Revolution#131, June 1, 2008
The Sean Bell Murder and the Re-Klanification of America
This article originally appeared on the website of The World Can’t Wait—Drive Out the Bush Regime (worldcantwait.org) and is reprinted here with permission.
In opening his 2003 speech Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About, Bob Avakian—the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)—traced the rivers of Black blood that feed the ocean of American history. After angrily recounting some of the most horrific instances of lynching that occurred on U.S. soil, Avakian quoted an author who had written a book about the subject as saying: “It is doubtful that any Black male growing up in the rural South, in the period from 1900-1940, was not traumatized by a fear of being lynched.”
A few minutes later in this talk, Avakian updated the author’s observation to reflect modern U.S. society. “Today it is mostly the police—who openly, as the police—carry out brutality and terror against Black youth and Black people in general,” Avakian said. “Applying that author’s statement on lynching to the present, we could put it this way: ‘It is doubtful that there is a young Black male growing up in the US today—in the south or the north—who does not have a very real fear of being brutalized or even murdered by the police.’”
It is has been very difficult not to hear the echo of Avakian’s words in the days since April 25. That was the date, of course, when the American “criminal justice” system reminded us that police execution of Black people is legal in the United States of America.
Is this too extreme a characterization of the acquittal of NYPD Officers Marc Cooper, Gescard F. Isnora, and Michael Oliver in the killing of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old Black male? If it seems that way at first, perhaps this is because the major media, and large sections of the American public—even those sincerely outraged by the verdict—would be highly reluctant to frame Bell’s killing in those terms. “That’s going too far,” would come the refrain.
Murder—Plain And Simple
But really, imagine you are Sean Bell. You are out with friends celebrating, before getting married the next day. You get into your vehicle, preparing to leave a party, when suddenly several men draw their guns on you. Neither you nor anybody in your vehicle has a weapon, or is even breaking the law. And yet the men fire 50 shots. 50! For a moment, imagine what it would sound like, feel like, and look like if 50 bullets were fired at you. Imagine the sensation of 11 of those bullets striking you in the face, shoulders, and legs (Bell’s friend Joseph Guzman), or four fatal shots entering your arms, lungs, and liver (Bell himself).
Now imagine you are the parents of Sean Bell. You frantically arrive at the hospital, aware that something horrible has just happened to your loved one. But doctors will not let you see your own son, or even tell you what is going on. Then, when finally you do see him, he is lifeless. And—like his bullet-riddled friend—he is handcuffed. To a gurney.
What would you possibly call this, if not an execution? And when—after a two-month legal proceeding in which Bell’s friends were put on trial rather than the officers who shot at them—a judge declares that the killers are guilty of literally nothing wrong, what conclusion can you possibly draw other than that the American legal system finds no fault in the execution of Black people?
To arrive at a different summation than that, you would basically have to argue one of two things: Either (1) that Sean Bell and his friends did something that gave police justification to shoot them 50 times, or (2) that while the killing of Sean Bell and the acquittal of the three officers indeed represents an outrage, this travesty is an exception to the rule of what usually happens to African-Americans in the “criminal justice” system.
Well, on the first of those two points, let’s start by considering the NYPD’s version of what happened outside the Club Kalua on November 25, 2006: Officers on the scene hear Guzman say, “Yo, get my gun!” during the course of an altercation with a group of men at the club. These officers proceed to follow Guzman, Bell, and their friends to their car, allowing the vehicle to leave the establishment before blocking its further advance on a nearby street. Officers then draw their guns and clearly identify themselves as police. Bell and his friends try to drive away, therefore their car lurches forward towards police. Police begin firing.
Now, before we continue, several things need to be pointed out or asked: 1) Guzman has emphatically denied telling friends, “Yo, get my gun.” He stated in court, “That’s not a good bluff where I come from.” 2) If officers really thought Guzman or someone in his party had a gun and were concerned he was about to use it, why would they allow him to get in a vehicle and drive away from the Kalua Club? 3) Bell’s friends and other witnesses dispute that the undercover officers identified themselves as cops. 4) If Bell’s friends are telling the truth that the police did not identify themselves as such, who wouldn’t drive away when guns are drawn on their car? 5) A stripper from the Kalua club testified during the trial that, in actuality, Officer Oliver fired on Bell and his friends as soon as his vehicle crashed into Bell’s car, as Oliver moved to block off its exit route.
But, in spite of all that, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the police are telling the truth. Yes, for a second, let’s pretend there is no history of cops systematically lying to justify abuse or murder against people of color. Let’s pretend that those nail holes inside Fred Hampton’s apartment really were bullet holes; that former LAPD detective and current Fox News commentator Mark Fuhrman never bragged on tape about planting evidence on people of color; that the Rampart scandal—proving the existence of many more Mark Fuhrmans in the LAPD—never happened; that the Chicago PD was not found to have repeatedly tortured African-Americans from the 1970s to the 1990s in an effort to get confessions. Let’s say, in other words, that there were no reason to doubt the NYPD version of what happened to Sean Bell, and let us temporarily take the police account of events as unquestioned fact.
