“The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of government,” or least so says the stone facade of New York County Supreme Court building as it looks down over Foley Square. Whose justice? The signs provided by ANSWER for tonight’s anti-police brutality rally in the square declared “NYPD: Guilty!” Case closed. Then there was the open question, scrawled on another placard, “How many more mothers must cry for their sons who died?”
The rally and unplanned march tonight would have happened even if Sean Bell were still alive and nobody knew his name; the December 12 Movement planned it a month ago, organizers said, to call attention to police injustice across the country and the five boroughs. But Bell’s death by NYPD bullets gave the event a little more immediacy, not to mention plenty of media attention (although many in the crowd refused to speak to reporters because they think we carry the cops’ water). It also provided for the crowd—in between cries of “Black power!” or the somewhat more inclusive “Black and brown power!”—a distinct and plausibly attainable goal.
The goal, simply, is that “Kelly must go.”
Not that there weren’t variations on that theme. Communists circulated through the crowd suggesting the the whole system be changed. Someone shouted that Kelly ought to be lynched rather than simply fired. Councilman Charles Barron wants “community precinct councils” to control the cops. (After a fiery speech in which he called the black cops involved in the Bell shooting “House Negroes who will shoot us at the behest of their masters,” Barron was joined onstage by council colleagues Robert Jackson, Anabel Palma, Rosie Mendez, Kendall Stewart and Diane Mealy.) How to make Kelly go? Some in the crowd screamed for a boycott: “Don’t spend your money with no crackers.” But the plan instead is for a “Day of Outrage” on December 22 at high noon converging on the corner of Nassau and Liberty streets. Shut Wall Street down— that’s the idea.
The rally eventually moved from Foley Square onto Centre Street. The leaders came face to face with two lines of cops. Negotiations ensued. More cops streamed in, plastic handcuffs bouncing from their belts. “Don’t Shoot Me!” the crowd chanted in mock fear. “Don’t you go hitting nobody,” was the gentle caution to cops from an older black woman on the sidelines. The police ended up allowing a fast march that ran west on Worth, south on Broadway, east on Chambers, through the Municipal Building archway under the watch of cops on horseback, and back through Police Plaza to Foley Square. Along the way, the chants were “Black Power!”, “War!”, and “Fuck the police. No justice, no peace!”
Not everyone joined these chants, of course. It might look that way on the television news, but it wasn’t so. Most people didn’t raise their fists to “Black power!” (especially all the crackers in attendance) and not everyone thought the police were, as one speaker said, the “number one enemy on the streets.”
A black woman from the North Bronx says she was moved simply by the tragedy of it all—that this could happen to a young guy who had done nothing wrong. She says that’s the feeling shared by many of the blacks she knows. Two friends from Brooklyn and Queens said the anger over Bell is easily equal to the furor after Diallo. “Both individuals were never given a chance,” said Karen, from Brooklyn. But it’s not like things were good in the seven years between the shootings. The fire that’s erupted over Bell was built with a thousand sticks of kindling, Karen said, from each time black men were unreasonably stopped, searched, asked to show ID, and maybe arrested for not having it. She tells one story about a friend to whom that happened. She has more tales, she says, but warns, “you don’t have the tape, paper, or time.”
Many of the speakers made references to the past days of the movement, to Malcolm and the panthers, the rich heritage of protest and resistance. “It made my heart sad,” said Lisa, from Queens, of the similarities between this rally and those of decades past, “because this is what I read about in school.” She frowns, “We still have to do this.”