Christmas morning will mark one month since the death of Sean Bell. He was supposed to have been married on Nov. 25. Instead, as he and his friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, were leaving his bachelor party early that morning, five men with guns opened fire on them. The shooters were undercover New York police officers. One of them, Detective Mike Oliver, fired 31 shots, and had to reload in order to continue firing at the unarmed men. The cops shot 50 bullets, close to half of which ripped through Bell and his two friends. Bell was killed; Benefield and Guzman were seriously wounded.
Instead of preparing for her wedding, Nicole Paultre, Bell's fiancee, began preparing for his funeral.
I attended the service for Bell at the church where Nicole and Sean were to be married. Hundreds streamed by his body, laying in an open casket. As I spoke quietly to Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo, a little boy walked up to her and offered his condolences. Although Amadou had died in a hail of 41 police bullets on Feb. 4, 1999, Sean's death reopened old wounds. Marie Rose Dorismond was also there. Her son, Patrick, a security guard, was shot dead outside a Manhattan bar, for just saying no to an undercover cop who was trying to engage him in a drug transaction.
Unlike the former mayor and now presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani, who cast aspersions on the victims of police violence, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg criticized what he called "excessive force" in the Bell killing. Yet, behind the scenes, the New York Police Department was conducting aggressive sweeps of the neighborhood. Young African Americans were questioned in a desperate search for a mysterious "Fourth Man" who police said held the key to their violent outburst. This man had the gun, they said (though oddly not mentioned in radio transmissions that night), as if that justified unleashing a battery of semiautomatic fire on the young groom and his friends.
The police gunplay was fast and loose, it turns out. Graham Weatherspoon, a retired NYPD detective, described the wild shooting on "Democracy Now!": "Before anybody fires a weapon, they have to assess the situation, determine what the target is and then respond accordingly. That did not happen. I don't think that the AirTrain, 50 feet above the ground, was a suspect in this shooting."
The AirTrain is the new commuter rail to Kennedy Airport. In a "Democracy Now!" exclusive, we broadcast Port Authority surveillance video of the station that showed the bullet smash through a window, narrowly missing a waiting passenger. Another camera angle showed two police officers diving for cover, not bothering to alert nearby passengers to do the same.
What prompts police shooting frenzies like the one that killed Bell? Police pundits on TV were quick to blame "contagious shooting," a phenomenon where officers open fire in response to other officers doing the same.
What about racism? Would a pack of undercover cops drive up to a nightclub in a wealthy white neighborhood and fire away? No. It's in the poorest neighborhoods of color where the police catch this contagion. As the Rev. Al Sharpton said, "Imagine ... living in a city where you have to live with the fear of the cops and the robbers."
Last Saturday, on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, 40,000 people marched down New York's Fifth Avenue, "shopping for justice." They were led by Sharpton, Paultre, Harry Belafonte, Abner Louima and Benefield, in his wheelchair.
The mostly African American crowd was clear: They want an independent investigation into the shooting, into undercover practices, and for genuine civilian oversight of the police. That will not bring back Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo or Patrick Dorismond. It will not undo the harm to Abner Louima, sodomized with a broomstick in a police precinct bathroom. But these are first steps.
Bell's fiancee has legally changed her name. Nicole Paultre-Bell wears the wedding ring Sean bought her shortly before his death. She now has to raise their two children, Jada and Jordyn, without him. Think of them Christmas morning. All they want this year is a little justice.
Amy Goodman hosts the radio news program "Democracy Now!" Distributed by King Features Syndicate.
© 1998-2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer