by Dax-Devlon Ross
The Sean Bell Verdict:
The Dangers of Comparing Apples and Oranges
The first thought that came to my mind when I heard about the Sean Bell shooting back in November of 2006 was, not again. My second thought, there must be more to the story. No way a mere seven years after the 41 shots aimed and fired at Amadou Diallo provoked citywide uproar were 50 bullets (paid for, once again, with taxpayer money) going to be aimed and fired into the body of another innocent black man. Not in the new and improved, post-Guiliani New York. The previous mayor was, after all, the purported embodiment of a kind of smug indifference to black and brown life that, for all intents and purposes, created a climate in which one could say it was “open season” on black and brown males with a straight face. Comfortable with my initial impulses, I deliberately, and perhaps willfully, disregarded any news about the trial, including the ruling and the ensuing protests.
Why, especially since I am a black man who works and lives in New York City with youth of color, cares deeply enough about social justice to teach and write about it, has himself had his share of run-ins with law enforcement, and is still fairly young, was I not among the loudest voices in support of justice for Sean Bell? The answer lies in the question itself. It is precisely because of all the things that I am, do, believe and have been through, that I have, up to now, recused myself from commenting on or writing about the case.
Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For me, participating in an uproar over Sean Bell with the expectation that a collective cry of outrage would register in the halls of justice was a doomed enterprise. But it was the automatic comparison people made (and continue to make) between Bell and Diallo that really irritated me. It was, in my opinion, like setting a dinner table when you know good and well that the cupboards are bare.
Sean Bell was not Amadou Diallo. He was not reaching for his wallet on an otherwise empty, unassuming street when he was sprayed with bullets. He was leaving one of the seediest strip clubs in New York City at 4 o’clock in the morning. Is that a crime? No. Is it a significant detail that should be taken into consideration? Absolutely. Not because it suggests Bell or his entourage had a proclivity for crime but because the club itself was a known criminal hang out. Is it sad that this was the night before Bell’s marriage? Yes. Is it relevant to whether the offending officers were guilty or not? No.
The danger in comparing Bell to Diallo is (at least) six fold. First, it discourages and frustrates any meaningful and constructive dialogue about the facts of the night of the shooting, and how the law was applied to those facts to reach this particular decision. Second, it conflates completely distinct situations into a one-size-fits-all “fate of the black male” narrative, in turn perpetuating dangerous myths about the value of black life. Third, it reinforces a victim mentality among black people. Fourth, it reinforces unwarranted feelings of shame and guilt among whites. Fifth, it abstracts the “police” into an amorphous body of untrustworthy hyper-violent thugs out to get people of color. Finally, it alienates anyone, like myself, who has an opinion that deviates from the norm.
•1. Encouraging meaningful and constructive dialogue about the law and its application.
Under our rule of law, the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” means that a “reasonable” person would be convinced based on evidence that the accused is guilty. It is not absolute certainty but it is also not mere uncertainty. This burden of proof exists to protect both jurors and the accused. Is it foolproof? No. Is it a tremendous advancement over trial by fire or by combat? Without a doubt. In the Bell case, the prosecution’s job was to prove that a “reasonable” police officer in a similar situation would not have opened fire on Bell’s car. The presumption, therefore, is that the cops were justified (re: innocent until proven guilty). In the judge’s opinion, the prosecution failed to prove that the officers were not unjustified. (This is not the same thing as saying the cops were justified.) The judge came to this conclusion based on what he called “significant inconsistencies” in the testimony of key prosecution witnesses. Chief among the factors Judge Arthur Cooperman listed as influencing his decision were:
- 1. Prior inconsistent statements by witnesses
- 2. Inconsistencies in testimony among prosecution witnesses
- 3. Criminal Convictions
- 4. Demeanor on the witness stand of witnesses
- 5. Motive witnesses may have had to lie and the effect on truthfulness. (key witnesses had already filed a civil suit against the NYPD for $50,000,000 and were receiving payments from Al Sharpton).
