Revolution#122, March 9, 2008

Notes from the Trial of Sean Bell:

Persecuting the Victim of Police Murder

From a correspondent

On February 27, the so-called trial for the police who murdered Sean Bell opened in New York City. And as the trial began, Sean Bell—the victim of police murder—was being persecuted even after his death.

* * *

In the early morning hours of November 25, 2006, five New York City undercover cops surrounded and killed 23-year-old Sean Bell in a storm of 50 bullets as he and two friends left his bachelor party. He was to be married just hours later that day. Two of Bell’s friends who were in the car, 31-year-old Joseph Guzman and 23-year-old Trent Benefield, were hospitalized with multiple gunshot wounds.

Only three of the five cops who fired 50 bullets at Sean and his companions were indicted for anything. And that was only because thousands of people took to the streets in righteous anger in the days and weeks after Sean Bell was murdered. It was three months before indictments came down. All three cops have been out of jail the entire time—two on bail and one released without posting bail.

Now, 15 months later, the trial of these three cops has begun. Two, Michael Oliver and Gescard Isnora, are being tried for manslaughter, and the third, Marc Cooper, on only a misdemeanor. The trial may last for several weeks or maybe even months.

The cops’ lawyers tried in late January to have the trial moved to avoid a New York City jury. This is a tried-and-true tactic for getting brutal cops off. The four police who killed 23-year-old Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999 when he reached for his wallet were acquitted by an upstate Albany, New York, jury. The Los Angeles police who were videotaped beating Rodney King were acquitted in their first trial, in 1992, when their trial was moved to suburban Simi Valley, provoking the Los Angeles rebellion.

When the request for a change of venue for the cops who killed Sean Bell was denied, the lawyers for the police petitioned for and were granted a trial by a judge rather than by a jury.

The Police Defense: They Killed a “Negative Element”

What does the “prosecution” case consist of when for once charges are supposedly being pressed against a few of these murdering enforcers? Assistant District Attorney Testagrossa’s perfunctory opening statement on the first day of the trial reduced what happened to a “tragedy” caused by “carelessness verging on incompetence,” and he attributed it to police preparation for a raid that “fell far short.”

Even so, initial testimony from a woman who had worked as a dancer at the club where Sean Bell was murdered exposed the police story. She testified that a plainclothes cop in  a van “got out and started shooting” without identifying himself. “This is causing me so much pain,” she told reporters, “But I decided to tell the truth and do the right thing.” The woman, who now works as a medical assistant, appeared in court wearing blue scrubs. The Associated Press story on her testimony attacked her with the headline, “Stripper Testifies at NYC Shooting Trial.” The dancer (now a medical assistant) refuted police claims that a tense situation in the club justified the shooting of Sean Bell. She testified that the club was busy that night but nothing seemed amiss, that “everybody was having fun.”

The lawyers defending the police laid out their case in two hours of opening statements on Monday, February 25: They said they will prove that the police did what “any reasonable person” would have done under the circumstances. Here’s what they are claiming was reasonable:Five cops shot 50 bullets at Sean’s car. One of the three cops on trial, Michael Oliver, fired 16 times, reloaded and fired 15 more times. Gescard Isnora, who started the shooting, fired his weapon 11 times. Sean Bell, who was already dead, and his two friends Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, who were seriously injured, were then handcuffed on the ground. Benefield and Guzman were kept handcuffed to their hospital beds until outraged visitors intervened.

In their opening arguments, lawyers for the police repeated the theme the system has run since the killing —that Sean Bell and his friends were at fault for being the victims of a fifty-bullet assault by police. The attorney for Isnora, one of the indicted cops, argued to the judge that Sean and his friends were part of the “negative element” at the club where they held the bachelor party. Because they drank there. Because they may have had a beef with someone else at the club. Because the cops claim they “thought” someone in Sean’s party had a gun—the phantom gun that was never found.

When an attorney for these murdering police turns to the judge and reminds him that people like Sean Bell are part of the “negative element,” what does he mean by that?

In the beginning of the United States, this system killed off most of the Native Americans, and kidnapped African people and brought them here as slaves. Those slaves who rebelled, or who escaped, were part of the “negative element” at the time, whipped to near death to set an example to others. After the Civil War, Black people remained in near-slave-like conditions, sharecropping. Those “negative elements” who were accused of looking at a white woman, or who didn’t step off the sidewalk quickly enough when a white person passed, were lynched—over 3,000 lynchings. Today, the dangerous, low-paying factory jobs that Black people were brought to the big cities to work at are gone—capitalism has found fresh blood around the world. A whole generation of Black youth are branded “negative elements” because this exploitive system has no use for them.

This system is useless. It has no future for millions of inner city youth, and brings nothing but oppression and suffering wherever it goes around the world. Nothing fundamentally good can be done about this whole situation until there is a revolution. But the people cannot let this trial of Sean Bell go down the way the system has it going. On the first day of the trial, people demonstrated militantly outside the courthouse. Much more political protest is needed. We need to build resistance to police brutality and murder, and demand justice for Sean Bell, as part of building a revolutionary movement.

As we do that, we have to also break the system’s mental chains that keep people enslaved, including stopping all that down-on-our-knees slave talk about the murder of Sean Bell being “god’s will.” People need to stop hoping and praying for justice from a non-existent god—who never seems to be able to get it right when it comes to stopping police murder. There is no such god, and he isn’t going to bring down some mighty justice here.

As the statement issued by the New York City Branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party shortly after Sean Bell’s killing said: “[S]laves can resist and rebel and rise up. Empires can lose wars and empires can fall. And history has shown that the situation of millions of Black and other oppressed people is like a volcano at the foundation of the U.S. empire. Where will liberation come from? Not from getting on our knees to imaginary gods. We need to start lifting our heads. We need massive political resistance to all the outrages of this system, we need to prepare minds and organize forces politically. This is how the ground would be prepared for a proletarian revolution that would have a serious chance of winning, a revolution with a backbone of millions, of all nationalities, with nothing to lose—a revolution that has an answer to this deeply hated, centuries-old oppression that this system can never have.”

“Oppressed people who are unable or unwilling to confront reality as it actually is, are condemned to remain enslaved and oppressed.”

—Bob Avakian, from his upcoming book
AWAY WITH ALL GODS! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World
(to be published this spring by Insight Press)

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond