The Fifty Shots Heard Around the City

Nicholas Powers Dec 18, 2006

C’mon jump,” the man yelled to the cop on the roof. It was early Saturday and we were rallying at the 103rd precinct in Jamaica, Queens. On the roof, a cop laughed as black people pointed at him. “C’mon pig, jump,” the man next to me taunted. Behind the barricades, the police eyed us. We saw our strength in their fear and wanted to take away the power they had over us – the power of death.

Five cops had used that power on Nov. 25 against three men leaving the Kalua nightclub in Queens. Trent Benefield, Joseph Guzman and Sean Bell were going after two rude-boys who tried to push their way into Bell’s bachelor party. Threats were traded each saying they had a gun. Bell told his friends it was time to go.

As they sat in the car, an undercover cop who heard the threats walked up, hand on his gun. He did not show his badge. He did not say he was police. “He got a gat! Be out!” shouted Guzman. Bell rammed the car forward into a van. Backed up and rammed it again to get away. The cop fired, repeatedly. Soon, other shots echoed in the street.

In the car, glass shattered and their bodies were punched around by bullets. Benefield fell out pleading, “Stop shooting at me!” Inside the car, Bell’s neck was shredded. He gasped until he had no more strength to try. The cops stood. They shot 50 bullets at the four men. No gun was found in the car.

The next day, New York read about the killings. After hearing how many shots were fired many of us had the same question. Did they enjoy killing him? Officer Mike Oliver shot 31 times. He shot, reloaded and shot again. When did fear and panic become rage? What did he see in the darkness of the car that needed to be so destroyed?

Bell’s funeral was held at Community Church of Christ, where he and his fiancée planned to marry. Church men in dark suits guided us in. “No cameras please,” they said and we turned off our cell-phones. A news crew was in line and he shooed them away. “They never came around before,” the woman in front of me said. “They don’t care about Sean they just here to make money.” I hummed agreement. The line going into the church was black. Across the street, the line of reporters was white. They wanted to wrap him in headlines and tell us the meaning of his death. We had a different need, it was not to see the body but make him into a symbol of our own.

We entered the rose-scented church and I watched people lay prayer over his face. When I glimpsed him my eyes flinched. It hurt because it was my death too. They shot 50 bullets into the blackness we both share and now, the value of my life depends on the price they pay for his murder. Bell’s face was grey and bloated and young. Walking away, I knew whatever is said must bear the weight of his lost life. Next to the church, media trucks glowed as TV anchors waved their microphones like metal detectors searching for treasure. Activists worked the crowed, handing out flyers. I read one and could feel ambition in the air.

Faces circled the camera light as if to audition for the Revolution. Only a few spots were open and activists who never came to the neighborhood were now speaking for it. A white woman held a sign that read People’s Organization for Progress over a man being interviewed. “You don’t know Sean Bell,” a black woman screamed at her. “I live in an
African-American community!” she pleaded and touched her chest. “What! Get out my face,” the black woman hollered. “You don’t even talk black!” The activist hurried away as curses pelted her. Reporters aimed the lens at the heckler and she took out her camera and took pictures of them.

It began to rain and everyone opened umbrellas. In that silence, the family came out of the church singing Amazing Grace. The pain they sang stunned me. Behind the fence we chanted, “No justice no peace!” Our rage and their sadness rolled back and forth over his coffin as it was lifted in the hearse.

When they drove away, activists and reporters surged into the street. We moved around blindly as if inside a boiling pot. The Bloods showed up and some of us looked at each other with the same question. Finally I asked, “Don’t they kill black men?” A black couple raised their eyebrows and shook their heads. “Not all the time,” a man scolded me, “They’re lost and need direction.”

A black woman with a camera walked up to the Bloods, “So brothers, what do you have to say about police brutality?” It was her test. What do they say about a death that could so easily have been theirs? The Bloods eyed each other over the red bandannas and stepped back. They had the same awkwardness I had as a boy. In that gesture, I saw how close and far we are from each other.

They were kids and we feared them. Next to me, a Rasta-man intoned “Burn the city down.” A black girl looked around in wonder, then at him. “We can’t burn the city down,” she said. “We got to live here.”

Next day, on Saturday Dec. 2, I followed the flyer an activist gave me to the Kalua night-club. The New Black Panther Party called for a rally at the altar for Sean Bell. Many Panthers are ex- Nation of Islam and their national chairman, Maliki Shabazz, has used his life to complete Malcolm X’s half-lived one. Malcolm X wanted to be a lawyer. Shabazz became one. Malcom X died for the Cause. Shabazz would get us to kill for it. The Panthers used the “Black Power!” war-cry to keep the air warm until Shabazz came. He held a white bullhorn that boomed out his raspy voice. I wondered if he gave it a little gruff to sell the speeches. Performers can’t sustain the flow of feeling without being worn down, so they give us the signs of passions without risking health. Except now, it was us at risk. It was our delicate bodies caught in this struggle for power.

“We don’t need a permit,” Shabazz challenged. “How are you going to ask permission from the very people who are killing you?”

