Keeping Watch for Sean Bell


(At the Sean Bell vigil in Queens. From a slideshow by Edgar Mata/

They keep his face lit so we don’t forget him. On New Year’s Day, family and friends began holding a 50-day vigil for Sean Bell, the unarmed man killed by NYPD officers on November 25 outside a Queens nightclub hours before his wedding.

The group gathers across the street from the 103rd precinct, near a banner with the demand “Never Again” printed under Bell’s face. Around his image are 50 numbered bullet holes, one for each round fired by police.

“We take shifts,” said 35-year-old King Larry, a cousin of Bell’s. “Some hours are better than others but we have to do this.” Each person at the vigil wears a vest printed with Bell’s face. As night cools they warm each other with talk, trading gossip and laugh through the predawn hours when no one else is around.

On Friday, at 4:30 a.m., seven people waited for the sun to rise. In the picture on the banner, Bell had a confident squint in his eye, the hint of a smile not enough to break his cool pose. “During the holidays our feeling of love for him intensifies,” said Larry. “It hasn’t decreased at all.”

Although the vigil is meant to keep public attention on the case, vigilers say there’s a limit to what they can say. “Bro, I love you like good food,” a young man said. “But we got to let the lawyers make the statements.”

Before dawn Bell’s mother, Valerie Bell, arrived. The small group closed around her, but she kept to herself. It was impossible to miss the pain on her face. “God bless you,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”

A truck slowed down and the driver waved and the family waved back. “Earlier tonight a man brought us doughnuts,” said one of attendees. Others seem to need more quiet answers. A man stood and stared at Sean Bell’s face, then quickly touched it and walked away.

On the way back to the subway, a random conversation reveals anger at the police just a few words below the surface. “We walk on eggshells around here,” said Pet Jimenez, an inventory worker waiting on Jamaica Avenue for the stores to open.

Last year Jimenez was waiting on the sidewalk for his kids to leave a store when police came. “Drug dealing was nearby and they took everyone in,” he said. When the cops realized he wasn’t part of the trouble they released him, Jimenez said, but they hadn’t cared about his kids being left alone.

People listening to him hummed agreement. One of his co-workers said, “It’s like out here we’ve got to prove we’re innocent.”