For Diaspora Africans & African-Americans in New York City, the slightest hint of a gun can be as dangerous as carrying the real thing. That was the lesson gleaned by Sean Bell and several friends at his bachelor party on November 25, 2006, when they were shot more than fifty times by undercover detectives as they left an adult entertainment club in Queens.
Bell, who was to be married the next day (pictured above with his fiancee), was killed on the scene. Companions Joseph Guzman and Trent Bennefield, who were in the same car as Bell when the officers opened fire, were seriously injured but survived. Officers claimed that Bell's group of friends had talked about getting a gun after an altercation with another group at the Kahlua Club, prompting the detectives to confront them with guns drawn.
News of the indictment of three out of the five detectives involved in the shooting last week has drawn comparisons with similar accidental shootings of blacks by New York City policemen. Officers Michael Oliver and Gescard Isnora, who fired a combined 42 bullets into Bell's car, were charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter, while detective Marc Cooper was charged with reckless endangerment. His attorney, Paul Martin, told the Associated Press that Cooper had "given 17 years of his life to the NYPD, and to see him now as a defendant is very upsetting."
For people of either recent or remote African ancestry-spanning African and Caribbean newcomers to multi-generational African-Americans-navigating New York City's strained racial terrain, the lesson is not a new one but is jarring nonetheless. The situations are further complicated by the fact that the officers involved in the Bell shooting were predominantly black or Hispanic, an inversion of the usual dynamic in controversial police shootings.
Most disturbing to many is the fact that the circumstances surrounding Bell's death are far from unique. Many were reminded of another accidental shooting eight years ago in the Bronx, when Guinean trader Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by undercover detectives from the NYPD's Street Crimes unit.
Diallo(pictured), who was standing in front of his Wheeler Avenue apartment, reached for his wallet to identify himself to the four plain-clothes officers when he was showered with bullets. The officers involved in that case also claimed that they believed Diallo was reaching for a handgun when they opened fire.
More recently, officer Bryan Conroy was convicted of reckless endangerment after shooting and killing artisan Ousmane Zongo in 2003. Zongo was fleeing from a police raid on a storage warehouse in Manhattan frequented by artisans when he was shot in the back. Conroy claimed that Zongo wrestled with him and reached for his sidearm before he shot the West African immigrant.
"Why do these accidents seem to happen only between police and black people in this city?" asked Tidjane Serigne, a Harlem resident originally from the Ivory Coast. "These cases happen so frequently, so of course you worry for yourself and your friends and family."
For police advocates on the other side of this community schism, mishaps of the sort that resulted in the deaths of Bell, Diallo, Zongo, and many others- including unarmed teenager Timothy Stansfield, shot to death in 2004; pensioner Alberta Spruill, who died of a fatal heart attack following a mistaken police raid on her Harlem apartment; and Haitian musician Patrick Dorismond, choked to death by police officers in Brooklyn- are unfortunate yet understandable incidents that should not hinder officers from doing their duty to protect and serve.
" I think that the charges (imply) that our detectives went there with the intention to kill Sean Bell, and that's simply not true," said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association, at a press conference about the indictments. "This sends a very chilling message" to officers that may cause fatal delays in their response time, he added.
Those who have lost innocent friends and relatives to impatient triggers do know the line between tragic accident and cold-blooded murder is far from clear. At the time of Zongo's shooting, Amadou Diallo's mother, Kadiatou, pled for better understanding to avert future tragedies. "I just wish things would be different by now," she said then. "It's been a long time, and we have been talking and asking for change." For the family of Sean Bell, the change is still a long time in coming.