In Bell Case, Black New Yorkers See Nuances That Temper Rage
There was anger on the streets of Jamaica, Queens, where Sean Bell was killed in a hail of 50 police bullets in 2006 — both before and after a judge on Friday acquitted three detectives who had been charged in the shooting. But many black men and women in Jamaica and elsewhere in New York said their anger was tempered by the complicated case that unfolded in a city less racially divided than 10 years ago.
Jacob Silberberg for The New York Times
In Harlem, Willie Rainey, 60, a Vietnam veteran and retired airport worker, said that he believed the detectives should have been found guilty, but that he saw the case through a prism not of race, but of police conduct. “It’s a lack of police training,” Mr. Rainey said. “It’s not about race when you have black killing black. We overplay the black card as an issue.”
Even near Liverpool Street and 94th Avenue in Jamaica, the very spot where Mr. Bell was killed, Kenneth Outlaw stood and spoke not only of the humanity of Mr. Bell but of the police as well. “A cop is a human being just like anyone else,” said Mr. Outlaw, 52. “If I had to be out here, facing the same dangers the cops face, I’d be scared to death too.”
New York controversies have a way of playing out along racial lines in a city that is diverse but often seems stratified. When Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, was killed by the police in a blast of 41 shots in the doorway of a Bronx apartment building in 1999, his death became shorthand for excessive police force against minorities.
Yet in the aftermath of the verdict in the Bell case, many black New Yorkers reacted not with outrage but with a muted reserve, saying that the city felt like a less polarized place in 2008, nearly a decade after the Diallo shooting and with a different mayor and police commissioner. Some also said that after a seven-week trial, the picture of what happened the night Mr. Bell, a black man, was killed was still murky, and so they left the public outcry to a relatively small group of black activists who had been closely monitoring the case.
There were those, however, who spoke of losing faith and trust in both law enforcement and the judicial system, and who saw the Bell case as a vivid example of how little has changed. “How many shots have to be fired for things to change?” asked Torell Marsalis, 35, of South Jamaica.
The verdict set off visible outrage. There were scuffles outside the Queens Criminal Court building, a few marches and rallies in Queens on Friday night, and later, angry denunciations among some black activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton. But elsewhere, the reaction was more nuanced, even subdued.
Among the dozens of black men and women interviewed in recent days, many said they sympathized with Mr. Bell’s family, but also with police officers who must make life-and-death decisions in tense, uncertain moments.
Ayana Fobbs, 27, a pharmacy worker who lives in Jamaica, a few blocks from the Community Church of Christ, where Mr. Bell’s funeral was held, said she could identify with people on both sides of the Bell shooting. One of her cousins was killed by the police in a shooting in the Bronx in the early 1990s, she said, but she also had close friends who were police officers.
“I’m just concerned about what kind of message it’s going to send on both sides,” Ms. Fobbs said on Saturday. “The community here is going to feel like anybody is fair game, if something like this could happen to an unarmed man and nobody was held accountable. And then, with the officers, it sends a message to them that they can do these types of things and get away with it.”
Others said that had they been on a jury during the trial, they would have found the officers not guilty based on what they felt was the flawed case prosecutors put forward. Still others said that they did not know what to think, after weeks of following contradictory testimony in the news. “If I was the judge, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Paul Randall, 22, a college student, said on Thursday. “From following the case, it’s kind of hard to say one way or the other.”
Some of this uncertainty and ambivalence was on display on Liverpool Street immediately after Justice Arthur J. Cooperman found the three detectives not guilty of all the charges against them. One hour after the verdict, no crowd had gathered at the tattered memorial to Mr. Bell. Someone had placed a blue votive candle on the sidewalk, and there was one old, brittle bouquet of flowers and one fresh one. The water-cooler jug someone had placed there for donations contained just a few bills.
A man who approached was not there to protest the verdict. He was only walking by, on his way to pay a parking ticket around the corner. The man, Elliott Clark, 54, had seen the news of the judge’s decision on television, and though he disagreed with the verdict, he was more resigned than outraged. This was not 2000, when Rudolph W. Giuliani was mayor and Howard Safir was police commissioner and the four officers indicted in the killing of Mr. Diallo were acquitted, he said.
“The times have changed,” said Mr. Clark, a case manager for H.I.V. and AIDS patients who lives nearby in St. Albans. “People have been so disappointed by the outcome of the judicial system. Every five years something crazy happens, and people are people. They move on with their lives.”
Mr. Diallo was unarmed when he was shot while reaching for his wallet. The officers who shot him were all white. In the Bell case, two of the detectives who were on trial are black, including the one who fired first. The third, Michael Oliver, the one who fired the most shots — 31 — is white.
And this time it was Detective Oliver — who fired 16 rounds and then reloaded — who bore the brunt of the criticisms of those interviewed.
“That was his time to be a cowboy,” said David Jones, 49, a limousine driver who was walking by the memorial on Thursday with his fiancée, Nicole Hodges. “I think it’s repulsive. It’s demeaning to African-Americans and their community.”
For Mr. Jones and other young and middle-aged black men, Sean Bell has become a symbol of what they describe as police aggression and racial profiling in black neighborhoods. Had Mr. Bell and his friends been white, they said, the police would have responded less aggressively, and Mr. Bell might still be alive.
“My mother always has to look outside her window and worry about us because of the cops,” said Ray Powell, 23, a Queensborough Community College student who was at the memorial on Friday. “If it was me, if I shot a gun 30 times, I would get the death penalty.”
And even those who noted that two of the officers involved in the Bell shooting were black said their race was less important than their badges. “Some would argue that these were not black cops,” said Kaleem Musa Keita, 49, who was outside the courthouse in Queens when the verdict was announced. “They’re black in color, but they didn’t represent their community. They were representing the police.”
But even as some condemned the behavior of the police, other black men and women interviewed praised Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
“He’s got people who are at least willing to communicate with the black community,” said Salaam Ismail, 50, a youth coordinator, standing outside the Harlem headquarters of Mr. Sharpton’s National Action Network on Friday. “The mayor has done a lot of pre-emptive strikes with that kind of stuff, meeting with community leaders.”
On Nov. 27, 2006, two days after Mr. Bell was killed, the mayor convened a private meeting of black religious leaders and elected officials at City Hall. One of those at the meeting was the city’s police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, who a month after the shooting set up a panel to review the rules and tactics of undercover operations in response to the Bell case.
Saturday morning, Norma Wait was inside the Arising Barber Shop in Jamaica, talking about the change over the years.
“I must give it to the younger generation,” said Ms. Wait, 62, a bank worker originally from Belize who lives in South Jamaica. “They got a more level head. They know you don’t get justice by breaking windows and burning and looting. You get justice by presenting yourself, demonstrating, calling on the politicians.”
Dorothy Omega, 70, a retired drug counselor, sat in the audience at Mr. Sharpton’s headquarters, waiting for him to speak about the verdict. Even there, in the Harlem building known as the House of Justice, Ms. Omega sought the middle ground. She said she understood the anger expressed by Mr. Sharpton, but at the same time, she said, “The Police Department needs our support, too.”
Her thoughts turned to Mr. Bell, and then back again to the police. “The police have families, too,” she said. “They have to live with this.”