Ten years ago, police opened fire on three unarmed men in Queens, killing 23-year-old Sean Bell hours before his wedding.
The hail of 50 bullets ended Bell’s young life and wounded his two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield. After calls for justice from the victims’ families, my organization, the National Action Network, and others, the accused officers went to trial, but all were found not guilty. A decade later, this city and this nation are still grappling with police-involved shootings and killings with zero accountability. Enough is enough.
I’ll never forget the moment that I received a call from the Rev. Tim Wright, who said that the Bell family was trying to reach me urgently. I drove to Jamaica Hospital, where I met Sean Bell’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre-Bell, and other family members. At that time, we weren’t even sure if Sean was still alive, or if the police in fact shot him. It was a chaotic and disturbing time for his loved ones. I also visited Guzman and Benefield. It became clear that these young men should not have been fired upon 50 times.
Another family would have to bury a young man whose life was cut short by those hired to protect and serve the people.
I remember when it was announced that the accused cops waived their right to a jury trial and instead opted for a trial by judge. I told Bell’s family and fiancée that we may not get top charges against the officers, but none of us expected them to be completely acquitted. As Nicole put it so aptly, they killed Sean all over again.
In an effort to dance around the issue of police brutality and misconduct, some tried to point to the fact that two of the detectives were black – as if being black somehow erases the problem of the culture of policing, a culture that strategically and disproportionately targets, profiles, harasses, arrests, incarcerates and kills blacks and browns all across this country.
When young Sean Bell lost his life, we organized and marched as we stood on the right side of justice. We held massive protests outside Police Headquarters and five other locations, and stopped traffic from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Triborough Bridge.
As a civil rights leader, I am keenly aware that justice doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it take place without extreme dedication and sacrifice. As we continue to see tragedies like the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, we renew our call for accountability, fairness and criminal justice reform.
‘Little’ change in cop training since Sean Bell’s fatal shooting
A decade after the death of Sean Bell, we see that President-elect Donald Trump has chosen Sen. Jeff Sessions to be the next attorney general. Accusations of racism have dogged Sessions’ career, and now he is slated to be America’s top cop. Our work is far from over.
Frederick Douglass once said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.” We demand justice for the Sean Bells of our nation, as well as a more equitable, just and fair system for all.
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