Today the value of my life dropped. It was on
a scale held by Queens State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman.
In one pan were three NYPD policemen and in the other the death
of Sean Bell, a young black man they shot down last year. I
had gone to the funeral, had seen his grey face quiet in the
coffin and met his mother at the vigil outside the police precinct.
It was real to me and to my friends.
We stood in the pan with Bell's family as if the bullets passed through him and hit us. In our
march from one end of life to the other, we'd seen black men
weighed down by history, stumble from school to jail, fight
in the streets or fight them selves and sometimes, as if to
make obvious how we are hated, just shot down. It was our collective
experience, the backdrop against which Bell's
murder made sense to us. We hoped, maybe now, with a Black presidential
nominee on the news that our life was valued. So we hoped for
justice and a part of our brain froze in place, waiting until
April 25th, the day the verdict was due.
woke early, blinking half-blinded by dreams and daylight, stumbled
to the computer, eager for the verdict but scared and hopeful.
“Maybe,” I mumbled, “Maybe.” The screen lit and I typed nytimes.com, read the headline
and sank into my chair. My head rolled in my hands and I shaped
words but the air kept leaking out. I just sank, only rising
when the phone rang. It was Alena my friend, doing what black
people across the city had to do, reaching out to keep each
other from sinking.
“Did you hear the verdict,” she asked, less a
question than an invitation. “Alena, it's like we're ghosts
again,” I said. “I saw the picture of Nicole Bell, his fiancé-to-be,
man she looked so broken. Fifty shots, Alena, fifty shots! It's
like they took each star in the flag and loaded them into their
guns.” We hung in that moment, quiet, waiting for the pulse
of rage to pass before speaking.
“I know, I know, it's like I just feel defeated,
empty,” she said. “A lot of folks are just stunned right now.”
Her voice got sharp, “Did you notice the price of oil goes up
as the price of black life goes down?” The air flew out of me.
We laughed. “Oh God Alena, no. Maybe they should put black people
in the oil cans, shake us and pour us into their cars.” We cackled
darkly. “It would solve the energy crisis,” I said. “They'll
find a way to convert black people into fuel. We'd be good for
something,” she laughed, tightening the joke like a tourniquet.
This is how it's done, I thought, we see the hate coming and
bite into it; to savor the momentary control over it, to chew
it to bits with laughter.
“Okay,” I said, “We can't make racist self-hate
jokes too long even if it's for a good cause.” She asked if
I was going to the rally. I said yeah, we promised to meet later.
The moment after a conversation, a good one, has an after-glow.
Real words have an inner-light that allows every layer of meaning,
every sediment of tone a brief visibility to the mind. Even
as it recedes, it leaves a hope that we don't have to stumble
blindly in our feelings.
I ran down the stairs, into the street ready
to join my neighbors on the corner, ready to stoke our words
into a fire but no one was out. The few who were, pushed laundry
carts across the street or sipped at steaming coffee cups while
waiting for work. Kids bounced basketballs on the sidewalk.
I was dazed by the absence of my imagined scene, the gravity
of expectation was cut and I floated inside myself. Where we
As I walked to the subway, the two Rasta-men
next door hailed me. I waved back, told them about the verdict.
“They jus' getta way wid murder,” one shook his head, “is wrong
man but...” He didn't shrug but stood silent, as if trying to
find an answer but looked up blankly. I asked if he had a computer.
nodded. “Go to National Action Network, its Sharpton's site,
if they have a march it should be on the site.” His polite glazed
look told me he wouldn't and I shook my head. How could life
just go on when its value was being lost? Why weren't people
talking in the streets? This is Bed-Stuy, the diamond of the
Diaspora, black folks from the corners of the earth lived here
and yet, the streets were quiet. “Maybe,” I said aloud, “Maybe
we're cowards, we'll make it easy for them to shoot us, c'mon
people let's line up, get your free bullets,” I yelled flapping
my arms then stopped and rubbed my forehead, trying to erase
my imagined scene, the scene where we are beautiful.
train ride from Nostrand to Queens was
tense as if my heart was an alarm clock in my chest. I wanted
to do something. At Union Turnpike I bounded out of the station,
up to the street where a line of cops stood. The courthouse
was guarded and next to it, in a park the protestors gathered.
“Hey Nick,” one or two said and I shook hands watching radicals
chat, sipping tea. I wove through the crowd, sensing that impatient
tingling that one feels before a theater show. It began when
a light skinned sister with shoulder length dreads from the
Malcolm X Grassroots Movement began yelling through the megaphone.
We craned our necks, listening to the incantation of wrongs.
Speaker after speaker yelled; a young brother with corn-rows
yelled, another brother, in black shirt and jeans, Pan-African
flag jumping at his belt yelled. It went on, red faces and red
politics. The rhetoric was interchangeable pieces of the same
puzzle, “People's Justice!” or “Revolution!” I didn't hear anything
that moved beyond Sean Bell the symbol to Sean Bell the man.
We're missing something I felt. The vibe was
close to joyful vengeance. It contrasted the despair I saw in
photos from the verdict this morning. What I remember from Sean
Bell's funeral, from his mom Valerie Bell at the precinct was
pain, a deep pain welling up from the absence of a man they
loved. For us, Bell
was a symbol to illuminate our politics. It seemed as if we
had two different visions.
It's as if working people suffer from near-sightedness.
The survival of daily life, the drama of family, of love, of
loss, of money owed and favors given take up the whole horizon.
