“It felt like they killed Sean all over again”

May 1, 2008

Akua Ofori reports on the eruption of protest following the not-guilty verdict for the three police officers who killed Sean Bell.

OUTRAGE, DISGUST--and protest. That was the reaction of the family and supporters of Sean Bell to the acquittal of three New York City police officers who fired the 50 shots that killed the unarmed man outside a nightclub in late 2006.

"It was like a death in the family," said an African American hospital security guard who joined a protest march in Harlem April 26. "I have a daughter in Iraq. I have three young Black sons. We're still being discriminated against. I thought Jim Crow was over, but it's not. We have to find justice, by any means necessary. Tomorrow, it could be my son. I can't live like that."

In a packed and tense courtroom in Queens, Justice Arthur Cooperman ruled the morning of April 25 that Detectives Gescard Isnora, Marc Cooper and Michael Oliver were not guilty on every count against them--reckless endangerment, assault and manslaughter.

Bell was killed and his two friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, were severely injured when the police detectives fired 50 shots at their car in the early morning hours of November 25, 2006, outside a nightclub in the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens. The three had been attending a bachelor party for Bell, who was to be married later that day.

Following the "not guilty" verdict in Sean Bell's case, more than 200 people marched through Harlem in protest, April 26, 2008
Rallying outside the courthouse after the not-guilty verdict in the trial of Sean Bell's killers

After Cooperman issued his ruling, shocked and angry family members and supporters of the victims spilled out of the courthouse to protest, despite the five police helicopters circling the area and an army of cops lined up in front of the building.

"It felt like they killed Sean all over again," said Nicole Paultre Bell, the fiancé of Sean Bell. "I gave them the benefit of the doubt, and the justice system let us down."

IN THIS episode of police brutality, the details of what happened that night were all too familiar to New Yorkers--none of the three victims were armed; the detectives were undercover, but gave no warning before spraying bullets; their testimonies didn't correspond with those of witnesses.

To justify his not-guilty verdict, Judge Cooperman simply rehashed the police version of the events, including the cops' unsubstantiated claim that one of Bell's friends had threatened to get a gun.

Cooperman claimed that the prosecution witnesses, mostly Sean Bell's friends, were biased and had an "interest...in the outcome of the case." To add insult to injury, he cited the "criminal convictions" and "demeanor on the stand" of some of the witnesses as a reason to discredit their testimony about that fatal night.

By stating that "carelessness and incompetence are not standards to be applied here," Cooperman not only excused the firing of 50 shots in response to "perceived criminal activity," but also gave effective immunity to other cops to do the same.

Many questioned the role of the district attorney in the case as well. Sean Bell's family had originally sought to have a special prosecutor assigned to the case because of how closely the district attorney's office works with police.

The police also benefited from being able to waive a jury trial and have their case heard by a single judge. But as civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton observed after the verdict, "People on public payroll, doing a public duty, should have to face a public jury."

The day of the verdict, the People's Justice Coalition organized a protest condemning the acquittal of the cops and demanding that an independent prosecutor investigate all cases of police brutality. The group also announced plans for a citywide cop-watch program and a "know your rights" campaign. The rally, which was held in a park adjacent to the courthouse, attracted more than 500 people from all different backgrounds: activists, workers, and students of all races.

BJ, a former Black Panther member who attended this protest, said that the struggles of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and '70s still exist today, "We just celebrated our 41st anniversary of the founding of the BPP, and the reasons we founded it for still exist. The only way to stop this is...we have to exact economic and political consequences, as a community."

Following the rally was a march from the courthouse to the site of the shooting, during which the number of protesters doubled to about 1,000. At the end of the march, participants counted up to 50, chanting, "Fifty shots equal murder." Before people dispersed, they held a moment of silence for Sean Bell.

The day following the verdict, an emotionally charged rally was held at the offices of the Sharpton's National Action Network in Harlem. More than 300 people packed into the meeting, including the Bell family, community members and some local politicians.

Mike, a 25-year-old resident of Brooklyn who attended the rally, expressed his frustration. "As somebody from the 'hood, I just get tired of this. This is just the normal routine. They violate our civil rights every day. In my community, the constitution doesn't exist. It's time for a complete change."

Following the indoor rally was an impromptu march of about 100 people, holding signs for the numbers one through 50 and chanting through Harlem.

Among those on the march was Cory Wise, an exonerated defendant in the Central Park Jogger case, "This needs to go on in all five boroughs," Wise said. "We should get together. My phone was going crazy yesterday. When I heard the verdict, it really hurt. They had nothing on them. No weapons. But they got shot 50 times, and no conviction? Really? Why can't they get justice?"

Two days after the verdict, a press conference was held with politicians, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Black Leadership Forum, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, as well as Joseph Guzman and Nicole Paultre Bell, Sean Bell's fiancé and mother of his two children. Speakers addressed the racism on display in the shooting and at the trial, and observed that the Sean Bell case is not an isolated incident, but a national problem.

Charles Still Jr. of the SCLC got a positive reaction when he declared, "We can't expect a country who has enslaved you to save you!" Additionally, several politicians made promises about investigating, arresting, prosecuting and convicting the officers under the federal civil rights laws.

Following the press conference, there was another 100-person-strong march through Harlem. Although this protest was more dominated by politicians, people chanted "no justice, no profit" as they tried to recruit more people from the streets while marching.

"Yesterday, I felt defeated," one of the shooting victims, Joseph Guzman, stated at the National Action Network rally. "But I came over here today, and I feel a lot better. It's going to be a long fight, but we're still here--still in it. We're going to fight, we're going to struggle, but we're going to get through."

Lichi D’Amelio, Brian Jones and Hadas Thier contributed to this article.

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