April 26, 2008

Early Response to Sean Bell Verdict

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People’s Justice had called for a protest in front of the Queens District Attorney's office at 5:30 p.m. in the event of an acquittal for the police officers who killed Sean Bell. FYI, People’s Justice is an impressive network of organizations and projects led mostly by under-40 people of color, like Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Audre Lorde Project, Immigrant Justice Solidarity Project. Though there had been an angry gathering in front of the Court House right when the verdict was announced, this was the first planned response for which a broad call had been issued.

On first view, the scene was a little disheartening: crowd of a few hundred, bad sound system, not much focus, and the usual suspects--the organizing groups and SDS and some other young people, plus the hard left and too many middle-aged people who looked familiar to me. The grassy knoll near the court offices obviously didn’t get a lot of community foot traffic or passers by. And despite the incredible rage evident at many workplaces that day, the remote location (35 minutes from midtown by train, much more from Harlem, Brooklyn or the Bronx) and the end-of-work week timing had clearly limited the turn-out.

As the sound improved, it was possible to hear Sean Bell’s step-brother, I believe the only family member who spoke, yelling “F…the police,” a chant picked up by some of the crowd. Overall the tone was angry, militant, purposeful, determined to respect the family’s call for non-violence but determined also to make the system pay.

Things picked up with the call to march. Gathering together and moving we were louder and had more momentum, though I wasn’t the only one not clear about our destination—which turned out to be the Club Kahlua, where the shooting happened. The police didn’t try to stop us from taking Queens Boulevard and they clearly had been ordered to be cool, with many community officers present.

After almost a mile, we turned onto Jamaica Avenue, a much busier street with stores and pedestrians doing errands. Here people started to join the march and the chanting grew louder. We reached a thunderous level with the help of the echo effect under the Archer Avenue subway and Long Island Railroad Station, stopping for a couple of minutes and chanting “Sean Bell, Sean Bell." Turning onto the street where the shooting happened, we were joined by more local residents. One woman got in her car and hit the horn to amp up our volume on the chants, others seemed to bring more noise-makers out of their houses. Organizers led a count to 50 shots, a moment of silence, and asked for a pledge to keep struggling against police brutality and for people’s power.

At this point, most elders left while some youngbloods marched around the neighborhood and into the projects. Walking back, we wound up next to an African-American young woman in her early teens, holding her little brother by the hand. She was talking very excitedly into her cell phone: “See, I told you there was gonna be a protest! So when I heard the people yelling, we came out and marched and I taped the whole thing…”

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