They can't see the larger system that is their invisible cage.
Revolutionaries unknowingly suffer from far-sightedness. They
see through the prism of history, so that only that cage
is visible. Ideas and archetypes are for us, more real. Each
new victim, like Sean Bell, is reduced to a sign of another
domino falling under the momentum of power. Such historical
far-sightedness can cause blinding arrogance.
“When we chant 'No Justice, No Peace' what does
that mean,” she demanded. I didn't know anymore. It didn't mean
civil disobedience as people shifted uneasily, moving their
signs from one shoulder to the other. The brother next to me
noticed my distraction, he introduced himself. “I'm Robert,”
he showed me his leaflet. The metaphorical image I instantly
had of him was of a pillar circled by clouds. He had this inner
center of gravity surrounded by a deep calm. “Robert,” I asked,
“Who is everyone here?” He pointed out Worker's World, the splinter
groups ANSWER and Party for Socialism for Liberation. He spoke
with a lyrical Ghanaian accent, listening to him was like drinking
Guinness. “Over there is the Spartacus League. Their like relics,
any conversation circles back around to the Soviet
I eyed him, “Why do you seem so calm.” He smiled
wistfully, “I know we're just a propagandist group,” he held
his palms up as if showing he was innocent of expectation. “I
know revolution won't happen soon,” he paused. “We spread ideas.
That's what we do.” I pointed to the brothers with Pan-African
colors. “They're an international Pan-African organization,”
he said, “They call for immediate revolution.” The calculations
ran through my head, “What's that, Pan-African Stalinists?”
He smirked, “I didn't say that.” I nodded, “I know.
shouting was now aimed toward the street and we began to march.
A banner with Sean Bell's face and fifty bullet holes was held
like a passport; it gave us the right to move across the border
between laws. We marched like a wave. At our crest, cameramen
and photographers walked backward. They bent, angled, clicked.
We marched up Queens Boulevard up Jamaica Avenue. They longer we marched the louder we yelled.
“Fuck you pig!” I turned to see who shouted it.
An Asian college kid had a goofy grin. “Yeah fuck you,” he yelled
again at the cops. Inside the march was a maelstrom of rage.
When I ran ahead of it, past the police stiffly looking ahead
as we baited them, past the blinking cruisers to the far front
where the march looked more like a parade. It had an air of
Looked ahead to the far road, I thought we aren't
going anywhere but in circles. No one is listening to us but
us. We demand a revolution in fiery rhetoric but won't even
do an act of simple civil disobedience. We can't even say aloud
the obvious truth that Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner
Ray Kelly knew we'd march and let us, doing the math and figuring
correctly that we weren't worth arresting.
We turned into the lot of the Kalua Nightclub,
where Bell was killed and his friends Benefield and Guzman
were wounded. The march whirlpooled into a knot around the speaker.
“Leave peacefully,” she said. “Don't give them a reason to arrest
you.” She told us whatever we do afterwards is not their responsibility.
The structure that bound us had evaporated and we bounced around
like loose atoms. Members of the Revolutionary Communist Party
called for a new march, “Let's keep it going!” and we reassembled
ourselves, same chants, same movement forward.
The splinter march thundered along the main avenue.
Inside the overpass of the Jamaica
station, we climbed the rail and concrete dividers, cursing
cops and shaking signs. The echo of our voices made us louder
and larger than we were. Car horns blared. Police watched us
from the better side of power. The march left and turned to
the police precinct deep in Jamaica. I stood, watching them round the corner;
cops like tired sheep-dogs on either side. They were committed
to marching endlessly in the dark. I stepped back, broke ranks
and left for home.
Walking to the subway, I looked at the streets
we just passed through. People were shopping again, cops gabbing
on the corner. In the wake of our chanting and marching it had
closed up again. Maybe this was the secret of power, not just
violent oppression but also indifference?
In the train back to Nostrand, I studied the
riders. Blonde girls straightened their skirts. Latino families
ushered kids in and out. Mexican men in work clothes, eyes shut
listening to I-Pods. So many circles orbit each other in this
city I thought but can they ever fuse into a halo for a young
black man, killed by cops last year and see in him the vulnerability
to state power we all share?
whole weekend, I read about passionate speeches and small marches.
One hundred or so protestors marched in Harlem
on Saturday and fewer on Sunday. The New York Times praised
the peacefulness of black people, running interviews celebrating
the “nuanced” views we had about the verdict, giving us a gold
star for being reasonable. We are, we can use reason and see
what works and what doesn't. After years of blacks and Latinos
being shot, the bullet count rising, the 41 shots of Diallo
to the 50 shots of Bell,
nothing has changed. The cops keep getting off. The activists
keep telling us to march and we're tired and hopeless and broken.
I've been in marches from the February 2003 anti-war
tidal wave to smaller ones and yes, going on without a permit
is a necessary step but without the ability to shut the city
down it becomes a conservative gesture. We release our rage
in the street like boiling water cooling in the open and then
flow back to the nooks and crannies of our private lives.
Without a movement to push Sean Bell's unlived
life into our collective consciousness, without civil disobedience
on a mass scale he will die a second death. His fiancé Nicole
Paultre-Bell said after the verdict, “They killed Sean all over
again.” And she's right. His memory is our responsibility. If
he disappears, it's our fault, its' our indifference that caused
it. The NYPD killed Sean Bell but it is we who are letting him
Nicholas Powers is an Assistant Professor
at SUNY Old Westbury. Click
here to contact Mr. Powers.