Here is where we as a community could use the trial as a teaching tool: Without sugar-coating it, and taking into consideration the judicial system’s record of unequal treatment toward blacks and other people of color, Sean Bell’s friends blew the trial. Leaving aside the motive key witnesses may have had for the moment, the conflicting stories some offered, the criminal records others carried, and the manner in which certain key witnesses conducted themselves on the witness stand all speak directly to the lack of respect, lack of honesty and contempt for authority we as a community are trying to address day in and day out. In a perfect world, maybe prior criminal records would not matter; in our flawed world they do. In a perfect world, maybe a witness’s “demeanor” should not taint the way a judge or jury perceives their testimony; in our prejudiced world, it does. On the other hand, in a perfect world I hope that consistency of testimony always counts. As for the witnesses who filed a $50,000,000 civil law suit several months before the criminal trial even began, I can only scratch my head and wonder who was advising them.
Race and culture impact our judicial system. Anyone who denies as much at this stage of the game probably isn’t worth trying to convince otherwise. However, we do a disservice to the next generation when we tell them the justice system failed Sean Bell because he was black without talking about the company he kept. It doesn’t do any good to preach about the value of respect and honesty when we ignore the role those character traits (or their shortage) played in the outcome of the trial. We need to tell our students that the company Sean Bell chose to keep brought him down in the end. They didn’t pull the trigger and I have no doubt that they loved him, but when they could have risen to his aide in a court of law, their past baggage weighed them down. By addressing all of these issues we not only talk about personal responsibility and integrity, but about the way the law works.
•2. Resisting the Myth of the Meaninglessness of Black Male Lives
The Diallo-Bell association, though attractive and momentum building, makes it seem as though black men are just being randomly gunned down in New York City. Speaking as a black man who has had his share of police firearms pointed his way in his 33 years, I steadfastly repudiate this gloomy fate. I refuse to accept premature death as a natural life process. I reject those who say such things like, “Black male lives are meaningless in America.” These false notions only perpetuate a sickness I see in too many young black men (and women) on a daily basis. That their lives are expendable; that they aren’t going to live long anyway; that death (along with prison, poverty, disease and job discrimination) is lurking around the corner. This kind of thinking only feeds a pessimistic world view that we as a community are fighting to put to rest. It also removes any and all responsibility young people have in their encounters with police. They have choices. They always have choices. But when we tell them that they’re no better than target practice for police pistols, we’re in effect telling them that they have no control, no choice. We can teach them to kill cops with kindness whenever their paths cross; to be polite; to even smile-whatever it takes to allow them feel like they are in control. Whatever it takes to live.
3. Resisting the Black Victimhood Trap
There is also a deeper, broader and more historically rooted problem with turning Sean Bell into another martyr: it encourages black people to fall back into a mode of reactionary protest that is no longer an effective tool for social engagement or change. In this day and age the civil rights style protest – the march, the sit-in, the boycott, the picket – tends to reinforce the feelings of victimization that prompted the protest in the first place. More often than not, the modern protest lacks a clear objective and can simply be ignored by the media (MLK’s nonviolence was always aimed at gaining global sympathy via the media) without consequence. At best it allows people to grieve publicly, which is important. At worst, though, it allows people to mistake “symbolic” action (marching for a couple of hours, boycotting for a day) for “real” action that requires prolonged commitment to social justice or, worse, to wind up feeling as though social activism is a waste of time when nothing changes after the protest ends. A constructive solution means coming up with a goal-oriented educational and/or advocacy campaign, organizing it and implementing it, which, to be sure, I’ve seen in pockets.
