By Jabari Asim
WASHINGTON—Last week a friend left me a phone message about the shooting of Sean Bell in New York. “Here we go again,” he said.
Bell, a 23-year-old New York deliveryman, was shot to death by police on Nov. 25, a few hours before his wedding. The details of his demise are likely familiar by now, but they still bear repeating. Undercover policemen fired 50 rounds at Bell’s car, thinking that he and his two companions were armed. As the world now knows, they weren’t.
A few years ago, my friend and I worked together on a book project prompted by the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo. A street vendor and immigrant from Guinea, Diallo died in a hail of 41 bullets from New York policemen who believed he had a gun. He didn’t.
The tragically familiar circumstances led my friend to call me and share his feelings of deja vu.
Kadiatou Diallo, the victim’s mother, apparently had a similar feeling. She attended Bell’s funeral on Dec. 1. “I think today, even though it’s painful for me, I want to be here,” she told reporters gathered outside. After hearing the details of Bell’s death, she said, “I knew then change had not happened as we wished.”
Some things have indeed remained unchanged since Amadou Diallo’s death, but not always in obvious or undesirable ways. For example, the aftermath of that shooting provided a view of black activist Al Sharpton that had seldom been seen by people outside New York. He transformed—unpredictably—from demagogue to dignitary during that sad period, conducting himself with grace and eloquence. He has been no different this time around.
Speaking at Bell’s funeral, Sharpton declared, “We don’t hate cops. We don’t hate race. We hate wrong. There’s a difference between peace and quiet. Quiet means shut up. Quiet means suffer in silence. Peace means justice. We want peace, but we won’t get quiet until we get justice.”
There have been changes in the mayor’s office, and they have been welcome and significant. Where Rudolph Giuliani often fanned the flames of unrest with his incendiary comments, his successor, Michael Bloomberg, has proceeded with compassion and tact.
“I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired, but that’s up to the investigation to find out what really happened,” Bloomberg said at a news conference shortly after Bell’s death. If that doesn’t sound like much, just imagine Giuliani in the same spot.
When New York police fatally shot Patrick Dorismond, yet another unarmed black man, in 2000, Giuliani released Dorismond’s criminal record—including a juvenile offense—before the body was cold.
Dorismond became the fourth unarmed black man shot by New York police in over a year. Like Diallo before him and Bell just recently, he became part of a long and heartbreaking tradition.
A tradition, I should add, that has been acknowledged for decades. Following the fatal police shooting of 14-year-old Claude Reese Jr. in 1974, the New York Times noted “the profoundly depressing familiarity” of such deaths: “A white police officer responds to a call involving a black or Puerto Rican youth, a shot is fired, and the youngster dies. Later, though the stories are confusing, the police officer is said to have thought he saw a lethal weapon—a gun or a knife—in the dead youth’s hand. It turns out that the weapon cannot be found or is substantially more innocent than the officer thought it was when he discharged his gun.”
Of course, that points to another change: The officers in such incidents are no longer exclusively white. Three of the five shooters in the Bell case were black or Latino. That distinction provides little comfort to men like me, who have sons the same age as Bell—and certainly offers no solace to Bell’s father himself.
“I can’t repair this heart and what I’m going through right now. It’s broken too bad,” William Bell told a reporter. “It’s hard for anybody to lose their son—any parent. It’s just too much for a young man to be taken away from a life that’s happy. How do you explain that?
“All the anger in the world will not bring him back. I just don’t want this to happen to no one else’s kid. No matter what color they are. Make sure that’s clear. Color has nothing to do with this. It’s the human being that got lost,’’ William Bell said.
Meanwhile, the elder Bell, along with Sean Bell’s fiancee and everyone else who loved him, must wait and grieve through investigations and inquiries and maddening delays.
My friend was right: Here we go again.
Jabari Asim’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.