Fear & Loathing in New York
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from KING Magazine's story on the Sean Bell murder, which appears in the May '07 issue, currently on newsstands. But the case continues to develop. On Monday March 19, three of the five police officers involved with the shooting surrendered to charges brought against them. Michael Oliver, who fired 31 times, and Gescard Isnora, who fired 11 of the 50 shots that killed Bell and wounded his two friends, will face felony manslaughter charges, according to the Associated Press. Marc Cooper will face a lesser charge of misdemeanor endangerment for firing four shots. The other two officers involved, Michael Carey (three shots) and Paul Headley (one shot) were not indicted. The New York Police Department is also deliberating on further departmental disciplinary actions against the five officers.
When a New York Police Department cop shoots an unarmed black man, the stereotypical protestors are radicals who call journalists "white devils" under their breath and communists - Free Palestine shirts, free newspapers and "Free Mumia!" - who call cops "racist pigs" to their faces. This leaves Al Sharpton as the de facto voice of reason, though he appears to be limited to larger protests and rallies. Generally, after a month or so, the circus subsides, the media loses interest and the mutual fear between young black men and police resumes.
But this time it was different. From the outset, the stakes seemed higher, like a threshold had been crossed. At 4:56 a.m. on Nov. 25, 2006, Sean Bell became New York's police-brutality high-water mark. After celebrating his bachelor party at Club Kalua, a Queens, New York, strip club where everyone knew his name, 23-year-old Bell left with his two good friends Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman. Fewer than 10 minutes later, in the driver's seat of his Nissan Altima, Bell was shot and killed by a 50-bullet barrage from five undercover copsâ€”two white, two black, one black-Hispanic. One of the detectives, Michael Oliver, unloaded and reloaded his 16-shot gun, dumping a total of 31 bullets. Benefield, 23, was hurt, and Guzman, 31, was critically wounded. No weapon was recovered in Bell's car.
It wasn't the first time NYPD had shot an unarmed black man; what evoked a response of this magnitude was likely the fact he was young, about to marry the mother of his two kids. When pictures circulated of a profusely bleeding Benefield laid out on the sidewalk screaming in pain, alongside word that he and Guzman were cuffed in the hospital, the case confirmed something many young black men nationwide feel: If it could happen to Bell, unarmed, on the eve of his wedding, it could happen to me.
Two weeks after the shooting, at the site's makeshift memorial, the hurt is still fresh. On the ragged industrial block, there are notes, poems, writing on the wall, balloons; across the street there is another memento from the shooting: a small bullet hole in the bottom left window above a concrete porch. Nearby, a 45-year-old man, dressed in a black jean suit with matching do-rag and New Balances, scoffs at the notion of a fourth guy. "There was no fourth guy!â€ he bellows, referring to reports that a fourth man, possibly armed, had fled the scene. "They're covering their asses, that's what they're trying to do.â€
Franklin Ogaard, a retired NYPD Internal Affairs detective, combed the area, shaking his head. "Fifty shots by police officers,â€ he says, "that's not a good shooting. That's a little extremeâ€¦ [Some police officers] might be fearful of the community that they're working in.â€ (Officially, deadly force may be used only when an officer or another person's life is in direct danger. Whether NYPD had grounds to use such force in the Bell case is currently under official investigation.) On the scene to help this writer examine the crime scene, Ogaard continues to look for clues at the AirTrain station's blown-out windows adjacent to Kalua. It becomes obvious the fear cut both ways. "The [cops] don't realize, how [the Sean Bell shooting] affects us as African-Americans,â€ he explains. "Whether I go out or where I go is predicated by not just crime in the city, but the police.â€
A security guard standing nearby concurs. "It got me so bad I go [straight] home every [night]â€¦â€ he says. "I got a friend who says, â€˜I'm not stopping for shit. I'm not getting pulled over by no cop.' It could have been any of us.â€
For more of KING's coverage of the Sean Bell murder., pick up the May â€˜07 issue of KING Magazine. On newsstands now!