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The Second Death of Sean Bell

Nicholas Powers Apr 29, 2008

Today the value of my life dropped. It was on a scale held by Queens State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman. In one pan were three NYPD policemen and in the other the death of Sean Bell, a young black man they shot down last year. I had gone to the funeral, had seen his grey face quiet in the coffin and met his mother at the vigil outside the police precinct.

It was real to me and to my friends. We stood in the pan with Bell’s family as if the bullets passed through him and hit us. In our march from one end of life to the other, we’d seen black men weighed down by history, stumble from school to jail, fight in the streets or fight them selves and sometimes, as if to make obvious how we are hated, just shot down. It was our collective experience, the backdrop against which Bell’s murder made sense to us. We hoped, maybe now, with a Black presidential nominee on the news that our life was valued.

So we hoped for justice and a part of our brain froze in place, waiting until April 25, the day the verdict was due. I woke early, blinking half-blinded by dreams and daylight, stumbled to the computer, eager for the verdict but scared and hopeful.

“Maybe,” I mumbled, “Maybe.”

The screen lit and I typed nytimes.com, read the headline and sank into my chair. My head rolled in my hands and I shaped words but the air kept leaking out. I just sank, only rising when the phone rang. It was Alena my friend, doing what black people across the city had to do, reaching out to keep each other from sinking.

“Did you hear the verdict,” she asked, less a question than an invitation.

“Alena, it’s like we’re ghosts again,” I said. “I saw the picture of Nicole Bell, his fiancé-to-be, man she looked so broken. Fifty shots, Alena, fifty shots! It’s like they took each star in the flag and loaded them into their guns.”

We hung in that moment, quiet, waiting for the pulse of rage to pass before speaking.

“I know, I know, it’s like I just feel defeated, empty,” she said. “A lot of folks are just stunned right now.” Her voice got sharp, “Did you notice the price of oil goes up as the price of black life goes down?”

The air flew out of me. We laughed.

“Oh God Alena, no. Maybe they should put black people in the oil cans, shake us and pour us into their cars.” We cackled darkly. “It would solve the energy crisis,” I said.

“They’ll find a way to convert black people into fuel. We’d be good for something,” she laughed, tightening the joke like a tourniquet. This is how it’s done, I thought, we see the hate coming and bite into it; to savor the momentary control over it, to chew it to bits with laughter.

“Okay,” I said, “We can’t make racist self-hate jokes too long even if it’s for a good cause.”

She asked if I was going to the rally. I said yeah, we promised to meet later. The moment after a conversation, a good one, has an after-glow. Real words have an inner-light that allows every layer of meaning, every sediment of tone a brief visibility to the mind. Even as it recedes, it leaves a hope that we don’t have to stumble blindly in our feelings.

I ran down the stairs, into the street ready to join my neighbors on the corner, ready to stoke our words into a fire but no one was out. The few who were, pushed laundry carts across the street or sipped at steaming coffee cups while waiting for work. Kids bounced basketballs on the sidewalk. I was dazed by the absence of my imagined scene, the gravity of expectation was cut and I floated inside myself.

Where we at? As I walked to the subway, the two Rasta-men next door hailed me. I waved back, told them about the verdict.

“They jus’ getta way wid murder,” one shook his head, “is wrong man but…”

He didn’t shrug but stood silent, as if trying to find an answer but looked up blankly. I asked if he had a computer. He nodded.

“Go to National Action Network, its Sharpton’s site, if they have a march it should be on the site.”

His polite glazed look told me he wouldn’t and I shook my head. How could life just go on when its value was being lost? Why weren’t people talking in the streets? This is Bed-Stuy, the diamond of the Diaspora, black folks from the corners of the earth lived here and yet, the streets were quiet.

“Maybe,” I said aloud, “Maybe we’re cowards, we’ll make it easy for them to shoot us, c’mon people let’s line up, get your free bullets,” I yelled flapping my arms then stopped and rubbed my forehead, trying to erase my imagined scene, the scene where we are beautiful.

The train ride from Nostrand to Queens was tense as if my heart was an alarm clock in my chest. I wanted to do something. At Union Turnpike I bounded out of the station, up to the street where a line of cops stood. The courthouse was guarded and next to it, in a park the protesters gathered.

“Hey Nick,” one or two said and I shook hands watching radicals chat, sipping tea.

I wove through the crowd, sensing that impatient tingling that one feels before a theater show. It began when a light skinned sister with shoulder length dreads from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement began yelling through the megaphone. We craned our necks, listening to the incantation of wrongs. Speaker after speaker yelled; a young brother with corn-rows yelled, another brother, in black shirt and jeans, Pan-African flag jumping at his belt yelled. It went on, red faces and red politics.

The rhetoric was interchangeable pieces of the same puzzle, “People’s Justice!” or “Revolution!” I didn’t hear anything that moved beyond Sean Bell the symbol to Sean Bell the man. We’re missing something I felt. The vibe was close to joyful vengeance. It contrasted the despair I saw in photos from the verdict this morning. What I remember from Sean Bell’s funeral, from his mom Valerie Bell at the precinct was pain, a deep pain welling up from the absence of a man they loved.

For us, Bell was a symbol to illuminate our politics. It seemed as if we had two different visions. It’s as if working people suffer from near-sightedness. The survival of daily life, the drama of family, of love, of loss, of money owed and favors given take up the whole horizon. They can’t see the larger system that is their invisible cage.

