Opinion: We are all Sean Bell

I was arrested last Wednesday.

It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.

I was not alone.

That afternoon at six locations around New York City, thousands of people of all races gathered to protest the innocent verdict in the police killing of Sean Bell and to call attention to the larger issue of reforming the New York Police Department.

Dozens of us then peacefully moved to block key transportation hubs in a well-orchestrated “pray-in,” to force the city to listen to community demands.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and Bell’s family and friends led a group to the nearby entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Police blocked our way. News trucks swarmed. Commuters stopped to watch. A young white office worker in a necktie and button-down shirt approached me and asked if it was too late to get arrested.

We knelt in prayer, were warned several times of our impending arrest, and were eventually segregated by gender and carted off in buses to Central Booking.

We were Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, union members, mothers, grandparents, students, clergy, veterans, journalists, business people, professionals. Members of SEIU Local 32BJ, Transport Workers Union Local 100 and other trade unions were in our number, as were members of the NAACP, Sharpton’s National Action League and United for Peace & Justice and City Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn.

Hours ticked off as we were photographed and cataloged. We greeted each other as long-lost friends. The men around me began chanting: “We are all Sean Bell!” The women somewhere distant chanted back: “We are all Sean Bell!”

Someone would begin: “Count it off!” and we screamed: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 …” up to 50, the number of shots fired into Bell and his friends Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, all unarmed. Bell died just hours from his planned wedding. “50 shots means murder!”

My name was called. I was brought to a large room, circled in bulletproof glass. Inside, nearly 100 men were holding a spontaneous rally. The crowd welcomed me like a hero.

As an African American man, there is something counter-intuitive to voluntarily risking arrest. So it was powerful that, among the interracial crowd, African American men made up a majority. Many talked of their experiences in prison, their negative interactions with the police and their identification with Bell. One brave man said he was an ex-con, currently on parole, but was so angered by the Bell case that he asked permission from his parole officer to participate in the civil disobedience. While police violence affects everyone, Black men face a particular threat.

Even Benefield and Guzman, who had everything to fear from the police, were in the cell that day, both bearing bullet wounds that may never heal. Guzman addressed the men around him, saying, “I want to shake every one of your hands before I leave.”

Racist policing is so pervasive that it is hard to find an African American man who has not encountered the criminal justice system. But instead of fearing jail, dozens of Black men made a statement by getting arrested that day.

Numbers the NYPD released the week of our arrest prove the racial bias in city policing. Of the sobering half-million arrests made in the city in 2006, an indefensible 50.8 percent were of Blacks. Stops in the first quarter of 2008, in fact, were the highest ever. The police claim that their stop-and-frisk policies are based on actual complaints or suspect descriptions, but very few of those stopped were even arrested, let alone charged.

Just last week, police officers harassed and detained an African American who happened to be an off-duty police chief.

Yet almost everyone who spoke in the holding cell noted that the police killing of Bell, and all police violence, is a universal human rights issue. It is everyone’s business to solve.

One young man said, “This room looks like New York. We have Black and white, Latino and Asian.” He pointed out that everyone is at risk when the police can act with impunity — any New Yorker could have been killed that night, shot on the nearby train platform or in a neighboring apartment.

One by one we began being released. I was issued a ticket for disorderly conduct. But we had won the day. We had become galvanized, unified and dedicated to making the city fulfill the demand of justice for Sean Bell and real changes to policing.

We pledged to spread the word, to ensure that there is never another crime like those experienced by Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo or Abner Louima. We are all Sean Bell.

Libero Della Piana (ldellapiana @ cpusa.org) is a resident of Harlem, N.Y., and chairperson of the New York State Communist Party.