by Sean Gardiner and Michael Clancy
Photos by Cary Conover
The Rev. Al Sharpton, Nicole Paultre Bell, Joe Guzman and Trent Benefield were among scores of people arrested at a series of demonstrations throughout the city protesting the acquittal of three cops charged in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell.
Bell’s fiancee, and Guzman and Benefield—the two men shot with Bell in a hail of 50 NYPD bullets—were among the first people to be taken away by police after blocking traffic on Centre Street, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, just minutes before 5 p.m.
Hundreds of protesters watched from the sidewalks by City Hall and the municipal building at One Center Street chanting “We are Sean Bell” and “No Justice No Peace,” as scores of demonstrators repeated the same phrases when police asked them to vacate the street and allow traffic to pass.
“If you refuse to leave you will be placed under arrested and charged with disorderly conduct,” said Lt. Wolf of the NYPD to the protesters blocking traffic.
“We are Sean Bell,” came the reply, and soon the protesters were bound with plastic restraints and loaded aboard NYPD buses.
A senior citizen from Rosedale, Queens, Lee May was one of many people who volunteered for arrest—although many in the crowd opted to make a vocal protest without civil disobedience.
“I have no idea what will happen but it’s a small sacrifice to make sure black people don’t keep getting shot down in the streets by the police like dogs,” said May. “If the police had shot a dog fifty times, that policeman would not walk out of a court without some type of charge.”
According to new accounts, protesters disrupted the evening commute at Queensboro Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge and the Holland Tunnel and Queens-Midtown Tunnel as part of an effort, coordinated by Sharpton, to temporarily shut down the city.
The arrests appeared to be orderly and coordinated, according to early accounts. At One Police Plaza, those who wanted to be arrested were called forward and lined up. Police and organizers made sure that they had proper identification as not to get caught up in the system. They followed Sharpton from the plaza in front of One Police Plaza to Centre Street.
Other protesters continued the chants, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” they counted until 50, marking each shot fired by police. “This whole damn justice system is guilty,” and “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now,” were also chanted as protesters held aloft signs including one that read “My 3 Sons are Sean Bell” above pictures of three small children.
The orderly arrests and protests were temporarily marred when one protester refused to kneel down and pray on Centre Street. “The black man is god. Stop praying to some mystery god,” said the protester as he ignored the calls to kneel down and pray.
After he refused to to take part in the civil disobedience and walked away, one protester yelled “Hey God, why aren’t you getting arrested?”
Sean Bell’s great aunt, Gloria Porter made the trip from New Haven—a journey she cancelled on Nov. 25th when Bell was shot and killed on his wedding eve when a police operation at Club Kalua went horribly—many say criminally— wrong.
“We weren’t surprised because we knew the history of New York,” said Porter, 64. “A black man in New York is killed by a policeman and nothing never ever happens. If we go to jail, we go to jail for justice.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 7, 2008