After Sean Bell was shot dead by plainclothes police officers on the day of his wedding last fall, the footsteps of a movement were felt in New York. Now it has been worn down by freezing winds, the holidays, and weeks of hoping for indictments. On Monday, some 30 members from the December 12th group met in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza to take the case of police brutality to United Nations.
The activists waved signs that showed the faces of Black and Latino men shot by police. Yelling “Kelly Must Go!” as they marched from 47th Street to 42nd where they turned around and went back to the plaza. The stoic protestors braved the icy wind, which seemed a metaphor for the cool indifference of the people who passed by.
Stomping feet to shake the chill off, attendees listened as organizer Roger Wareham, Carl Dix from the Revolutionary Communist Party, and others spoke. They connected police brutality to U.S. foreign policy, saying both reflect the racism at the core of American culture. “Most of those killed by cops are young Black and Latino men, most weren’t armed, and most weren’t engaged in criminal acts,” Dix said. “What else can you call these cops but murderers?” The stacks of blue police barricades suggested the NYPD was prepared for a larger turnout. With no crowd to control, officers chatted as the activists condemned them.
The scene was a dramatic comedown from the marches that rattled the holiday buzz of the city. The first had a thousand people led by the New Black Panther Party down Jamaica Avenue, the second had a turnout of 3,000 by the December 12th group to Police Plaza and the next by Reverend Al Sharpton brought 40,000 working-class blacks to 5th Avenue to show tourists the New York not seen on Friends.
Although black leaders have called for a special prosecutor, newly elected governor Eliot Spitzer says there is no need for one. Currently, the case is before a grand jury in Queens. If the detectives who shot at Bell and his friends are not indicted, New York City may again become a battleground of police and protestors.
It’s all part of a larger historical cycle of public apathy and outrage. After the 1999 police killing of Amadou Diallo, the citywide demand for justice seemed satisfied when a Bronx grand jury indicted the officers who shot the West African immigrant 41 times. Citing the pre-trial publicity, officials moved the case to Albany, where the officers were acquitted. In reaction, thousands of protestors seized the streets and 1,700 were arrested.
Eight years after Diallo’s death, the few dozen protesters in the plaza kept the faith. Before he spoke, Wareham said he was flying to Geneva to present the case to the United Nations. He also commented on the low turnout. “A few factors are at play—the weather, of course, and we’ve been marching for two months and people are tired,” he said. “Also, there is a lack of consciousness. The people don’t know that it takes a long-term struggle to achieve change, not just one or two marches.”