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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Local Reaction To Bell Verdict Hardly "Muted"

In this morning’s front-page story in the New York Times, Manny Fernandez argues that Black New Yorkers are conflicted about Friday’s acquittal of the police officers who killed Sean Bell. “In the aftermath of the verdict in the Bell case,” Fernandez writes, “many black New Yorkers reacted not with outrage but with a muted reserve…”

If Fernandez spends five or ten minutes on the streets of Highbridge, he will quickly be greeted with a very different picture. Interviews with more than 30 Highbridge residents since the verdict was announced—the majority of them Black-- reveal a pervasive feeling of disgust and infuriation within the community. Outside a church, inside a barber shop, and on street corners, Highbridge residents have widely interpreted the acquittal of the three officers charged in Bell’s death as evidence that this country’s legal system does not value the lives of African-Americans, and that police have free reign under the law to shoot and kill Black men.

In speaking to this reporter, community residents have frequently been animated, and those listening or watching nearby have often found themselves drawn very quickly into the conversation. This is precisely what happened this afternoon in front of the Rite Aid at the corner of Ogden Avenue and W. 165th Street. Local resident Tiffany Simone Diallo expressed her displeasure with the verdict, and also said the lack of sustained protest after the acquittal of the officers who killed Amadou Diallo in 2000 was partly to blame for the acquittal of the officers who killed Bell.

“People have to understand that you don’t stop marching,” Diallo said. “You don’t stop protesting. People went to sleep.”

Diallo noted that her phone had been ringing constantly during the past couple of days thanks to people who wanted to voice their anger about the verdict. She mentioned one local resident, Kevin, who had been especially angry. Almost on cue, Kevin, 44,--who preferred not to give his last name – walked up to Diallo and this reporter and joined the conversation.

“Our lives ain’t worth nothing,” Kevin said. “That’s all they saying to us.”

Kevin and Diallo agreed that one major problem was police officers did not live in the communities they patrol, and thus did not understand or respect the people who lived there. Kevin denounced the constant police stop-and-frisks that he, and several other residents interviewed over the past few days, said were commonplace in Highbridge. Diallo replied that people had to be made more aware of their rights when approached by the police, but Kevin doubted that merely knowing one’s rights would protect local residents.

“They’ll take you in,” Kevin countered. “You’ll spend the day in jail.”

Later in the conversation, Kevin blasted what he saw as the mentality police officers hold towards African-American men. “If they feel every Black person has a gun, they don’t need to be a cop,” Kevin said, often moving between back and forth along the sidewalk as he spoke.

By this time, Rodney Baldwin had joined in the impromptu discussion in front of the Rite Aid. “We gotta get organized,” Baldwin said. “We gotta get organized.”

As the dialogue wound down, he would expand on this thought. “You gotta organize. Discipline the kids and train them to be more aware of what’s going on in their community,” Baldwin said. “Once you organize, everybody gets respect – police won’t just jump out on you.”

Further down Ogden Avenue, as Sunday services concluded at Friendly Baptist Church and those in attendance streamed outside, ushers discussed the verdict while they laid out desserts for church members. “You see that justice is blind,” one of the ushers said. “This was blind justice.”

Standing nearby and overhearing the conversation, Brock Dietrich, 32, agreed. “With cops, it’s always on the minorities,” Dietrich said. “You’ll never hear a cop shooting a Caucasian guy, or something happening by accident.”

Another usher suggested that the shooting of Sean Bell would continuously haunt the officers. “They can’t bring him back,” she said. “But every time they close their eyes, they gonna see him.”

Dietrich and the ushers pointed to cases such as the sentencing of African-American actor Wesley Snipes to three years in jail for tax evasion and argued that, when compared to the lack of any sentence for the officers who fired 50 shots at Sean Bell, the racism of the American legal system is apparent.

Randall Heyward, 45, agreed. "We see that justice hs failed a lot of folks in this city -- minorities in particular ," Hewyard said. "Over and over again."

When this reporter asked Robert Franklin Sears for his thoughts on the verdict, he started by exclaiming " Oh Lord!" Sears said that, although he expected an acquittal as soon as the officers were granted a trial by judge (instead of by jury), he was nonetheless astounded by the verdict. "I don't even want to talk about that. It's terrible!" Sears said. "How can you have 50 shots at a man and say there's no reckless endangerment?"

Inside the Friendly Baptist Church, Albert Sutton Jr. -- the son of the church's pastor, Reverend Albert Sutton Sr. --spoke quietly but unmistakably about his disgust with the acquittal. "It's the same thing all the time. Nothing's changed except the year," Sutton Jr. said. "If you got this color [Sutton pointed to his skin], it's hell for you."

Rev. Albert Sutton Sr. said he had denounced the acquittal in this morning's sermon. Sutton Sr. said he had been watching the news at Friendly Baptist Daycare on Friday morning when the verdict was announced. "And we were all saying it wasn't fair," Rev. Sutton said.

"How can you respect the police?" Rev. Sutton added a few moments later, "When the police is doing the same thing the crooks is doing?"

Among the opinions that have been voiced repeatedly by Highbridge residents since the verdict was announced : That the Bell shooting is part of a long and ugly pattern of the NYPD shooting unarmed African-Americans with impunity, including the 41-shot killing of African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999 and the fatal shooting of the 300-pound, 66-year-old mentally-disabled woman Eleanor Bumpers in 1984; that the acquittal was especially atrocious in light of the fact that 50 shots were fired at Bell and his friends; that if police had shot an unarmed white man, they would never have walked free as they did in this case; that an acquittal seemed increasingly likely as soon as the officers were granted a trial by judge, rather than by jury; that the prior arrest record of Joseph Guzman, Bell’s friend who was wounded in the police shooting, does not in any way justify Bell’s fate or the acquittal of the officers in the case; and that Judge Arthur Cooperman’s reference to Guzman's record in his verdict was absurd.

Here, by way of contrast, is Manny Fernandez’ piece in the New York Times this morning:

Please keep checking into the West Bronx Blog for ongoing coverage of reactions to the Sean Bell verdict.


  1. The only way to stop police brutality is to change the laws that protect this type of behavior.

    Protesting was effective in the 60s because the media, even if misrepresenting the truth, provided an open platform for speech.

    However, in our current state on monopolized media protesting is not effective in spearheading political change. The only way to do this is to challenge the authorities with your voice. Let them know if change does NOT occur, she/he will lose a political seat.

    Remember ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL, the national government political power starts at the municipality and State governments.

    Find your representative and speak out against Police Brutality in New York State:

    New York State Assembly (equal to the United States House of Representatives)

    New York State Senate (equal to the United States Senate)

    New York State Governor

    Also, support organizations that work vigilantly every day to protect the civil liberties of Americans:

    PoliceAbuse.com: http://www.policeabuse.com/

    New York State Defenders Association: http://www.nysda.org/html/police_misconduct.html#ResearchLinks


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