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