In Memory of Sean Bell; In Recognition of the Devaluation of Black Men

         This morning I learned that the officers who faced trial for the 2006 murder of Sean Bell were acquitted of all charges. For those who don’t know, Sean Bell was murdered on the morning of his wedding as NYPD officers fired a torrent of over 30 bullets into his car. The officers were working undercover at the club where

        Bell held his bachelor party. They allegedly heard a member of Bell’s group say he was going to get his gun, and followed the group outside. Though the events immediately following are disputed—the officers claimed they identified themselves as police, witnesses claimed they did not and opened fire without provocation—the end results are unambiguous. Bell was murdered in a hail of gunfire hours before his wedding. There were no weapons on him or in the car. At age 23, he left behind a fiancé and two daughters.

        Few incidents drive home the bleak devaluation of Black men’s lives the ways that stories like this do. Even one case like this is too many, but New York police officers are developing quite a record of murdering Black men with little to no punishment or repercussions. In 1999, Amadou Diallo lost his life in a hail of 41 bullets after trying to produce his wallet for identification. Abner Louima was one of the “lucky” ones. In 1997, he escaped police custody with his life, but only after officers savagely beat him and sodomized him with the handle of a toilet plunger. As Black men are increasingly represented among the ranks of the un- and underemployed, in prison, and in caskets, I find myself almost overwhelmed with sadness that our society can’t seem to view—and value–these men as people with loved ones and lives that can’t be replaced. Sean Bell could have been my husband, stepson, or cousin; indeed, he was someone’s father, someone’s fiancé, someone’s son. Cases like his, however, are a cruel reminder that at the core of racism is a denial of someone else’s humanity, complexity, and inherent value and worth.

        It’s interesting to me to connect the life and sad death of Sean Bell with Bill Cosby’s recent news coverage for coming to the defense of an African American judge who kicked white lawyers and spectators out of his courtroom to deliver a stern lecture on appropriate behavior to black defendants. The judge initially claimed to have been inspired by Cosby’s speeches chastising the black poor for failing to take responsibility for their lives and recognize the value of hard work and education. The biases, logical errors, and factual misrepresentations of the implication that the black poor are primarily for their plight have been articulated in several spaces, so I won’t repeat them here. I will say, however, that Sean Bell’s tragic death (and the criminal justice system’s sanctioning of it) does more than any verbal argument can to illuminate how taking personal responsibility falls far short of changing the social systems, institutions, and ideologies that reproduce the racist thought that contributed to Sean Bell’s murder.

         Sean Bell was the responsible, upstanding citizen Cosby exhorts poor blacks to be, but ultimately, personal responsibility couldn’t save his life. Instead, the racist framing of black men as criminals prevailed with deadly consequences, and social systems worked to reflect once more how little value our society places on the lives of black men.