On this day, Friday, April 25, 2008, Judge Cooperman had promised to
render his decision regarding the guilt or innocence’s of the
three police officers who had riddled the car containing Sean Bell,
Joe Guzman and Trent Benefield. Sean Bell was killed. The other two
wounded. After eight (8) long weeks, finally the day of reckoning had
I decided I would jot down my feelings and where I think the decision
would land. I searched my heart, mind and experience for direction regarding
the court decision.
My hearts desire tells me that these officers who killed and maimed
innocent men should be found guilty of something and would be found
guilty of something.
Born of over sixty years of interacting with the police form Georgia
to New York, and 50 years in the ministry, have taught me to believe
that these officers would be exonerated. Many cases came to my mind:
Claude Reese 14 years old, Brooklyn, Clifford Glover 11years old, Jamaica
Queens, Ricky Bowden 11years old, Staten Island, Jay Parker 15, Jamaica
Queens, Randy Evans 15 years old, Brooklyn. And there was Arthur Miller,
6/14/78 and Luis Bias, 8/79, Brooklyn. Peter Funchez, Bronx, Michael
Griffith, 1986, Brooklyn. And there were women too – Marian Johnson,
1978, St. Johns Place, 1978, and Elizabeth Magnum, 8/79, Brooklyn. Eleanor
Bumpers, 1984, Bronx. And then in more recent times – Amadou Diallo,
1999, Patrick Bailey, 1997, Patrick Dorismond, 2000, Timothy Stanberry,
2004, all have three things in common – all black, all killed
by the police and no guilty verdict. In some of these cases, I thought
that the evidence was so overwhelming that a guilty verdict was inevitable.
But the decision, as always, favored the police officers.
My mind tells me this will be a political decision. Judge Cooperman
will give everybody a little something but no body will get everything.
It is hard to believe that the judge would not take into account the
deep emotions of the community and the obvious excessive firing into
the car of unarmed persons. Yet, he must pay respect to the law. He
knows his decision will be reviewed intensely and endlessly. And what
he does he knows must appear to be fair.
With these thoughts in my mind I hastened to the courthouse. When I
arrived, the line was two to three deep stretching over a block. TV
trucks lined the streets. Camera- persons, still and television, was
in constant motion. They were taking pictures of crowds, individuals,
everything. The climate was tense. Policemen were edgy as they sought
to keep the crowd back. I arrived at the entrance and immediately asked
for a supervisor. I was told to wait at the gate; they would secure
a seat for me. The family, Rev. Sharpton and Councilman Charles Barron
were already inside. Several officers came to fetch me as people at
the gate screamed for admittance.
Police officers lined the hall leading to the courtroom. Inside the
courtroom, bodies were jammed together. They were able to squeeze me
a seat, as bodies pressed closer together. The judge was already in
place. He called the lawyers to the bench for a consultation. When they
returned, Judge Cooperman began to read his decision. He recapitulated
the scene at the Kalua Club. He emphasized the confrontation between
Sean Bell and his party and a stranger standing by a black SUV with
his hand in his pocket. He quoted a statement which is alleged to have
been made by Joe Guzman, “I’m going to get my gun.”
He continued rehearsing the details. He traced the movements of the
Bell party to the vehicle in which Bell, Joe Guzman and Trent Benefield
entered. The judge recounted the story that Marc Cooper told. He yelled
at the moving vehicle to stop. The vehicle continued and hit him, he
thought he saw Joe Guzman raise his hand as though he had a gun and
he then opened fire. The other two officers, Michael Oliver & Gescard
Isnora followed suit. Cooper firing 4 shots, Isnora firing 11 shots
and Oliver firing 31 shots. The judge at the outset gave us a hint,
which way he was leaning He said that we are concerned with the mind
of the police officer and not the mind of the victims. The judge went
to great length to underscore what he called inconsistencies in the
witnesses’ testimonies. Decorum on the witness stand and the criminal
background of the witnesses including those who were shot. Therefore,
he concluded, “The state, he said, had fell to meet the burden
of proof. The officers therefore are not guilty.”
