Friday, April 25, 2008

Awe Without the Shock: The Sean Bell Ruling

A Funeral Rather Than a Wedding: Photo of Sean Bell's coffin by Robert Mecea of Newsday

We couldn't allow today to pass without issuing some comment on the acquittal of NYPD Officers Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver, and Marc Cooper on all charges related to the fatal shooting of Sean Bell and the wounding of his two friends. There are several details that have made this case particularly gripping and indicative of the piss poor relationship between New York's "finest" (that was hard to type) and those they "serve" (read: surveil) of a darker, poorer, and unconnected hue.

The not guilty verdicts, issued by a judge (who should know better) rather than a 12 person jury (who in the past has proven just as unreliable) have provoked two standard emotionally interconnected and somewhat incompatible reactions from those who identify with the defendants, which is most of the black people we've talked to. There is the seething, raw anger at the law reinforcing the police, in this case those of New York, with the idea that they are immune to any appropriate consequences for poor action and murderous judgement on their part. That anger runs right alongside the hard earned cynicism that knows verdicts of not guilty would be reached regardless of the evidence. Why? Because the law and the government behind it have a special relationship with black men (and other disfranchised people) that has altered in scope but not in its fundamental rules. To be blunt about it, if you have power equivalent to ownership over something, you can kill it.

Details such as shaky prosecution witness testimony, an unsurprisingly corroborated NYPD defense, liquor-fueled circumstances, shifty motives of the acquitted officers, and machismo-driven hubris make this case stand out from others among which it will forever be categorized. Added to that is the larger story of a young man who was hours away from becoming a husband and who died not for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but for being somewhere he had every legal and social right to be. So if it wasn't the wrong place and the wrong time, then it must have been the wrong people present. Enter the NYPD. We won't gloss over an officer being rammed with a car. Of course we can't gloss over 50 shots being fired by detectives who should know how to handle themselves under immense pressure - especially the kind that they purposely court. Whatever the circumstances, justice has not been served in this case. And most black people did not expect it to be. Thus, there is awe at what the police get away with in front of God and everybody (remember they were acquitted on ALL counts) and yet the shock of injustice at a situation of this type wore off decades, if not centuries ago.

Because two of the charged detectives were black, many want to argue that it's not about race. We'll get into that on March 5th. However, the mixing of black men and excessive force is an old one and just as in the case those who killed Sean Bell, served cold.

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