On The Dig'
Sean Bell and the Obama Bubble
By Keith Josef Adkins
Apr 26, 2008
I actually thought I could end the day without thinking about Sean. Go through my weekend and pretend it didn't happen the way it happened. I really believed I could avoid every email, Facebook update, every subtle and/or vocal comment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn as if it was no big thing. An unarmed young black groom shot at 50 times was an easy hurdle to jmp. Right?
Or maybe I was thinking I didn't have room in my psyche to translate it. Yeh, that's it. I was still deciphering the crazy of Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, the unarmed Timothy Thomas of Cincinnati, who after being shot to death by a white police officer, set off the Cincinnati Riots of 2001, a riot my father got caught in, fearful for his life. Whatever the logic for my denial, by day's end it was impossible to sustain. Sean Bell and his assasins' acquittal was real, and everybody from Bed-Stuy to Park Slope was talking about it.
So there I was: Sitting at a screening of my friend Karamuu Kush's film at Creatively Speaking, a Brooklyn-based film fest for filmmakers of African descent, enjoying his work, and Sean Bell was on my mind. Afterwards, I parlayed over to some local foodie with Karamuu and several of his supporters and folks started unraveling. And the unravel was clear: we were outraged, disappointed, not surprised at all, and just simply mad.
But after five minutes, I didn't know what else say. There had to be more than just giving color to some profane outburst. I kept thinking, we've been here before. It's no secret men of African descent are targeted everyday. We're given that second glance, that clutched purse, that random pacifying smile in case, you know, we need sudden pacifying. If we're not careful, our stress levels alone could kills us. But something about this was different. Maybe because two out of the three assailants were black. Maybe it was because I'm getting tired of having to walk this line of suspicion and comfort with white and black authority trained to attack black.
Then it hit me. Obama. Obama's pending presidency. His plea for clarity in a murky political system. His demand for this country to uplift and be smarter. His very presence as a man of color in the ultimate political game. For the last several months Obama has sunk into my subconscious, and I believed we were moving somewhere else, being primed to be nationally intolerant to blatant injustice. Even with the Reverend Wright controversy and the aftermath of what I call his "contexualizing American racism" speech, I believed change was imminent. I still believe. That's why the Sean Bell travesty really unnerves me, I think. Lately, public conversation has been smarter, more inclusive -- not perfect, but hopeful. And I've been feeling hopeful. But after yesterday's jury-less judgment, I'm forced to remove myself from the Obama-bubble and stick my nose back in the real. Obama or not, it appears the social climate of this country continues to condone a police culture that unleashes 50 bullets onto a unarmed young black groom. At least that's what the acquittal suggests. At least that's what I can't deny at a film fest or in the privacy of my own mind.
Honestly, will the day ever come... ?
Keith Josef Adkins is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter.
If They Are So Scared, How Come We're The Dead Ones?
By Kai Wright
Apr 27, 2008
The cops in the Sean Bell case walked because the judge said it was reasonable for them to be scared of three black men in a car. This paranoia defense has been used to forgive the murders of black people for a long time.
Ida B. Wells, at the turn of the 20th century, called it a "threadbare lie." She was talking about how lynch mobs masquerading as law enforcement justified their actions by claiming black men were raping white women. But Wells was on to a larger delusion, one that not only inspired sexual hysteria 100 years ago, but that continues to legitimize all manner of brutality against black men today. The simple and sadly lasting truth is this: We scare the shit out of America. And that fear excuses just about any reaction it spawns.
It's what led a group of New York City cops to riddle Sean Bell's black body with bullets in November 2006. And just as in Wells' day, it's what made the slaughter legal. Justice Arthur Cooperman ruled last Friday that Bell's killing was understandable because the cops were scared. Driven by their own dark fantasies about the people they were policing, the officers' frightened minds conjured guns into the hands of unarmed men and recast a bachelor party as a gang fight. Or, in Cooperman's more restrained words, "The officers responded to perceived criminal conduct." Those perceptions, no matter how hysterical, legalized their murder.
And perhaps Cooperman is correct, legally speaking. There's little question that the prosecution did a piss-poor job of making a case that some believe it never wanted to try in the first place. As a result, the wobbly presentation of facts certainly left enough room for reasonable doubt about the cops' intent. But as Martin Luther King told us, justice and the law aren't the same thing. And when it comes to policing black folks, the dividing line between the two is too often drawn by threadbare lies about rapes and guns and other mythical threats.
Like the morning New York City cops murdered high school senior Timothy Stansbury, Jr. On January 24, 2004, two cops were patrolling the rooftops of a Brooklyn public housing complex. Stansbury and his buddy were on their way up the steps to the same rooftop when Officer Jason Hallik opened the door so that his partner, Officer Richard Neri, could point the barrel of his service revolver down the stairwell and check for trouble. Neri saw the unarmed Stansbury and opened fire, killing him. Neri, an 11-year veteran, later testified that Stansbury had scared him; a grand jury said that fear made the murder an accident and declined to indict. And of course, we all know about Amadou Diallo, perhaps the most infamous example of New York City cops letting their shaken nerves get the better of them. The 23-year-old Diallo was shot 41 times on his Bronx doorstep by four plain-clothes officers. He was unarmed, but the elite street-crime unit fantasized that he was grabbing a gun when he reached for his wallet. Once again, the cops' bizarre perceptions about Diallo's threat were enough to clear them of wrongdoing.
