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From Sean Bell to stop-and-frisks

Racist profiling is a U.S. tradition

Published Feb 25, 2010 9:34 PM

History has a way of repeating itself, it is said. This couldn’t be truer than in the racist differential treatment of Black men and youth by U.S. state and local police departments. Equal justice under the law has never been part of the U.S. criminal justice system.

Take the Sean Bell case. On Nov. 25, 2006, Bell, a 23-year-old African American, was killed by New York Police Department officers in a hail of 50 bullets while sitting unarmed in his car as he was leaving his bachelor party at a local night club in Queens. He was to be married later that same day. Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, in the car with him and also unarmed, were seriously wounded.

On April 25, 2008, a state judge acquitted the three police officers of every charge of manslaughter and reckless endangerment in the shootings. Essentially the judge ruled Bell’s killing to be justified; no crime committed. This decision is a measure of how devalued Black life is and how easily Black men are demonized and disparaged.

Sean Bell’s case proves how deadly race can still be in a politically illusionary “post-racial” society. In the past wallets, candy bars, keys and packs of cigarettes were deemed sufficient cause to provoke such malicious responses. But now, nothing but race-based suspicion is required.

This past Feb. 16, ironically during Black History Month, the U.S. attorney general stated that the Justice Department investigation determined that there was insufficient evidence to pursue federal charges against the officers who killed Bell and wounded his companions.

Specifically, the Justice Department stated: “After a careful and thorough review, a team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the law enforcement personnel who fired at Bell acted willfully. Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed.” (Daily Challenge, Feb. 18)

Later that day, the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and representing the Bell family, held a press conference on the Justice Department’s decision in Washington, D.C. Present were Nicole Paultre-Bell, Sean’s widow; Trent Benefield; Joseph Guzman; and attorneys Michael Hardy and Sanford Rubenstein.

Sharpton stated, “We intend to pursue internal NYPD proceedings and the civil lawsuit to try and bring some justice to Sean Bell’s children and family, and to Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, whom I still feel had their civil rights violated. ... Fifty shots on an unarmed man who engaged in no crime is intolerable.” (Daily Challenge, Feb. 18)

At a Feb. 20 rally in New York, William Bell, Sean’s father, asked, “Who are the laws made for? Are they made for us or the police?” (http://tiny.cc/bILM3) Since receiving the Justice Department’s verdict, the distraught family says they feel they’re reliving what happened to Sean Bell all over again.

Bell killing — not an isolated incident

A Feb. 17 report published by the Center for Constitutional Rights reveals new NYPD data for 2009 showing a significant rise in “stop-and-frisks.” (www.ccrjustice.org) For that year the reported number of New Yorkers stopped was more than half a million. The racial disparity in the number of stops had increased with 87 percent being Black and Latino/a — significantly more compared to whites.

The CCR is representing victims of stop-and-frisk policies from 2005 to 2008 in a class action lawsuit filed in 2008. During this period, approximately 80 percent of people stopped were Blacks and Latinos/as, who only made up 25 percent and 28 percent of the general population, respectively. Crime “suspects” are frequently stopped for vague, undefined reasons such as “furtive movements,” “casing a victim or location,” “inappropriate attire for season,” “wearing clothes commonly used in a crime” and “suspicious bulge.” However, only 1.3 percent of those stopped last year had weapons.

The CCR states that there’s a need for important reforms to the oversight of the NYPD due to the trend of racial disparities increasing. The CCR concludes that stop-and-frisks without reasonable suspicion violate the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

That a travesty of justice occurred in the Sean Bell case is an understatement. Racist police oppression has been statistically documented. Continued racial profiling, harassment, beatings, shootings, killings, arrests and imprisonment of Black men and youth by the police reveal that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Everyone should be outraged at the Justice Department’s decision in the Sean Bell case and recommit to the struggle. We are all Sean Bell!