Got Off
Friday dusk in Queens, the first march after the verdict in the police killing of Sean Bell started among the cherry blossoms. In front of the cool stone courthouse, where that morning Judge Arthur Cooperman announced that essentially his decision had pivoted on believing that police feared for their life, or on taking the word of a bunch of thugs with rap sheets and an interest in milking the city for cash. He had decided the victims brought it on themselves.
The protesters flowed from the little park in front of the courthouse across the street crying "Murder!" The judge hadn’t thought so. He didn’t entertain manslaughter, or felony assault, or reckless endangerment either. Maybe carelessness, but that would be for the Police Department to decide. Sean Bell was dead at 23, too bad. He and a friend had had heated words with another man outside Club Kalua, an exotic dance club, after his bachelor party there. Did anyone really say he had a gun or say he was going for a gun? The testimony was inconsistent, but the judge wasn’t bothered by that inconsistency. Police "perceived" that Bell and his crew might have had a gun in their car, he stated. They no more had a gun than Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But they were Angry Black Men, the defense had argued. They were drunk. And when they saw yet another dark-skinned man in plain clothes pointing a gun at them, they didn’t wave a white flag and sit still. It was just past 4 in the morning. They were drunk, and they tried to get away. The man pointing the gun at their car may or may not have said, "Police." He and the two other shooters on trial said they had identified themselves, but their own lieutenant on the scene testified that he had not heard it. The judge was not bothered by that inconsistency. The cops may or may not have shown their badges, another inconsistency that did not concern him.
"One, we are the people!"
"Two, a little bit louder"
"Three, we want justice for all people … "
The protest massed down Queens Boulevard and onto Jamaica Avenue, past the nail shops and the beauty shops, past fast food parking lots where tattooed young men and sedate-looking older couples joined in the chants, past intersections where people stuck waiting in their cars didn’t seem to mind, past tenements where pretty girls hung out the windows smiling and waving, past idling buses whose black passengers nodded or gave a thumbs up. The emotion of plain, unarmed people in the early hours of November 25, 2006 — confusion, disorientation, fear in the night — did not matter to the judge in deciding the facts of the case. They might have mattered to a jury, but once a court refused to allow a change of venue out of the city, the cops put their fate in the judge’s hands.
"That was good," I overheard a couple of white guys at a Manhattan diner say later. The papers quoted legal experts saying the case was so complicated plain people never could have decided it, and a mistrial would have been the most likely outcome. Judge Cooperman took eleven days before rendering his decision, but in delivering it he expressed only steely purpose. The baby son of one of the victims started crying while Cooperman was reading his verdict. "I’m not going to continue unless the child is removed," the judge snapped, and the boy’s mother hurried him out of the courtroom. What the victims felt or thought at the time of the shooting was irrelevant, the judge lectured; it’s what they did that mattered. They had tried to get away; Sean Bell’s Nissan Altima hit the man who was pointing a gun at him and hit an unmarked police van. Then it hit the van again. That was enough for a pre-emptive execution. What the cops thought and felt, not what they did, is what concerned the judge, and they thought Bell and his friends were going to kill them. Fifty shots. Within seconds Liverpool Street was a scene of carnage. Two years later the survivors took the witness stand, and their inconsistencies counted for everything. Their anger under cross-examination, their background with the law, their shifting memory of what happened in a few horror-filled seconds after a long night of drinking that ended with their friend drenched in blood and themselves ripped with bullets, counted for everything, as did the background of other prosecution witnesses, some of them strippers and drug dealers. "These factors played a significant part in … eviscerating the credibility of those prosecution witnesses," Judge Cooperman declared.
"1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 … 48 – 49 – 50."
We have done these countdowns before. Up to forty-one after Amadou Diallo was killed by four plain clothes cops in the Bronx in 1999. Those cops got off, too, after a jury in Albany, New York, decided they feared for their life. They were all big men with guns, but the little immigrant’s wallet looked like a gun. Who knew?
Fifty shots is a new high, but among the placards in the march there were creased and dog-eared signs, relics of many an earlier outing, listing the names of the dead at police hands. There were signs, now updated, with pictures of some of the better-known victims, Anthony Baez, Timothy Stansbury, Diallo, Abner Louima, who wasn’t killed, merely sodomized with a broomstick in a police station… Most of us don’t know the other names unless we look them up or they died down the street from where we live. Most were killed by only a few shots or, like Baez, by a chokehold or a beating. A crazed old woman with a steak knife — what was her name, again? — was pumped full of lead by a SWAT team in her kitchen. Some were killed in custody; some have been killed since Bell but without the enticing detail: the bikini clad pole dancers, the wedding day in ruins, the unfulfilled redemption of a man about to "turn his life around". It doesn’t matter; the story is always the same. The police are always scared. Their training is always irrelevant. "What would you do in their shoes?" someone, some many ones, in the newspapers always ask insistently. As if we can know. We, the untrained, are just scared. Bell and his friends were just scared. It doesn’t matter. If police training could go out the window, the victims’ conjured training could not. As thugs, they should have been ready. The trial was theirs, really, and the judge found them guilty.
