December 17, 2006

Ten of Thousands March for Sean Bell

Yesterday, I joined some tens of thousands of New Yorkers in a solemn demonstration demanding justice for Sean Bell, the unarmed 23-year-old Black man gunned down by NYC cops while leaving his bachelor party, less than 12 hours before his wedding.

And it was one hell of a demonstration. Tens of thousands of us—I’m pretty good at counting marches but this one was just too damn big—strode down Fifth Avenue past the iconic Rockefeller Center tree in the middle of all the Christmas shopping hoo-hah. The media keep calling it a silent demo, because it was announced as one. Not hardly—plenty of chants and unison counting up to 50, the number of shots in the fusillade that killed Sean Bell and wounded two friends in his car.

A few observations follow—add your own in the comments, please.

1. The march was overwhelmingly Black, 80-85%, I’d say. The African American turnout was likely slightly lower because of a solid turnout from Africans and Haitians. Also significant, it was not a particularly young demonstration—there were plenty of kids and junior high students there with parents or grandparents, and even some high school kids seemed to be in family mode. I would say the bulk of the crowd ranged in age from 35 to 70, and judging by signifiers like neat dreads, kofis, and mudcloth jackets, they were folks who had actively identified with the upsurge of the Black Liberation Movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There were banners from unions, church groups, NAACP chapters, the National Action Movement, and so on, but the number of folks from unions and churches exceeded the organized contingents by an order of magnitude or two. This was a noteworthy chunk of NYC’s Black working class on the move.

I recognized more of the white folk marching than I would have liked. Beyond usual suspects, folks turned out by their unions, and clumps of lefties, organized predominantly white contingents were few and far between. UFPJ, to its credit, was there with a big banner and a modest and well-framed flier, and there was supposed to be a NOW demo around the killing downtown at City Hall an hour earlier. If those folks subwayed up, I didn’t see ‘em.

2. Signs proclaiming “Improve Police and Community Relations” were handed out free by the NAACP and predominated, but there were plenty of homemade efforts as well. The NJ–based People’s Organization for Progress had two distinct clumps in the march (contingent integrity was very difficult to maintain in the jam-packed assembly area), but their distinctive signs—with much more direct and militant slogans--were scattered throughout the march as well. Many in the crowd addressed themselves to the officers guarding the route, and had some pithy things to say to the Black officers in particular.

3. The march screwed up holiday traffic in Midtown for hours; while the march was on, neither cars nor pedestrians could cross Fifth Avenue above 30th Street. Good! On the other hand, police containment tactics were distressingly effective. The entire march route, maybe a mile and a half, was very heavily copped out. Worse, it was lined with double layers of the interlocking metal barricades they’ve been using to keep rallies controlled and split up in recent years, and the police adjusted seamlessly to the unexpectedly large turnout by expanding the march’s right of way, once we stepped off, from one lane to the whole of Fifth Avenue. The police were unusually respectful, especially in light of the righteous anger that was being directed at them by marchers. They were scared, right up to the highest level.

4. The cops’ nervousness reflects the fact that the rulers of the city are running kind of scared themselves. And they should be—killer cops get off scot-free in NYC as a matter of course, and people are righteously sick of it. Folks are angry. Ed Koch, former mayor and current has-been columnist for give-away newspapers, made a point of complimenting Rev. Al Sharpton in his most recent outing, just as Bloomberg made a point of being photographed with him.

The problem is that after decades of the likes of Koch and Giuliani, there is a veritable thicket of laws, procedures and “safeguards” which make getting a cop behind bars for even the most outrageous shooting nearly impossible, even pretending for a moment that the city administration really wanted to. Impunity, racism and lamentable training make future Sean Bells and Amadou Diallos a certainty, and at some point the rage is likely to erupt.

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