On the last Friday morning in April, upon hearing the verdict in the Sean Bell case, I had the worst of all possible reactions. Instead of outrage, I felt utter resignation. I even found myself saying things like, “the cops could shoot unarmed people 500 times and they still would not get convicted.” For white folks like me, complete cynicism is an easy option. The much sadder reality is that so many people of color in the city actually have to worry about their family members being on the receiving end of an NYPD fusillade. And such is a terrible state, or city, for anyone to live in.
Fortunately, righteous indignation is still being heard across the city. In addition to protests, numerous town hall meetings have taken place, including one held four days after the verdict at Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Fort Greene. Emotions at the packed event ran high. Councilwoman Tish James said that when she heard Judge Arthur Cooperman exonerate the three officers, she cried, and thought immediately of her teenage nephew, who, by wearing his pants too low, greatly increases his risk of an encounter with the cops. Kevin Powell, activist, author, and now a candidate for Congress, acknowledged the “anger” in the room. Based on the text messages he was receiving, Powell reported that many people on hand objected to the presence of whites at the event. There were grounds for such outrage, he said, but the point was to do something “constructive.” Whites, Powell continued, can be part of the solution, but only if they speak out against the city’s growing racial inequalities.
There are many possible remedies for the problems raised by the Bell case, foremost among them the need for a special prosecutor in cases of police misconduct (a position advocated by civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and State Senator Eric Adams); as well as the need for the NYPD to end its racially biased stop-and-frisk approach, which creates nothing but antagonism between cops and young black and Latino men. But as many of those gathered at Brown Memorial the other day urged, the long-term solution lies in people of all colors confronting the city’s very real patterns of discrimination. Here in New York City, as elsewhere, now is indeed the time for a dialogue on race.