Thanks to Margarita for helping me talk and think and rethink through these issues today.
Like the other people I know with politics similar to mine, I was angry when I heard about the verdict in the Sean Bell case this morning. And I’m still angry, for sure. I still feel like justice has been controverted yet again. I still feel like a few sad messages have been reinforced by the verdict: that the lives of people of color are given little worth in our society; that the “justice” system is of little use for many classes of people, including people of color; and that the police pretty much have a carte blanche when dealing with people of color, amongst other oppressed people.
However, I’ve also had time to do a lot of thinking and talking about the case, the verdict, what “we” (me, my friends, others with politics like mine) would have liked to see happen today, and what that all means. And it’s really complicated stuff.
I was reminded of this complication when I saw this picture of the cops who killed Sean Bell in the NY Times:
Since the shootings in 2006 and throughout the subsequent trial, I’ve found it jarring to be reminded that two of the three cops being charged in relation the incident are people of color. It’s almost as if that detail gets lost for me in the bigger picture of the case and I need to be reminded of it again and again. When I saw this picture this morning, it troubled me more than usual, because it made me realize that I was angry that three people, two of whom are men of color, are not going to prison.
I’m not used to being in that position.
If all of the cops being tried for the shootings were white, I think that my anger over the verdict would have been much more clear cut. I would have interrogated it far less. It would been black and white, quite literally; another case of white cops working within a racist police department taking the life of an innocent Black man. If they were convicted and sent to jail, I wouldn’t have shed a tear for them. If they were acquitted, I would have been enraged.
But feeling anger over the acquittal of two men of color? Yeah – that’s a weird spot for me to be in. Probably in part because that doesn’t happen very often; usually the story is the other way around and I’m getting angry over people of color being unfairly convicted and sent to prison. I don’t believe that imprisonment is the answer to any of society’s ills; in fact, for the most part I believe in prison abolition. As has been demonstrated many times, including some reports that have received a bit of public attention, the United States imprisons an appalling amount of people, and the vast majority of those people being imprisoned are people of color and poor folks.
And then there’s this case. Three cops shooting three unarmed men of color and killing one of them with 50 bullets. Two men of color on the trial for shooting three other men of color and killing one of them. Two men of color acquitted, one dead.
In a situation like this, where and how could we possibly find justice?
This is the crux of the problem: the situation is framed within a system that is so completely fucked up to the point that little good could possibly come out of it. Our ability to achieve justice is limited by the fact that the only recourses for justice available in our society are inherently unjust. So instead, we’re left grasping for approximations of justice that will invariably be unsatisfactory in the end.
Many of the organizations involved in the People’s Justice coalition – ALP, FIERCE! and SRLP among them – do not believe that imprisonment equals justice. Some of the organizations are explicitly abolitionist. And yet the emails and web postings coming from these organizations and their members about the protest at the Queens D.A.’s office, a protest that was planned no matter what the verdict wound up being, today all began with the news that all three cops were acquitted. One can only infer that these organizations don’t think that was the right verdict. Like me, these organizations are taking a stance that seems to conflict with their larger politics.
But what are we supposed to do? In this society, we take what justice we can get. A guilty verdict in this case would have sent the message that no, it is not all right for the NYPD to shoot and kill unarmed people of color with abandon, that yes,Sean Bell’s life and the lives of other people of color are worth more than that, that no, the NYPD can’t kill and injure and oppress with impunity and walk away scott free. The family of Sean Bell would have felt like someone was truly being held accountable for the murder of their son, their brother, their husband-to-be, their father.
And yet, a conviction would still be no more than an approximation of justice. First, because nothing that could possibly be done could make up for Sean Bell’s death. Second, because these three cops aren’t really the problem. Imprisoning them wouldn’t suddenly make the NYPD stop being the racist, classist, homophobic and transphobic force that it’s been for its entire existence. These three cops would take the fall, but the system that shaped them, trained them, set them up to fear and distrust and undervalue people of color – that system would emerge relatively unscathed. And in the end, two more men of color (and one white guy who’s probably not terribly high on the white male scale of privilege else he wouldn’t be a cop) would be in jail. All of that doesn’t add up to justice to me.
But we’re still angry, and we’re right to be. There is no justice here, not even a conflicted approximation of justice. What little recourse we have for achieving justice, flawed as it may be, has failed us yet again. And what’s perhaps most galling is that, time and time again, it fails us in the opposite direction. This tremendous “burden of proof” that the judge didn’t think the prosecution met in this case so often seems to disappear when the defendants are poor people of color who aren’t cops and don’t have the protection and support afforded to Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper. If Isnora and Cooper weren’t cops and the same scene had played out that night, I’m pretty sure that both of them would be in jail already (and most of us probably wouldn’t have ever heard about it.)