|Victims of police brutality: Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers, Antoine Reid, Abner Louima, Patrick Dorismond, Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell|
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
— Robert Kennedy, quoting Aeschylus, following the assassination of Martin Luther King.
This week, 3 New York City police officers were acquitted of the wrongful death of Sean Bell, who was gunned down in a hail of 50 bullets after leaving a bachelor party the night before he was to be married. The details of the case can be recovered from the [New York Times] site and I won’t recount them here. I’ll just comment on the fact that when I heard the judgment, which I was dreading, I felt sick. I dreaded it because I feared that it would play out as so many similar cases in this city had over the years: police officers in a tense situation overreact and apply deadly force in a situation that did not warrant it. The police would be acquitted because in an ambiguous situation the onus is on the victim — especially if they are black — to avoid death. This case, as those that preceded it, reminds us in the starkest way that black people in New York City live in a state of siege. Sequestered in ghettos still, disproportionately vulnerable to the ravages of crime and too often assumed to be dangerous by those who are charged with their protection.
The first night I lived in this city as an adult, in 1983, I was wakened from sleep on a blisteringly hot September night by the sounds of a man screaming for his life. I got out of bed and looked down into Union Square to see a group of police officers crowding a crumpled figure lying before them on the ground. “Good,” I thought, “they got him,” thinking that the figure on the ground must have been the one attacking the unseen victim. The next day we learned that the crumpled body had been Michael Stewart, a young black graffiti artist who had been beaten to death by the police following his arrest for spray painting a subway car. The officers involved were all acquitted.
Cases like Stewart’s and those represented in the photo focus our attention, but you can’t live in this city without being made to face, everyday, the commonplace soul-destroying injustices that are perpetrated against black people and that become the perverse representation of normalcy. Every time I see a cab driver pass by a black woman with children because he’s afraid she will bring him into a black neighborhood, or a group of young black men given wide berth on the street because of what they are wearing I can’t imagine how so many people can endure so many hurts for so long. Living a life where just leaving your house in the morning becomes a test of courage.