Jesse Jackson says these killings form a pattern that demands the Justice Department step in and retry Detectives Marc Cooper, Gescard Isnora, and Michael Oliver in Bell's killing. He's probably right. But the pattern stretches wider, and farther back, than the NYPD. American law has been sanctioning the killing of black people to mollify white fear for centuries. Throughout the colonial era, whites lived in perpetual terror of the Africans they'd imported. Even the bonds of chattel slavery weren't enough to soothe their unease, so waves of vigilante justice were needed as well. Any unrest spawned massively outsized responses of state-approved violence. When law enforcement in colonial South Carolina uncovered a 1740 plot by a few dozen slaves to steal weapons and flee, they hung people at the rate of 50 a day. A year later, a burglary investigation in New York City so spooked law enforcement, that they ended up burning alive or hanging 32 slaves, and deporting another 72.
Then and now, white paranoia about black violence is the emotional toll America pays for the racial caste system it has built. It still plays out in all parts of our society, from the grotesque gangster caricatures white record labels promote to the coded language yuppies use to identify neighborhoods that are "safe" for them to venture into. But nowhere does it show up more clearly than in police operations in starkly segregated ghettos like those in which Bell, Stansbury, and Diallo were gunned down.
As a ColorLines magazine investigation documented last fall, blacks accounted for 66 percent of those killed by New York City police between 2000 and 2007 (New York is a perennial leader in police fatalities, averaging 12 a year over those years). And while the violent crime rate plunged to historically low levels in that time period, the number of people killed by police has not budged—indeed, the number of cop bullets fired has skyrocketed. And it's happened with impunity. Out of 88 fatal shootings, including at least 12 in which victims were unarmed, in only one instance was an officer convicted of criminal wrongdoing. Much has been made of the fact that two of the three detectives who shot Bell and his two pals were people of color. It's significant that the one white cop, Oliver, fired 31 of the 50 shots, and that the black cop, Cooper, is the only one to have apologized to the Bell family.
But the reflexive assumptions of threat that drive the death-by-cop racial disparity are systemic rather than individual. Black and Latino cops like Cooper and Isnora operate within a bureaucracy that not only condones but encourages them to see black men as combatants. Take, for instance, the public housing patrols that got young Stansbury killed. Police so often have their guns drawn while conducting rooftop-to-stairwell searches that, according to ColorLines, the fire department sent a safety memo to its members warning them to "loudly announce" themselves when coming up stairwells so cops won't shoot them. It's hard to imagine a similar scenario in a white neighborhood, even one with the same socio-economic makeup..
This culture of irrational fear is just the sort of thing that Barack Obama tried to point out when he talked about his grandmother's fear of black men. And the appalled response of some white folks in the media and the general public is telling. Rather than consider the nuance and implications of Obama's example, many obsessed over whether he could fairly call her thoughts "typical" of whites. Of all the no-go zones in America's supposed racial discourse, the white fantasy about the threat black men present is perhaps the most inviolable. As long as that remains the case, cops will continue to get free passes for shooting us down in frightened, reckless fits. They need only to cover the murder over with some threadbare lie of perceived threat.
A Colorblind America : Is this the real fairy tale?
By Kai Wright
Jan 27, 2008
The Clintons covered a lot of slimy ground in the run-up to South Carolina. They dismissed the relevance of Barack Obama's victory, chalking it up to black voters supporting their own. They put racially loaded jabs in blackface, through stooges like BET founder Bob Johnson. And they lured Obama into daily, petty spats that left his whopping victory feeling like a sideshow to the squabbling. Yet, for all their high jinks, the Clintons are not responsible for injecting race into the campaign; they just rudely forced everyone to acknowledge it.
Obama has eagerly embraced the notion of his racial transcendence. He has cast himself as the embodiment of a post-racial America and not so subtly compared his call for political civility to Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality. The latter appropriation is untidy, at best, but nonetheless compelling to his supporters. They summed up its conceit with an optimistic chant Saturday night: "Race doesn't matter!"
If only it were so. Glossing over race isn't the same as making it irrelevant, and the prospect of Obama successfully selling himself as America's first race-neutral president should worry black folks just as much as the Clintons' desperate race-baiting. Because, for all the recent talk about race and change, neither Obama nor Clinton is prepared to dispel the real "fairy tale" of this campaign: that America is even remotely ready to let go of its baggage about race. That black people have healed from past and present hurts. That white people are ready to relinquish their privilege. That we have overcome.