"And fuck the police!"
The police are trained not to mind the abuse and behave accordingly. The evening of the protest they were out in windbreakers and baseball caps rather than riot gear. "Oink, oink, oink!" They didn’t flinch. No protester said, "Off the pigs!" but it probably wouldn’t have mattered this night, the first night, where everyone from the mayor on down had decided that a little repressive tolerance couldn’t hurt. And there were children in strollers in the march. A nice black dog in the march. Some old people and a lot of teenagers. Not many of the protesters were white. Not one of the cheering spectators was white, at least not that I noticed. Along the route three buxom Latinas in the doorway of their nail shop swayed their hips and arms as if at a parade of heroes.
The killing of Bell and wounding of his friends was an advertisement for multicultural law and order in action. Of the three defendants, Marc Cooper is black; Gescard Isnora is black Hispanic; Michael Oliver is Arab-American. The defense team was a rainbow coalition, black, Latino and white, with the most dogged cross-examiner in the bunch a black man. After the verdict he made a point of telling the press that his client, Isnora, the man who pointed his gun at Bell first, was a dark-skinned man who decided not to sell drugs, not to get involved in the life of the streets. As offensive as the broader implications of that assertion, the opposite is true. Isnora and his partners have made careers juicing the life of the streets. They were in Club Kalua that night trying to trap someone into buying drugs or agreeing to sex for hire. They had been forced to drink a couple of beers so as to fit in. (The NYPD will eventually decide if that was going overboard.) Four hours in that seedy joint, and they couldn’t snag a soul. After the place closed and just before the shooting, one of the cops tried one last time to lure one of the dancers into prostitution. No luck. The night had been one fat zero for the cops until they imagined the crime-about-to-happen and killed Bell. In a play-out of the grim cliche that these killings have become, the only thing separating the cops from gangsters is the badge, the blue and the benefit of the doubt.
After the judge delivered his verdict, Trent Benefield, who was injured in the shooting and excoriated by the judge as a liar, wept among his friends and said, "If I did it, I’d be doing twenty-five to life." This verdict had been preceded, a few weeks before, by another one, the sentencing verdict of John White, a 54-year-old black homeowner in Long Island who shot and killed an unarmed drunken white teenager who came to his house shouting "Nigger" and, White thought, threatening his family. White wept too, on the witness stand, telling the jury of his fear, the whirl of historical memories, of real and imagined terrors that combined in some mad vortex that ended in a killing that night. He called it an accident. The essential facts of White’s case were as clear as those of the three cops. He was armed; his victim was not. He was afraid a gun or guns might appear from somewhere in the dark, some lynch mob on the way; they did not, but he killed a 16-year-old. A jury convicted White of manslaughter. His fear or the drunken, repulsive behavior of the victim did not figure in the conviction; they were matters for mitigation, and at sentencing White was given two to four years in prison. Supporters of Bell’s killers have taken to railing against protesters for having no respect for presumption of innocence, reasonable doubt and other noble features of the trial system that seem almost quaint until they’re written in bright capital letters when cops kill someone. Like the three cops only with more justification — he had not gone out looking for a confrontation with his victim — John White said he had feared for his life. No doubt that fear was real, but killing an unarmed teenager was not an act of self-defense, and it didn’t look like an accident. A jury was able to make the distinctions that Judge Cooperman and his august champions in the legal profession suggested were beyond anyone’s capability in the killing of Sean Bell.
"We are all Sean Bell!"
"We are all Sean Bell!"
Our words bounced off the walls and the underside of the bridge at the Jamaica station of the Long Island Railroad, amplified, thunderous. We all meant them. But there were no pictures of white women on that whiskered sign of police victims, and no white men either. Leftists who have worried that an electoral victory for Barack Obama will somehow remove the oppression of blacks as a subject in American politics need not fret. Whatever Obama’s fortunes, it’s a good bet that another black family’s loved one will be shot dead in the streets by police somewhere in America, and another court will decide that the trained killers had every reason to be afraid. Again they’ll walk, and protesters will march, and editorialists will say we must honor the rule of law and take steps so it never happens again. "Unfortunately, sometimes people die", as Michael Oliver, who got off thirty-one shots, said after acquittal. "I have to live with that for the rest of my life." If the pattern follows, he’ll get a desk job, and the police union will say how unfair it all is.
JoANN WYPIJEWSKI is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. She lives in New York and can be reacged at email@example.com