“50 Shots Equals Murder!”
Sean Bell Supporters Take It to the Streets on Friday Winding, 4-hour March Stirs Passionate Responses in Jamaica, Queens
By John Tarleton
The march had finally stopped as people assembled in a small plaza located between several of the South Jamaica Houses to listen to speakers who climbed atop a childrens’ jungle gym. It was a surreal, almost cinematic moment, as an NYPD helicopter circled over the projects, its powerful spotlight moving across the crowd. Veteran revolutionary Carl Dix exhorted those present to change the world. “The system has no future!” He cried out to a roar of applause. “What has a future is revolution!”
Chanting “50 shots equals murder!” a crowd of about 800 demonstrators marched through several Queens neighborhoods Friday evening denouncing the acquittal of three police officers implicated in the shooting death of Sean Bell.
The march began near the Queens Criminal Court building where Judge Arthur Cooperman issued his verdict Friday morning and wound its way to the site of the Kalua Cabaret where Bell, 23, was killed and two of his friends severely wounded in a barrage of police gunfire in the early morning hours of Nov. 25, 2006. All three of the men were unarmed.
Before the march began, anti-police brutality activists and several family members of people slain by the NYPD spoke to the crowd which gathered in a grove of trees off to the side of the court building.
“Today coming over brought back all the pain of when they killed my son and my nephew,” said Margarita Rosario, who lost her son Anthony and nephew Hilton Vega in 1995 when they shot by a NYPD detective while lying face down on the floor. “I can’t imagine how the Bell family feels today—it’s like burying your son all over again.”
“I feel pain on top of pain,” said Nicholas Heyward Sr, whose 13-year-old son was killed by the NYPD in 1994. “I’ve been doing peaceful protests for 14 years and all they do is go on killing us back-to-back.”
“We have once again seen how the justice system is showing it has no respect for our communities,” said Juanita Young, whose son Malcolm Ferguson was killed by police in 2000.
The rally and march were organized by the People’s Justice Coalition, a coalition of New York-based grassroots organizations that have joined forces to win community control over the NYPD. The coalition’s demands include a call for the end of militarized policing in predominantly people-of-color neighborhoods, the creation of a permanent independent prosecutor for all cases of police brutality in NYC; and increased efforts for community control over the police through creation of community Cop Watch patrols.
Before the crowd stepped into the streets, a spokeswoman for the Justice Committee challenged people to do something with their anger. “When we say ‘no justice, no peace’ what do we mean?” She asked. “If we’re not organizing ourselves on a daily basis, our words mean nothing.”
Once underway, the march headed east on Queens Boulevard before turning north on Jamaica Ave. and then east again onto Sutphin Ave. The mostly young, multi-racial demonstrators drew stares and scattered support from bystanders and stranded motorists as they moved through Kew Gardens and Briarwood. The crowd had a flashing police escort clearing the way in front and a caravan of cop cars following behind prompting one young marcher to ask, “why are our enemies, the police, leading our march?”
By the time the marchers surged into the heart of Jamaica, they were greeted by a cacophony of honking horns. On streets lined with small shops and stores, people came out to the sidewalk to wave and cheer as the marchers passed by.
Standing in front of the Corner Fish Market at 91st and Sutphin, a woman with a lilting Caribbean accent denounced the verdict. “We need justice. Justice was not served. They murdered the boy!”
“They [the police] were in there drinking and touching the women like everyone else,” said a man standing next to her. “When [Michael] Oliver reloaded his gun and started shooting again, what was he thinking? … I need to know the definition of reckless endangerment. If this isn’t it, I don’t know what is.”
“Diallo gave them [the NYPD] a permit to kill,” added Charles Campbell, 50, of Jamaica. “Today, Bell gave the cops a license to kill. It’s just like when you start driving. First you have to get a permit and then you get a license. I mostly feel bad for my son. He’s a 21-year-old black man and he could get hurt.”
Unlike some of the marchers who called for firing the entire police force or abolishing all police and prisons, Campbell said he was left with mixed feelings about the NYPD. “They make me feel comfortable and uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s like fire. It can keep you warm, but it can also burn your house down … When I was a kid, a cop was a hero. Ask any black kid today and they won’t say that.”
When the crowd reached the Kalua at about 8 p.m., candles were lit and placed on the sidewalk outside the building. The majority of the crowd gradually dispersed to a nearby subway station but for some the march was just starting.
“We’re Taking It To The Projects!”
With some helpful prodding from members of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), a crowd of 200-300 people re-amassed around a blue van with its sound system on full blast and headed back up Sutphin before turning onto Jamaica. One young white activist raced by encouraging people to rejoin the march--“We’re taking it to the projects!”
Police cars trailed at a distance behind the rejuvenated crowd, but the streets belonged to the protesters who were greeted with repeated bursts of horn-honking support as they marched back up Sutphin and turned onto Jamaica Ave. chanting “We are Sean Bell. NYPD go to hell!” The breakaway march lasted for three hours and made its way first to the South Jamaica Houses and then to the 103rd Precinct Station.
