Saturday, April 26, 2008

By Claudia Ricci

The young black student who appeared at my office this morning was practically in tears.

“Hey Professor Ricci,” she said. “Did you hear?”

“No what, Jahqueena, what’s wrong?” She just shook her head.

“Sean Bell. Those three cops just got acquitted on all counts.”

“Oh my God Jahqueena,” I moaned. “It can’t be true.”

But of course it’s true. Why should I be surprised? We all lived through the Amadou
Dialou case back in 1999. Dialou was the West African immigrant leveled in a hailstorm of 41 police bullets. The four officers in that case were exonerated by a jury trial. In Bell’s case, it was a single judge’s ruling.

I am an English and Journalism professor at a state university in upstate New York, where I teach in a program called Educational Opportunities. EOP caters to low-income students, mostly from inner-city neighborhoods in New York City. The way it works out, most of those indigent students are African American or Dominican or Haitian or Jamaican or Puerto Rican. Often I’m the only white person in the classroom.

Jahqueena, a freshman I’ve been mentoring since she took my literature class last fall, walked me to class this morning and all the way there, she poured her heart out, carrying on about how unfair and racist the legal system is. I would have loved to disagree, but honestly, what other conclusion can we draw? Those three cops pumped 50 bullets into Sean Bell, who died just hours before he was supposed to head to the altar.

In Queens, people are up in arms. (Jahqueena was on her cell phone, getting on-site reports from her mother, who phoned with the bad news.)

Is it any wonder people are enraged? That 23-year old bridegroom had just emerged from his bachelor party. He had no gun. The cops brought him down, and then, reloaded their guns and filled him with bullets.

I got to class and before I could begin a discussion of the memoir we are reading, a second student, Joely, who hails from Panama, yelled out. “So what do you think of the Sean Bell decision?”

I inhaled. I knew where the class was headed. I told her I thought the decision seemed incredibly unfair. I asked the students – this particular class is about 50-50, black and white -- if they wanted to discuss the verdict. I told them they were free to express their opinions, one by one, by raising their hands to say what they think.

“Cops are the most despicable people on earth,” called out the young black woman sitting next to Joely. “They are the lowest of the low.”

Just when I thought she was finished, though, she added: “So I am going to take the test to become a corrections officer. I’m going to change the system, all by myself.”

Curiously, there were some students in the classroom – mostly whites – who had never heard of Sean Bell. We in the “know” briefed them on the details. Bell: Bridegroom. Bachelor party. Bullets galore.

A young white woman, blonde and blue-eyed, raised her hand.

“I don’t understand,” she began, and for a moment I tensed, wondering what she was going to say. “My father is a cop,” she went on, “and I know how it works. When somebody has a gun, the cop is just supposed to shoot to disarm. You aim maybe for the leg, or the arm, just so you get the shooter to drop the gun.”

I nodded. I waited for more comments. Suddenly I recalled a classic book by a fellow English professor, noted feminist Judith Fetterley. Called The Resisting Reader, the book offers a feminist approach to literature. Fetterley suggests that you can test for sexism in a work of literature simply by flipping the gender of the characters. If the situation makes no sense with the gender flip, then you’ve probably got a case of sexism on your hands.

I decided to try the Fetterley strategy, modified slightly, to test for racism in the Sean Bell case. “Ok, class,” I said, “I have a question for you: would the Bell verdict have come down the same way if the victim of the shooting had been a 23-year old white man?”

The chorus swelled up. “Hell no,” some of them yelled.

And then, Nadine, who today was wearing her hair neatly corn rowed, made the final statement.

"If it had been a white man, then the cops wouldn’t have gone after him in the first place,” she said, “and then none of this ever would have happened.”

Amen, Nadine.


This piece appeared first on The Huffington Post. The link is:


Rob said...

I wasn't there that night and neither were you. And we weren't in court to hear the testimony. Your student? The cop's daughter? What she said is not true. Police don't aim for arms or legs, they aim for the torso.

Nothing is black and white here. Nothing except the argument over this tragedy, which many people seem to think should be reduced to a question about race.

Ryan said...

Professor Ricci,

I don't believe you carried your thought experiment out to it's natural conclusion. You asked, “would the Bell verdict have come down the same way if the victim of the shooting had been a 23-year old white man?" You rightly point out that he likely would not have ever been shot in the first place if he had been white. I don't disagree with you at all on that point. But that wasn't an answer to your question. Your question was would the verdict have been different. I don't think so.

The problem here is that the defense made their case and the prosecution did not. This actually isn't a problem since our legal system is designed to prevent the innocent from being found guilty. Having read the news coverage of this case, it seem quite clear that the prosecution did not do their job. That is why the officers were found not guilty. It was not because Sean Bell was black. If he had been white, and the prosecution had done as poor of a job prosecuting the case, there is no way that the judge would have changed his verdict.

I believe that it was Mr. Bell's race, coupled with the brutality of his killing, that is so inflammatory. Additionally, the not guilty verdict is a reminder of all the previous instances of racism and police brutality. People see the verdict as a vindication for the officers actions, but it isn't. What they did was wrong. They just aren't criminally liable for their actions. Your students need to be aware of this.


Anonymous said...

I read the post.

The officers weren't exonerated. The prosecution failed to make its case. These are very different statements.

Unfortunately, truth and reality don't necessarily coincide. What happened in reality may not have been conveyed in court, where the judge in this case sifts through perceptions of facts, not "the" facts. Without video, (e.g., Rodney King) our system of justice is limited by the stories told, and in this case, the officers' had better ones, not necessarily more truthful ones.

My point is that the antagonist in this story has many faces. Evaluating either the event, or the juducial outcome by race or gender seems to promote speculation, and I'm not sure we can arrive any closer to either truth, justice--and what was underlying--equality.

My humble opinion.

Hi, maybe you should post this at my blog entry on the Huff Post? This is my question: if in effect they were "freed," because the prosecution failed its case, then how can we help but see this as a failure of the legal/justice system? And isn't N's point at the end the reality? Maybe we should discuss in person at some point. Anyway, thanks so much for your feedback! hope all is well with you

Hi Dr. R

I couldn't dream of providing any solutions or answers to the questions you posed, or to your students concerns. After reading your post, which I do often, I stood back and imagined what I would say in your daunting position. It’s important for students to coherently develop their ideas --don't you agree? Feeling passion about our world should be encouraged. Can’t say I’d like to moderate, or have such responsibility, as this seems scarce in academia.

I was attempting to offer a crumb of clarity, were something seemed skewed. The difference between being found "innocent" and "the prosecution failed to convict" is not just a semantic divergence. They were "freed" is also problematic. The officers were "innocent" of charge until the prosecutor established "guilt" beyond a reasonable doubt. Justice isn’t perfect. Is there a better system? Assigning blame to the system when the outcome isn’t to our liking is probably not fruitful either. I’m afraid the true enemy here is complicated, concealed, and in comfort in a labyrinth. Encouraging your students to critically think, and explore our world with passion--has to be a step in the right direction.

Johnny Law said...

“I don’t understand,” she began, and for a moment I tensed, wondering what she was going to say. “My father is a cop,” she went on, “and I know how it works. When somebody has a gun, the cop is just supposed to shoot to disarm. You aim maybe for the leg, or the arm, just so you get the shooter to drop the gun.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. This woman (if she even exists) needs to talk to her fathera bout police work. POlice officers don't "shoot to disarm". That is just Hollywood crap. Officers shoot for center mass because it is practically impossible to hit an arm or leg under stress. Besides, Bell was using his car as a weapon. You can't exactly shoot a car out of someone's hands can you?