4. Resisting the White Savior/Victimhood Trap
Black people weren’t the only victims of the Bell ruling. White people who care deeply and passionately about social justice were placed in a winless situation as well. In a piece posted on the Huffington Post, a well-intentioned college professor discussed the verdict in her class. After listening to her students (some of whom had never even heard of Sean Bell) discuss the case, she closed the class with the following,
I decided to… test for racism in the Sean Bell case. “Ok, class,” I said, “I have a question for you: would the Bell verdict have come down the same way if the victim of the shooting had been a 23-year old white man?”
The chorus swelled up. “Hell no,” some of them yelled.
And then, Nadine, who today was wearing her hair neatly corn rowed, made the final statement.
“If it had been a white man, the cops wouldn’t have gone after him in the first place,” she said, “and then none of this ever would have happened.”
Huh?! What?! Never in the piece does the professor mention to her class that two of the cops were black or that there is such thing as a reasonable doubt standard or burden of proof or that the Bell case was rife with faulty witnesses. Never. What she does mention, at the very beginning no less, is the Amadou Diallo case. This is exactly the kind of over-simplified politically correct conversation passing for “real talk” that keeps us from confronting race and justice in a way that works towards solutions. This professor reiterates a few limp platitudes and a reputable media outlet passes it off as meaningful commentary. It’s just not as simple as black and white. As well-meaning as the professor was, she only succeeded in reinforcing two dangerous ideas to her class (which was half white and half black). One, white life is more valuable than black life. Two, the average white American has some special purchase to power that black people don’t have and can therefore “save” black Americans by being less racist. Ultimately, it is as important for white people not to buy into the hype of their existential importance as it is for black people not to buy into the hype of their existential insignificance.
White Americans who’ve been raised in the post-civil rights era in particular have learned to walk a fine line when it comes to talking about issues involving race. Some choose to avoid race issues altogether. Some, rather than risk appearing racist in public, quietly take their cues from acknowledged black media personalities like Shelby Steele and John McWorther. Others overcompensate by taking “anti-racism” to such an extreme that black people become either blameless victims or unimpeachable race saviors. None of these approaches removes the stain of white victimhood (i.e. a sense of powerlessness, due to our society’s racist past and politically correct present, with regard to open and candid discussions about prejudice).
5. Mending the Rift between Black and Brown Males and Cops
By linking Sean Bell with Diallo (and others), we only lend credence to the perception – declarations of all officers not being crooked notwithstanding – that the police are indeed out to get young black men. Without arguing whether this is in fact the case, it without questions exacerbates the tensions between young black men and the police by fueling the distrust and animosity within both groups. There is a sense among too many young black men that there is something courageous and justified about standing up to the cops. Courageous is standing up for one’s rights, not simply bucking authority. There is a difference between the two. It’s imperative that we take the time to teach our students the difference. It’s not enough anymore to tell them they have rights or to even hand them a booklet. We need to begin simulating actual police encounters in school. This way if and when one does occur, our students (and the bystanders who often provoke and stoke the unrest) have the tools to diffuse rather than escalate the situation.
6. Inviting Dissenting Opinions
I know I’m not the only one out here who has felt like his opinion had no place in the “Justice for Bell” discussion. Out of respect for the family and the freshness of the wound, I kept my opinions close. I can no longer do that in good faith. There is an opportunity here to move the conversation in a different direction, to educate and challenge, but it won’t get there on its own. We have to be willing to take it there. We can say we invite all opinions to the table, but as long as people don’t feel those opinions will be supported rest assured they won’t be uttered publicly.
In the coming years the Bell trial will undoubtedly become a widely studied case in law schools. They’ll examine the testimony and the applicable law. They’ll take the judge’s ruling apart and put it back together again. Law journals will publish articles about the case. It will be cited in cases yet to come. Middle and high schools have the same opportunity to use the Sean Bell verdict and the passions it incited to challenge students, families and professionals who work with them to move beyond black and white clichés while it is still fresh on our minds. Otherwise, the Sean Bell shooting will calcify into yet another in a series of black male tragedies that are only thawed to remind us of how far we haven’t come.