The march would become a sprint as the front of the group walked at top-speed. Jean, a Haitian immigrant, held the hand of his two-year-old son Zaheed as he skipped along keeping pace with the adults without crying or complaining.
“I got a little one,” Jean said. “Something could happen to him. I got to start him early to defend himself … Those 50 bullets could have been for me or my brother or anyone else I know.”
As the march made its way through the South Jamaica Houses, the trailing squad cars peeled away. Meanwhile, people were coming to the windows of their apartments to wave and cheer and in some cases run out and join the demonstration.
“This protest, I agree with it 100 percent,” said Brent Holloway who was driving around the neighborhood in his mother’s car with three of his friends. “Ain’t nothing going to change until Police Commissioner Ray Kelly retires … If it was a black man who shot a white cop, he would be going to prison for life.”
A young friend of Holloway’s wearing a red ballcap leaned across the driver’s seat and shouted, “They can suck my dick! They can suck my dick! They can suck my dick all day long! They killed that nigger! They can suck my dick! Quote me on that. They can suck my dick! They can suck my dick! I know I’m using curse words but it’s not like I’ve shot someone.”
The march had finally stopped as people assembled in a small plaza located between several of the South Jamaica Houses to listen to speakers who climbed atop a childrens’ jungle gym. It was a surreal, almost cinematic moment, as an NYPD helicopter circled over the projects, its powerful spotlight moving across the crowd. RCP national spokesperson Carl Dix exhorted those present to change the world. “The system has no future!” He cried out to a roar of applause. “What has a future is revolution!”
Many others listened supportively from a distance and took various leaflets and newspapers that were being handed out.
“We want change,” said Frank Quinn, a South Jamaica Houses resident. “We’re tired of this. We just want to live in peace.
“I can’t blame you as a white person for what happened,” he added, “but I want you to feel my pain.”
The march resumed, looping its way through South Jamaica and offering locals the chance to join in as they headed for the 103rd precinct station. For some, it was irresistible while others hesitated and stayed behind. “I’m not going to jail,” said one young girl as several other kids ran off to join the crowd.
Seeking to channel the energy of the crowd, one of the march organizers walked along the left side of the crowd urging people to keep a positive non-violent focus. “Let’s go about this in the most mature way possible,” he said. “Let them make the first move. We’ll make the second move. They’re playing checkers. We’re playing chess.”
When the crowd arrived at the 103rd Precinct, they found a 50-yard long line of riot cops standing behind metal barricades. The building behind them was a four-story red brick fortress. At least a half-dozen more cops looked on from the roof.
Sean Bell’s step-brother Joseph led a brief prayer (“I pray in Jesus’s name to look over us and keep us safe, and Fuck the Police!”) before others took their turns on the bullhorn. The crowd would count out the 50 shots (“37!-38!-39!-40!-41!...”) and mill around in the street while some went straight up to the cops to heckle and flip them off. When someone tossed something over the barricades at the police, cooler heads prevailed and persuaded the 200 or so people still remaining to march off together toward the Jamaica Center subway station. It was about 10:45 p.m.
As the scattered crowd moved down 93rd Ave., some youths ran down the street banging on metal bus signs and turning over trash cans while nearly two dozen police vehicles trailed in the distance. “Don’t do that!” One female bystander screamed. “This is our community!”
Before the night was over, there would be at least two arrests.
For Carl Dix, the long march through Jamaica had been a success. “We’re coming back tomorrow,” he said. This isn’t a one-day thing. We’re going to challenge these youths to become long-distance runners. A lot of youths want to run a sprint. But, fighting for justice is a marathon.”
For Antoinette, a 34-year-old city worker, graduate student in public policy and Jamaica resident, the night had been a revelation. She had been stuck in traffic several hours earlier when the crowd poured down Sutphin Ave. Already surprised and upset by the Sean Bell verdict, she caught up with the march at the South Jamaica Houses by following the position of the police helicopter spotlight. When she got out of her car and heard speakers urging people to join the march, she was ready to act.
“I just knew it was something I had to do,” she said of her decision to hit the streets. “It’s my first time but I’m going to get more active. I’m going to start going to more protests and meetings and become more involved in the community. If we just sit around and don’t do anything, nothing will change.
“If African-Americans hadn’t protested, we would still be segregated and riding on the back of the bus,” she added. “We African-Americans have great teachers we can learn from.”
When I asked her what she would be doing if she hadn’t joined the march, she chuckled at the thought.
“I’d be doing my calculus homework.”
A small band of demonstrators continued marching past the Jamaica Center subway station with a long line of flashing cop cars slowly creeping behind them. I suggested to Antoinette that she call it a night as cops often unleash their aggression at the very end of a march but she said she was going to continue. She was enjoying herself and after waiting 34 years to start marching, she wasn’t ready to stop.