A few hours after three New York City police detectives killed 23-year-old Sean Bell and wounded Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman on November 25, 2006, my husband, a Black man, asked, "If the cops murdered me, do you really think you could get justice?" I wanted to say yes. I wanted to say that I knew what I would do, how I would organize, whom I would call on.
On April 25, in a country where beating and killing a dog gets you a 23-month sentence, Judge Arthur Cooperman ruled that the 3 detectives who fired 50 bullets—4 killed Sean Bell; 19 and 3 hit Guzman and Benefield respectively—at an unarmed Black man on the eve of his wedding were not guilty and free to walk our streets.
April protest—photo by Michael Gould-Wartofsky
Nicole Paultre-Bell, the victim’s fiancé, ran out of the standing-room only court room. Valerie Bell, Sean’s mother, fainted and had to be carried out. Guzman and Benefield broke down crying. Once outside, Sean’s father, William Bell, said quietly but forcefully, "We will shut this city down."
So, two years after he asked, to answer my husband’s question, "No, I couldn’t get him the justice he deserved." In the United States of America, there will never be justice for Black or Brown men when the police are their murderers.
Every day, in the back of my mind, I fear that my husband (whose name is Justice) won’t come home. I fear that some trigger happy cop who is institutionalized to fear Black men will murder him, think up a justifiable reason, and the system will pat him on the back and say, "That’s all right. Justice deserved to die."
Like the Bells and the Paultres, my family will live through months of protest, rallies, and petition signing to get an indictment—which is not guaranteed. There will be a trial and the prosecution will be ineffective. The defense will bring up our past arrests—as they did with Benefield and other witnesses—and say that because we were not law-abiding citizens, we cannot be trusted. The judge will blame the victim, just like Judge Cooperman did when he cleared the detectives of all charges.
The Sean Bell case happened in New York, but every day in the U.S. police harass, brutalize, set-up, and murder young men of color. We must launch a national movement against police brutality. Justice will not come from a federal probe and investigation, as some civil rights groups are now calling for. Justice will only come when we the people not only demand, but fight for it. As Frederick Douglass wrote: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong, which will be imposed upon Them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."