and BRIAN JONES
“YOU DON’T need to wonder why our blood boils,” Bishop Lester Williams told those who gathered at the Community Church of Christ in Jamaica, Queens to mourn the death of Sean Bell. “We are tired of being victims, and we are tired of being profiled.”
Sean was supposed to marry his high school sweetheart, Nicole Paultre, in that church. Instead, he was murdered hours before the wedding, gunned down in a car with two of his friends in a hail of bullets fired by undercover police officers.
Some 1,200 people came to mourn Sean’s death-more than the church could hold. So roughly half remained outside, even as it began to rain, sometimes somber and silent, sometimes welling up with chants denouncing the police. “This is a national problem,” mourner Sharon Epperson told us, “It’s racial profiling. We need to get these legalized murderers off the street.”
Sean Bell’s murder is one of the most outrageous police killings since Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by police who claim they thought the wallet he was taking out of his pocket looked like a gun.
Like Diallo, Bell and his two friends, Trent Benefield and Jose Guzman, were unarmed. But that didn’t stop police from firing 50 bullets into the car that carried the three. “It was an execution,” Nicole Paultre told a New York radio station. “They barricaded him in and executed him.”
Benefield has been released from the hospital, but as Socialist Worker went to press, Guzman was still in critical condition.
The funeral provided a grim reunion for two mothers of other innocent Black men murdered by the NYPD, Kadiatou Diallo and Marie Rose Dorismond (who traveled 28 hours by bus from Florida to attend)-and for Nicholas Heyward, whose 13-year-old son was killed by New York police in 1994. Abner Louima, who was tortured by the NYPD in 1997, also attended the funeral.
Margarita Rosario, the founder of Parents Against Police Brutality, whose son Anthony was killed by the New York cops, came because she thought it was “important for young people who have never gone through this experience to know that there are more of us out there. We need to learn from the past struggles.”
* * *
IN AN atmosphere of rising tension, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved swiftly to show that he would not automatically defend the actions of the police-a sharp departure from his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani.
Bloomberg traveled to Queens to meet privately with Bell’s family, and then with clergy from the Community Church of Christ. He also convened a meeting of Black elected officials and clergy that included Rep. Charles Rangel and Rev. Al Sharpton. Comptroller William Thompson Jr. told the New York Times, “Just the fact of meeting, or discussion, or expressing concern and outrage on the part of this administration was different.”
But not everyone was as impressed. After the meeting, Sharpton said, “We prefer talking than not talking, but the object is not a conversation. The object is fairness and justice.”
Sharpton did not, however, support Council member Charles Barron’s call for the resignation of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. After the meeting with the mayor, Sharpton and the other Black leaders surrounded Bloomberg as he defended Kelly, saying, “I think we have the best police commissioner the city has ever had.”
Bloomberg called the shooting “excessive,” but emphasized the need for a “fair and impartial investigation.”
Thus far, the NYPD’s idea of a “fair and impartial investigation” has consisted of a frenzied hunt for an alleged “fourth man” who police now claim had a gun near the car, but supposedly ran away when the shooting began.
Adding fuel to the fire, police last week began raiding the homes of people who knew the victims. So far, at least six people have been arrested in the police department’s desperate attempt to provide a justification for Bell’s death.
On November 29, for example, LaToya Smith was lying in bed with her 7-year-old son Jalyn around 6 a.m., when she heard a noise. According to left-wing commentator Juan Gonzalez writing in the New York Daily News, “Her locked bedroom door suddenly burst open, and several uniformed cops burst into the room with flashlights and guns drawn.”
The police herded LaToya, her two brothers, her mother, her baby and a friend into the living room. LaToya and the three men were taken into custody.
Police claim they found a loaded gun and a small bag of marijuana in the apartment. But police interrogators didn’t ask them about drugs-they asked about the shooting in Queens. The police wanted LaToya to tell them about friends of Bell, Guzman and Benefield. “If you don’t tell us what we want to hear,” one cop threatened, “you can get five years.”
The next morning, police arrested two more people in the same apartment building. One was Erskine Williams Jr., arrested on a warrant for an outstanding fine of $25. When his father called the 103rd precinct looking for his son, he was told he wasn’t there.
Ann Victor, a student from Queens, says this kind of behavior from police isn’t new. “You walk around Queens’ Southside, and you see cops all over the place, on every street corner,” she said. “You think you have a sense of security, but all you have to do is look at them the wrong way, and they got you hemmed up, they got you locked up-and in this case, they got Sean shot up.”
* * *
FEARING A violent backlash against police, Black leaders have largely appealed for calm. “Recklessness will only make it look like Sean Bell and his friends were reckless and deserved what they got,” Sharpton warned.
But the expressions of anger over this latest police killing are impossible to miss. In addition to Bell’s funeral, there have already been at least three public protests-two at the hospital where Guzman continues to be treated, and one at the Kalua Cabaret, the club that Bell and his friends had left shortly before officers opened fired on them.
A protest is planned for December 6 at 1 Police Plaza in downtown New York City. Unfortunately, the time for the protest had yet to be announced when Socialist Worker went to press-a sign of the disorganized state of the anti-police brutality movement in New York.
At its height in the late 1990s, the movement brought together tens of thousands of people for major protests. In 1997, some 20,000 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the police torture of Abner Louima. Two years later, the killing of Amadou Diallo sparked mass civil disobedience at police headquarters.
The protests made “racial profiling” a national issue-and put police on notice, resulting in a tangible decrease in incidents of brutality.
Since Diallo’s death, however, 102 people have been killed by the NYPD, and the level of racist repression has only grown. But tragically, the movement has been in retreat.
One reason is the fact that officers who shot Diallo were acquitted, causing a sense of demoralization among those who demanded justice. More generally, the right-wing backlash after the September 11 attacks re-legitimized racial profiling, refurbished the image of police and put progressive movements on the defensive.
But in the wake of Sean Bell’s murder, activists like Margarita Rosario are beginning to organize again. “We have to do more right now,” she said. “This is a case that could bring some serious change.”
Bloomberg calls it “excessive”
We call it MURDER!
Come to a panel discussion featuring: Yusef Salaam, wrongly convicted and imprisoned in the Central Park jogger case; Margarita Rosario, founder of Parents Against Police Brutality, whose son Anthony was killed by the NYPD; and Brian Jones, an activist, teacher and member of the International Socialist Organization.
Date: Friday, December 8th
Time: 6:30 pm
Place: St. Mary’s Church, 521 W. 126th (between Broadway and Amsterdam, 1/A/B/C/D to 125th Street).
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Sponsored by the International Socialist Organization. Call 656-554-8592 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.