Sean Bell verdict outrages New Yorkers

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Fiancée: ‘They’re saying it was OK for police to kill him’

NEW YORK — “What they’re saying is that it was OK for the police to kill Sean,” said Nicole Paultre Bell, fiancée of Sean Bell, the innocent man slain when police officers shot 50 bullets at him and his friends. She was interviewed on a TV news channel here, April 28.

“He can say that, but I can’t go home and tell my daughters it’s OK their daddy’s dead because the cops did it.”

Tens of thousands of people here and beyond reacted with outrage after Judge Arthur Cooperman cleared three police officers of all charges on April 25. They were on trial for the November 25, 2006, killing of Bell. Civil rights leaders, activists and elected officials have vowed to take the fight for justice to other fronts. They are demanding a federal investigation and vowing civil trials.

“We do not accept that this is the end of this case,” reads a joint statement by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and several other members of congress, white and African American. “We have joined with the families and their attorneys in filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice requesting an investigation of violations of the civil rights” of the victims.

The day of the ruling, immigrant rights, community and activist groups rallied outside the Queens, N.Y., courthouse. The next day, hundreds of people packed the office of the National Action Network and then marched through the streets of Harlem. The day after that, another march of hundreds more was also held in Harlem.

Many have committed to join the Rev. Al Sharpton in civil disobedience if community demands are not met.

100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, an organization of Black police officers, has called for a statewide special investigator to look into the hundreds of cases of police brutality that have been recorded over the years.

Bell was killed outside a Queens night club when five police officers fired at him and two friends, Joseph Guzman, 31, and Trent Benefield, 23, with 50 bullets. Guzman and Benefield were injured in the shooting. None of them were armed. The group had been celebrating Bell’s marriage, to take place later the same day.

The officers, including the three who were indicted — Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper — claimed that they thought that Bell was a dangerous criminal. The officers, who never identified themselves as such to their victims, presented a defense case marked by contradictions.

Justice Cooperman noted this, but, in his ruling, stated that what mattered was that the officers perceived a threat — not whether there actually was a threat. Further, he criticized the character and “demeanor” of the witnesses, including the shooting victims.

“When a judge sits on a bench and says he considered the criminal background of some of the victims, that is … illegal,” said Sharpton. “Because even people with criminal backgrounds have civil rights. You do not lose your rights to go to a club and walk to your car just because you may have a background that the police didn’t know you had.”

Though two of the three indicted police officers were Black, the issue is still racism, say Bell’s supporters. “This is the latest glaring example of court decisions that appear to endorse legally-sanctioned violence against African Americans,” said NAACP Interim General Counsel Angela Ciccolo. “It is high time for all people to wake up and demand an end to senseless violence by police officers against African Americans.”

“Racism is not isolated to bigotry by individuals,” said Libero Della Piana, chair of the N.Y. State Communist Party. “It includes systematic policies that result in disparate outcomes whatever the intention. In fact, the New York City Police Department routinely treats Black lives as dispensable regardless of who is wearing the uniform.”

There is a long list of incidents of police brutality against people of color in the city, observers note Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima are only two of the more infamous cases.

Activists have long demanded that Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley institute real community control of policing, such as an independent police review board.

Civil rights advocates vow to fight on. As of press time, Sharpton was scheduled to meet at the office of Service Employees Union Local 1199 with labor leaders, clergy, elected officials and activists to discuss ways to move forward.