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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Eyewitness Account: Sean Bell Demos

More than 1000 people demonstrated—and more than 200 were arrested—at six locations throughout New York City yesterday, in coordinated acts of protest and civil disobedience to denounce the acquittal of the three officers who killed Sean Bell. Traffic was stopped at the Brooklyn Bridge; the Manhattan Bridge; the Triborough Bridge; the Queensboro Bridge; the Holland Tunnel; and the Queens Midtown Tunnel.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon in Midtown East. Beginning around 3pm, demonstrators marched in front of Bloomingdale’s at East 60th Street and 3rd Avenue, holding signs that proclaimed: “We Are All Sean Bell/This Whole Damn System Is Guilty.” (Those signs, in fact, were ubiquitous at a larger rally at 1 Police Plaza, as well).

Chants included “Justice for Sean Bell!” “I am Sean Bell!” and “They Say Get Back/ We Say Fight Back!”

The size of the march mushroomed between 3 and 3:45pm; there were perhaps 30 protestors in front of Bloomingdale’s at the beginning of that time window and close to 100 by the end. And the crowd may have been even bigger than that; as the New York Times’ coverage of yesterday’s actions correctly pointed out, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish protestors from bystanders.

The crowd was a diverse one—perhaps 2/5 of the demonstrators in front of Bloomingdale’s were white, while the rest were predominantly African-American—and included a youth carrying a skateboard, men who looked to be in their twenties wearing jeans or khakis, activists sporting “We Will Not Be Silent” tee-shirts, and middle-aged folks dressed in business attire.

Shortly before 4pm, the crowd marched to the nearby Queensboro Bridge, where more than 30 demonstrators knelt at the entrance, joined hands, and blocked traffic coming off the bridge for more than twenty minutes before being peacefully arrested. Those engaging in this civil disobedience counted from 1 to 50 to represent the number of bullets fired at Bell, and chanted, “I’ll go to jail for Sean Bell!” They also shouted, “50 shots equals murder!”

On a sidewalk adjacent to the bridge, and behind a police barricade across 2nd Avenue, protestors who did not wish to get arrested expressed support for – and chanted along with -- those who did.

Protest organizers then called on demonstrators to head down to 1 Police Plaza, near the Brooklyn Bridge, in support of those who were busted in Wednesday’s demonstration. According to the New York Times, about 60 people, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Bell’s widow, Nicole Paultre-Bell, were arrested as they stopped traffic near that bridge.

I arrived near the Brooklyn Bridge around 5pm. There was still a sizeable crowd gathered, angrily counting from 1 to 50 and chanting “Guilty!” and “Murderers” as police officers watched on the other side of the barricade.

Adjacent to the demonstration, a bus marked “NYC Police” -- a vehicle that appeared to be the size of a school bus – was filled with recently- arrested protestors. As the crowd chanted, the faces of some arrestees could be seen gazing outside the bus windows and smiling appreciatively.

Protestors soon marched back to 1 Police Plaza, where the rally continued. Chants of “Licensed murderers” --in reference to the NYPD—filled the air.

As I left 1 Police Plaza, I heard an African-American police officer talking on his cell phone as he headed towards the crowd.

“I’m out here with a whole bunch of protestors,” the officer said.


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