Revolutionaries unknowingly suffer from far-sightedness. They see through the prism of history, so that only that cage is visible. Ideas and archetypes are for us, more real. Each new victim, like Sean Bell, is reduced to a sign of another domino falling under the momentum of power. Such historical far-sightedness can cause blinding arrogance.

“When we chant ‘No Justice, No Peace’ what does that mean,” she demanded. I didn’t know anymore.

It didn’t mean civil disobedience as people shifted uneasily, moving their signs from one shoulder to the other. The brother next to me noticed my distraction, he introduced himself.

“I’m Robert,” he showed me his leaflet. The metaphorical image I instantly had of him was of a pillar circled by clouds. He had this inner center of gravity surrounded by a deep calm.

“Robert,” I asked, “Who is everyone here?” He pointed out Worker’s World, the splinter groups ANSWER and Party for Socialism for Liberation. He spoke with a lyrical Ghanaian accent, listening to him was like drinking Guinness.

“Over there is the Spartacus League. Their like relics, any conversation circles back around to the Soviet Union.” I eyed him, “Why do you seem so calm.”

He smiled wistfully, “I know we’re just a propagandist group,” he held his palms up as if showing he was innocent of expectation. “I know revolution won’t happen soon,” he paused. “We spread ideas. That’s what we do.” I pointed to the brothers with Pan-African colors. “They’re an international Pan-African organization,” he said, “They call for immediate revolution.”

The calculations ran through my head, “What’s that Pan-African Stalinists?” He smirked, “I didn’t say that.” I nodded, “I know.”

The shouting was now aimed toward the street and we began to march. A banner with Sean Bell’s face and fifty bullet holes was held like a passport, it gave us the right to move across the border between laws. We marched like a wave. At our crest, cameramen and photographers walked backward. They bent, angled, clicked. We marched up Queens Boulevard up Jamaica Avenue. They longer we marched the louder we yelled.

“Fuck you pig!” I turned to see who shouted it. An Asian college kid had a goofy grin.

“Yeah fuck you,” he yelled again at the cops. Inside the march was a maelstrom of rage. When I ran ahead of it, past the police stiffly looking ahead as we baited them, past the blinking cruisers to the far front where the march looked more like a parade. It had an air of festival rage.

Looked ahead to the far road, I thought we aren’t going anywhere but in circles. No one is listening to us but us. We demand a revolution in fiery rhetoric but won’t even do an act of simple civil disobedience. We can’t even say aloud the obvious truth that Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly knew we’d march and let us, doing the math and figuring correctly that we weren’t worth arresting.We turned into the lot of the Kalua Nightclub, where Bell was killed and his friends Benefield and Guzman were wounded. The march whirl pooled into a knot around the speaker.

“Leave peacefully,” she said. “Don’t give them a reason to arrest you.”

She told us whatever we do afterwards is not their responsibility. The structure that bound us had evaporated and we bounced around like loose atoms. Members of the Revolutionary Communist Party called for a new march, “Let’s keep it going!” and we reassembled ourselves, same chants, same movement forward.

The splinter march thundered along the main avenue. Inside the overpass of the Jamaica station, we climbed the rail and concrete dividers, cursing cops and shaking signs. The echo of our voices made us louder and larger than we were. Car horns blared. Police watched us from the better side of power. The march left and turned to the police precinct deep in Jamaica. I stood, watching them round the corner; cops like tired sheep-dogs on either side.

They were committed to marching endlessly in the dark. I stepped back, broke ranks and left for home. Walking to the subway, I looked at the streets we just passed through. People were shopping again, cops gabbing on the corner. In the wake of our chanting and marching it had closed up again. Maybe this was the secret of power, not just violent oppression but also indifference? In the train back to Nostrand, I studied the riders.

Blond girls straightened their skirts. Latino families ushered kids in and out. Mexican men in work clothes, eyes shut listening to I-Pods. So many circles orbit each other in this city I thought but can they ever fuse into a halo for a young black man, killed by cops last year and see in him the vulnerability to state power we all share?

The whole weekend, I read about passionate speeches and small marches. One hundred or so protesters marched in Harlem on Saturday and fewer on Sunday. The New York Times praised the peacefulness of black people, running interviews celebrating the “nuanced” views we had about the verdict, giving us a gold star for being reasonable. We are, we can use reason and see what works and what doesn’t. After years of blacks and Latinos being shot, the bullet count rising, the 41 shots of Diallo to the 50 shots of Bell nothing has changed. The cops keep getting off.

The activists keep telling us to march and we’re tired and hopeless and broken. I’ve been in marches from the February 2003 antiwar tidal wave to smaller ones and yes, going on without a permit is a necessary step but without the ability to shut the city down it becomes a conservative gesture. We release our rage in the street like boiling water cooling in the open and then flow back to the nooks and crannies of our private lives.Without a movement to push Sean Bell’s unlived life into our collective consciousness, without civil disobedience on a mass scale he will die a second death.

His fiancé Nicole Paultre-Bell said after the verdict, “They killed Sean all over again.” And she’s right. His memory is our responsibility. If he disappears, it’s our fault, its’ our indifference that caused it. The NYPD killed Sean Bell but it is we who are letting him die.

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