Obama himself made the point elegantly once, back when he wasn't running for president. He recounted a yarn his white grandfather used to spin, about boldly rejecting Jim Crow Texas. Barack's white mom was a grade-schooler at the time—a bookworm who didn't make friends easily, but who found a companion in a black girl her age. One day, as the pair lay reading in the family's yard, a bunch of ruffians passed by. "Nigger lover!" they taunted, paralyzing the girls with fear. Gramps said the attack so disgusted him that he packed up his life and moved to Seattle. Inspiring, Obama grants, in recounting the tale in his memoir. But not entirely true. He later discovered that the family actually moved because, well, work dried up and a friend in Seattle hooked grandpa up with a job. "I don't entirely dismiss Gramps' recollection of events as a convenient bit of puffery, another act of white revisionism," Obama writes. "I can't, precisely because I know how strongly Gramps believed in his fictions, how badly he wanted them to be true, even if he didn't always know how to make them so."
Obama's words offer searing insight into white America's racial dilemma—the uncomfortable gap between the equality most genuinely want and the amount of privilege they're willing to cede to get it. Obama's cross-racial political appeal is at least in part due to his keen understanding of that gap, and to his ability to transform white folks' unease with it into something hopeful. Which may be enough to alleviate racial unpleasantries, but it won't make change.
To reach for the future Obama envisions, he must ultimately reject the racial exceptionalism he's been granted. If he does not, he will stand as the crowning achievement of a "colorblind" America, in which the success of a few obscures the degradation of millions—and lets everybody off the hook on creating equality. Since the dawn of the Reagan era, the right has worked tirelessly to cement this paralyzing understanding of race in America. In the post-civil rights era, the argument goes, the playing field has been legally leveled, and racism, thus, is narrowly defined as an individual personality problem rather than a broad, structural concern.
Yes, there are rogues like Don Imus, this argument allows. But they just need a public tongue-lashing and some counseling to set them straight. And, yes, some blacks aren't making it, but that's also an individual problem. They need job training—nevermind if there are no jobs. They need marriage counseling—nevermind their below-poverty-level household income. Like the "fictions" of Obama's grandfather, it's an all-too-convenient setup. It means no white person has to actually sacrifice for equality. If we all just get our hearts and minds right, everything will be OK. And what better proof that this fantasy is reality than a post-race black president? What could be more hopeful than a man who bridges the gap between America's dream of equality and its reality of vast, deep disparity.
Indeed, Reagan's America has long pined for such a man. It comes as no surprise that it was the Republicans who first pushed racially transcendent blacks to the upper ranks of government. Their real differences and sparkling talents aside, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and Clarence Thomas share a role as not just balms for white guilt but, more importantly, as beacons of white hope, too. Like Obama, they have the power to turn fiction into fact. If they can rise so high, people believe, we can dismiss the fact that a whopping 48 percent of working-age black men in New York City were unemployed in 2003. If they can be so healthy, we can overlook the 40 percent black-white mortality gap. If they can be so sharp, we can shrug off the still-separate but unequal public school system. All of these things may be tough public problems, but they are not racism. Race, as Obama's giddy throngs told us, doesn't matter.
Obama has sold his racial transcendence as proof of the American dream, and that may just make him our first black president. The question for black America is what he will do with the power he gains from shedding his skin. If he continues to avoid unpleasant questions about race, we're in deep trouble.
In his King Day speech, Obama did point out the structural racism that circumscribes too many black lives. Here's hoping that kind of talk continues. If he uses his transcendence to prod America into a long overdue examination of these structures, he could change the course of history.
The Sean Bell Tragedy
by Kevin Powelll
I am sick to my stomach and I really do not know what to say right this second. My cell and office phones have been blowing up all day, and people have been emailing me nonstop, to let me know that 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.
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, more often than not a person of color on the receiving end: Eleanor Bumpurs. Michael Stewart…Amadou Diallo…Sean 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 America 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 fiancé, 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: governmentally (local, state, and federal bills were going to be proposed, and task forces recommended); systemically 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 the Black community calls “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 Avenuein Jamaica, Queens, in the dead-cold winter air. 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 and support flocked to Nicole Paultre Bell, Sean Bell’s fiancé, and the sexiness of her being represented by the Reverend 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, as an unsavory character, to somehow justify the police shooting. Nor did I have the heart to tell Mrs. Bell that this pain of losing her son would be with her the remainder of her life. 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 we will wait until the next tragedy hits, then this 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. Real talk: this tragedy would have never gone down on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan or in Brooklyn Heights. I am not just speaking about the judge’s decision, but the police officer’s 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 not 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.” No, the grief will never end, not for Sean Bell’s parents and family, for his fiancé and children. But Mayor Bloomberg, you, me, we the people, can step up our games, make a commitment to real social justice in our city, in our nation, and, for once, penalize people, including police officers, who just randomly blow away lives. Sean Bell is never coming back, but we are here, and the biggest tragedy will be if we keep going about our lives, as if this never happened in the first place.
And as long as we have leadership, White leadership and Black leadership, mainstream leadership and grassroots leadership, that can do nothing more than exacerbate folks’ very natural emotions in a tragedy like this, we will never progress as a human race. Instead a true leader needs to harness those emotions and turn them into action, as Dr. King did, as Gandhi did. In the absence of such action, so many of us, especially us Black and Latino males, will continue to have a very nervous relationship with the police, even the police of color, for fear that any of one of us could be the next Sean Bell
Innocent man freed after serving 26 years in prison