Even according to their rendition of events, police officers fired 50 shots—enough gunfire that they had to stop to reload—at men who had no weapons and were not even breaking the law.
In what universe, then, was the shooting of Sean Bell justified?
Hardly the First…or Second… or Third Time
But is Bell’s fate really emblematic of how Black Americans are treated in U.S. law and society? Or is his death merely a testament to a few rogue cops and one corrupt judge?
Ask that question to the families of Nicholas Heyward, a 13-year-old boy killed by the NYPD while playing with a toy gun in 1994…or Michael Ellerbe, a 12-year-old boy killed by Pennsylvania state police in 2002…or Paul Childs III, a developmentally-disabled 15-year-old boy killed by Denver police in 2003…or Timothy Stansbury Jr., a 19-year-old Black child killed by the NYPD in 2004…or Devin Brown, a 13-year-old boy killed by the LAPD in 2005…or DeAunta Farrow, a 12-year-old child killed by West Memphis police in 2007, again while playing with a toy gun. In all of these cases, the children killed were Black. In none of these cases were the officers involved even tried, much less convicted.
If you want to gain an even deeper sense of how often this happens, here’s a quick experiment: Simply Google the words “Police shoot unarmed boy.” Take note of how many results surface; of how many of these murdered children were not persons of color; and of how often the police officers in these instances were charged. And remember that these are only the incidents that are known about, that are retrieved by Google, and that involve children.
And, as the quote from Avakian at the beginning of this article speaks to, just as lynchings terrorized Black Americans as whole—and not merely the thousands who were actually hung from trees—so too does the impact of police murder extend far beyond those whose lives are literally taken by law enforcement. Millions of Black and Latino youth wake up each morning with the knowledge that there is nothing to protect them from being gunned down just like Sean Bell was.
And those who are able to escape this fate are faced with the constant threat of physical and psychological harassment at the hands of police, even while performing simple rituals of everyday life such as walking in a park or traveling to the corner bodega for a soda. The NYPD stops-and-frisks hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino males each year, and the vast majority of them are committing no crime: In 2006, of more than 500,000 stops made by the NYPD on the streets of New York City, 90 percent resulted in no summons or arrest. The vast majority of those stopped were Black or Latino. This is another reality that no person of color can escape, whether they themselves have been stopped 20 times, ten times, or zero times by the police.
In the Immediate Aftermath of the Verdict...
In the two weeks immediately following the acquittal of the officers who killed Sean Bell, two incidents occurred that serve as particularly powerful reminders of how non-isolated an incident his murder truly is.
First, on May 2, Douglas Zeigler—the highest-ranking Black officer in the NYPD—was sitting in his car in Queens when two white officers confronted him and attempted to force open his car door; even after he identified himself as the head of the NYPD Community Affairs Bureau. Zeigler may have been a superior to the two cops, but that apparently was of far less importance to the officers than the fact that he is Black. The NYPD has admitted that the officers were “discourteous” towards Ziegler.
State Senator Eric Adams said of the incident, “The only difference between Sean Bell and Chief Zeigler, I believe, is that Chief Ziegler didn’t make a move towards his glove compartment. If he would have done that, he would have gone to the same destination and went to the morgue instead of going home.”
Then, on the night of May 6, Philadelphia witnessed what could fairly be dubbed Rodney King II: A gang of 10-15 police officers were caught on video tape pulling three Black men out of their car and relentlessly kicking and beating them with their batons, as the men lay utterly defenseless on the ground. The tape is unbelievably sickening, and you really have to see it (http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/wireStory?id=4801701) to fully appreciate how heinous it is. Had the beating victims been dogs instead of African-Americans, there would no doubt be a deafening national uproar.
Currently, the three men who were beaten are in jail on attempted murder charges. The cops who beat them are walking free.
What more proof do you need that police violence and cruelty against Black people is woven tight into the American fabric?
A Vengeful Rise in
Old-Fashioned, Violent White Supremacy
But the larger picture framing Sean Bell’s murder is bigger even than systematic police brutality against people of color. Rather, his death is part of a social, cultural, and political landscape in which violence against Black Americans—both physical and psychological—is becoming increasingly commonplace and legitimized.
Consider the case of Megan Williams, a name that is still foreign to the average American—even within progressive circles.
Last fall, Williams—a 23-year-old Black woman in West Virginia—was kidnapped by a mob of whites and subjected to a week-long nightmare. During her imprisonment, she was raped and beaten repeatedly; forced to eat rat feces; scalded with hot water; choked with a cable; and stabbed in the leg while her captors called her “nigger.” When she was found by police, she cried, “Help me.”