We marched down Jamaica Avenue like a river of rage. Shabazz stopped us in the middle of the street. “We have to hit them were it hurts,” he pointed at the stores, “50 shots, 50 day boycott! Don’t buy from these stores!” People stared from sidewalks, wanting to join but were too weighed down by shopping bags. The power of the march got to some. A Blood turned to a white female cop, “You a bitch yo, yeah you cop, SUCK MY DICK!” I saw her eyes lock and arms tighten. Another brother, eyes flashing like knives cursed a black female cop. “You should be ashamed of yourself for wearing that uniform,” he yelled. “A woman should not wear the authority of a man. Read Deuteronomy!” I wanted to ask her how she endured this war for her loyalty but I didn’t risk being seen as a traitor.

We gathered in front of the 103rd Precinct. Men took turns hollering through the bullhorn. “Revolutionary greetings,” a brother in a leather jacket got up. “We got black men in the army who know how to shoot,” he said as his face flushed. “We can get a tank, roll it through here and blow up this police station!” We laughed. He had overstepped the line between fact and fantasy and snapped our suspension of disbelief. Shabazz raised his hand.

“If there are more murders,” he aimed the bullhorn at the cops, “We will kill you!” It was dangerous theater. Fear and excitement pulsed through us like a heartbeat. No one wanted to get beaten or arrested and no one wanted to seem weak. He pulled us back from the momentary dizziness. “But we are disciplined,” Shabazz assured the crowd. In
the back, I sighed.

In the headiness a Blood and a Crip were hoisted on the shoulders of the Panthers and embraced, their arms like stitches over the wound made by 50 bullets. I put down my pen. The whole day, I kept my hands busy taking notes when they shouted “Black Power!” I knew enough history to be suspicious. Usually, “Black Power” became the personal power of which every leader who called for it.

Except now, for this, I held up my fist too. I wondered what permanent good would we achieve? And not just this one but all the marches that began at Bell’s death. What would change at the end of it and what would be the price? Later that night, I received a call from the New Black Panther Party secretary. His voice had the eager sincerity of someone trying to catch up to their ideals. We rapped for an hour. I told him some of the rage was ugly and silly. “I feel you,” he conceded. “Some of it was fucked.”

He said our people were mentally poisoned but we could recover. “Your melanin makes you morally superior to the white man,” he cooed. “It’s just not in their nature, brother.” I was silent. “Brother man, c’mon,” he said, “You know this.” I looked at my yellow hand and wondered how prone my body was to sin. I thought about all my wrongs of just the past week and laughed. I thought about the past year and stopped. Are we so broken, I thought, we need Black Nationalist rhetoric to love each other?

“Holiness isn’t for everyone,” I said. We hung up but the euphoria of togetherness lingered. I shook my head and one of my dreadlocks fell down. Am I my brother’s keeper? I tugged on it like a chain.

On Dec. 6 at Foley Square cops set up a maze of barricades and squeezed people into a pen. Inside, hundreds of protestors shook the air with “Kelly must go!” If Sean Bell became the symbol of black innocence, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly became a symbol of white racism. Neither was the truth of the man but a crime had been committed and we needed a target. Ideas are not as satisfying to destroy as a man.

In the crowd, smaller stages were carved out by the camera light. Black Israelites in Egyptian costume talked of the Original Black Man as a man in camouflage yelled repeatedly, “Daniel in da’ Lion’s Den!” Communists wove through the crowd, holding their newspapers. Most of the audience was youth with no ideological loyalty. Our color was our cause. A man was selling pan-African flags. I bought one and waved it to save my voice from yelling.

“We’re marching!” someone shouted as the crowd walked to the street. A wall of police stood grim faced, arms crossed. “Go back to Long Island pigs!” young men cackled. They held a banner with the spray-painted slogan “Police Number #1 Enemy” that tilted back and forth over the police and protesters arguing.

The police crumbled and the march moved. A helicopter chopped the sky as we banged drums and chanted “Fuck the Police!” In the light of the helicopter we became black silhouettes indistinguishable from one another.

We escaped the maze of police barricades and marched into the larger maze of the city. I looked at the buildings around us, where money traveled through electronic signals far above our heads. In these streets half of black and Latino children don’t graduate from high school and half will be unemployed as adults. Generations have been abandoned by the city and herded by police into prisons. I stared at the lights and remembered Shabazz calling for revenge, the Rev. Al Sharpton for a federal investigation and Charles Barron for community control over police. Would any of it change the historical forces that kept these buildings lit and their doors closed? After the march, we gathered near the
banner. Barron came out and spoke. “Remember,” he said, tapping the end of the sentence with his finger. “On December 21st, we shut down Wall Street!” Cameras lit Barron as if he was a statue. While leaving, revolutionaries hollered into microphones, heating up rhetoric to keep the night from going cold with silence. Two men walked by me, one had communist leaflets crumpled in his hand. “How they trying to tell me about the truth,” he said. “Nigga, I’ve been living this for 20 years!”

In his complaint, I saw the white left and black radicals struggling over Sean Bell’s name. A new movement was in the streets. But the direction it would take is unknown and the divisions within it are already clear. What will happen as the winter comes? Will Bell’s murder become layered over by snow and gift wrap? Or will black people go on a consumer fast and not buy from whiteowned stores? I held the pan-African flag in my hands and swore to follow the boycott. Yet a part of me wondered, what am I really buying into?

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