A deep, deep heavy silence gripped the courtroom. It was as if everyone
was stunned. When it had finally sunk in Mrs. Bell fainted, Nicole fell
over crying audibly. We moved from the courtroom into a side room. Nicole
had to be carried all along the way. Inside the room, Nicole continued
sobbing as relatives and friends sought to console her. Mr. & Mrs.
Bell had regained a measure of composure. We stood around looking at
each other. Some people cried audibly others had tears in their eyes.
There were those who continued to shake their heads in disbelief and
some cursed. There was anger, sadness and disbelief. The lawyers went
to the corner of the room and returned with directions. We would leave
the courtroom; go to our cars without making any statements. It was
important that we walk with dignity and determination.
We departed the courtroom, walked along the corridor out of the courtroom,
down the winding stairs, past the cameras that had been set up in their
usual place. The crowd began to push in on the family. Policemen sought
to set up a human walking wall. As we turned the corner, the pushing
resulted in confrontation. There was a scuffle that broke out but was
soon quelled. The Bell family and supporters got into their cars and
headed toward the cemetery. There they prayed, they wept and they vowed
to continue the struggle.
The next day, Saturday, April 26, 2008, we started at the National Action
Network headquarters. Rev. Sharpton had asked me to do the morning devotion
on the radio. In my remarks, I recounted my 50 years of witnessing the
killings by the people we pay to protect us. While I wanted to identify
with the sorrow and emphasize the therapeutic value of crying and weeping,
but at the same time, I wanted to sound a high note of hope and dignity.
I said, “Our heads are bloody but unbowed. We have lost a scrimmage
but we will win the war. Let us keep our heads up high and walk with
dignity. Let us keep hope alive. Let us rise to the challenge of turning
our pain into power. We are going to win because we are on the right
side. We are going to win because God is on our side. Justice will prevail.”
I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his off reference to a poem.
“It does seem that truth is on the scaffold and wrong is on the
throne, yet beyond the dim unknown standeth God keeping watch above
his own.” I concluded, “So let us walk together. Let us
march together. Let us keep on demonstrating and boycotting and going
to jail. Let the word go forward, go tell it on the mountain, tell it
in the streets that we are determined to win. There may be tears in
our eyes but determination is in our hearts. We will win. We will win!
After which, Rev. Sharpton spoke and methodologically punched holes
into the judge’s reasons for freeing the killer cops. Mr. Bell,
Mrs. Bell and Nicole spoke. Nicole said, “When there are marches
I will be on the front line.” On Sunday at a 2pm press conference
held at the National Action Network, national leaders came to offer
their support. Mr. Marc Morial, head of the Urban League and the National
Leadership Forum, gave the opening statement and introduced ten other
speakers, including representatives from Dorothy Height, Rainbow/PUSH,
and the Urban League. He then introduced Congressman Meeks and Congresswoman
Yvette Clarke. After they offered their support, Rev. Sharpton was asked
to make remarks. Again, he showed the weakness of the judge’s
argument and vowed massive action. Then I spoke. Again I recited the
history of police killings and emphasized hope and optimism. Mr. Bell
rhetorically asked, “Is this Alabama? Am I dreaming? Somebody
wake me up. Tell me, is this Alabama?” Nicole again promised she
would be at the front line when the marching starts.
It was interesting to note, that when Sharpton asked who was ready to
go to jail, practically everybody in the packed auditorium stood up.
But what was even more interesting was that the entire Bell family stood
In all of my presentations, whenever I have the opportunity, I always
underscore the courage, dignity and the commitment of the Bell family.
From the beginning, they have been in marches, demonstrations, rallies,
prayer vigils and daily they sat in the court.
So we can say not only are the bells still ringing but that the bells
will continue to ring until justice roll down like water and righteousness
like a mighty stream.