Prosecutors offered the defendants a plea bargain, instead of seeking the maximum sentence. Two of the defendants in the case were sentenced to ten years, while two others were given longer sentences but have the possibility of getting out on parole within ten years. Megan Williams and her family have expressed outrage with the sentences as well as the fact that prosecutors offered her torturers a plea deal; Williams and her family have called for protest.
But, astoundingly, there has been no significant public outpouring of anger, nor sustained major media coverage of Megan Williams’ story. In fact, most people in this country have probably never heard of her.
Roughly two months after Williams was kidnapped and tortured, African-American NFL quarterback Michael Vick (who is Black) was sentenced to 23 months in jail for killing and torturing dogs. Guess which case generated more media coverage and public outrage?
Think of everything else we have seen in the past three years. In August 2005, thousands of Black Americans are left to drown or starve in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, their desperate rooftop screams for help ignored for days. Thousands of residents who try to cross the Mississippi River Bridge to the mostly white town of Gretna—in order to escape the flood-ravaged city— are turned away at gunpoint by law enforcement. Those who break into stores to acquire the food and water the government will not provide them—or who have been driven to temporary insanity by the horror of what surrounds them—are identified as “looters,” and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco gives the National Guard “shoot to kill” orders. Blackwater—yes that Blackwater—patrols the streets of New Orleans with machine guns. To add further insult to incredible injury, Barbara Bush assesses the masses of evacuees at Houston’s Astrodome by saying: “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” Representative Richard H. Baker sizes up the hurricane by saying: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Last winter, the city of New Orleans begins demolishing four public housing units that provide roughly 4500 affordable housing units, predominantly for people of color.
One year later, in the fall of 2006 and in this same state of Louisiana, a Black student at Jena High School dares to sit underneath a “whites-only tree”; yes, “whites only.” The next day, nooses are hung from the tree. Yes, nooses. A group of Black students then sit underneath the tree in protest. Instead of commending their bravery in the face of a hate crime, District Attorney Reed Walters threatens the students in a school assembly, warning them, “I can take away your lives with the stroke of a pen.” White students ambush a Black student at a party, but the stiffest penalty meted out is that one of the students is placed on probation. Then, white students pull a gun on a Black student in a parking lot. Charges are filed—against the Black students, for snatching the gun away. Ultimately, a fistfight breaks out during which a white student is briefly hospitalized. Six Black students are charged with attempted murder....
Soon, nooses begin appearing in cities and towns throughout the country, including on the door of Black professor Constantine Madonna’s office at Teachers College in New York City, in October of 2007. Action has been taken—against Madonna; she is currently under investigation for plagiarism. No one has been arrested for hanging the noose outside her door.
In January of this year, on Martin Luther King day, white supremacists marched in Jena. With guns. Enough said.
During the last past three years, we have also seen “comedian” Michael Richards repeatedly scream “nigger” at a Black heckler, while telling him: “Fifty years ago, we’d have had you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass.”
And we have heard beloved radio personality Don Imus refer to the predominantly-Black Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos”; yep, he’s back on the air.
A “Culture of Greed, Bigotry, Intolerance,
I could go on and on, but the point is this: It is often pointed out that if fascism comes to America, it will not appear in the literal form of swastika-sporting, goose-stepping brownshirts. Similarly, if the gains of the Black Power movement are undone and the United States again becomes the openly white-supremacist state that it was during the days of slavery and Jim Crow, this will not take the form of the plantation, the whip, the “colored” water fountain, or the hanging tree.
No, violent racism against Black Americans did not begin with the regime of George W. Bush; this phenomenon was a part of American life for centuries before Bush was even born, right up to the moment of his first inauguration. And yes, even following the gains of the 1960s, America has lived in a state of “de-facto segregation”; i.e., severe institutionalized discrimination in the realms of housing, employment, education, and all facets of society. In addition, during the past few decades the Black prison population has mushroomed, with millions of African-Americans forced to rot in confinement, very often for non-violent crimes of poverty.
However, a passage in the Call—the mission statement of The World Can’t Wait—Drive Out the Bush Regime—does point to the very significant connection between the Bush Regime and instances of blatantly murderous racism such as the shooting of Sean Bell: “Your government is enforcing a culture of greed, bigotry, intolerance, and ignorance.”
The result of the Bush Regime’s program of systematic murder, torture, and dehumanization, and of the lack of massive societal resistance thus far to this program, has been that forces wishing to take the United States back to the days of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan have felt an emboldened sense of initiative.
Is the success of these white supremacist forces inevitable? Absolutely not. The tens of thousands who traveled to Jena last winter to demand the freedom of the Jena 6, and the thousands who have bravely and defiantly stepped out to condemn the acquittal of the officers who killed Sean Bell, are examples of real “hope” for real “change.”
But resistance to the Re-Klanification of America—as with resistance to the Bush agenda in general—must sustain and expand relentlessly. Because the forces on other side will do anything but relent.
It seems appropriate to close with words spoken twelve years ago by the rapper NAS:
“I thought I’d never see,
but reality struck.
Better find out, before your time’s out,
what the fuck.”
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