REMEMBERING SEAN BELL (38567)

Two years since marking the death of Sean Bell, family members and those still aggravated by the outcome continue to stay focused in the quest for justice.

On Monday night and Tuesday morning, family members, supporters, clergy and elected officials turned out for an all-night candlelight vigil that ended with a memorial service in Jamaica, Queens, for Bell. In the second year since the death of the 23-year-old killed by police in November 2006,the Sean Bell case has seen it share of extreme disappointment. But with a new presidential administration and news of an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office, a new hope has been established. Bell was shot just hours before his wedding by the NYPD near Club Kaula in Jamaica, Queens. Undercover officers shot 50 bullets at Bell’s vehicle, claiming self-defense. Two of Bell’s friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, suffered serious injuries. No weapon was found in the vehicle.

Three detectives were charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment. In April, State Supreme Court Judge Arthur Cooperman found Officers Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver and Detective Marc Cooper not guilty in a highly publicized trial. The verdict triggered immediate outrage and a civil disobedience protest in May that slowed down traffic across the city. Last week, attorneys of the Bell family met with federal prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District. At the meeting, prosecutors and attorneys discussed an investigation that could lead to possible civil rights charges against the officers who were acquitted in state court. “Justice doesn’t always come as swift as they say,” said attorney Michael Hardy. “Sometimes it comes in a while. We recently met the U.S. attorneys in this case where the families were present. While they were encouraged by those words, it’s more important that they continue to have faith that justice will be done.” On Tuesday morning after the all-night memorial, a crowd of about 50 people lit candles at the spot where Bell was killed on Liverpool Street between 94th and 95th avenues. At 4 a.m. there was a candle-light vigil along with a bell ringing 50 times signifying the number of bullets cops shot at Bell and the two other men in the vehicle.

Following the hour-long vigil, the group marched down Sutphin Boulevard in the rain to a memorial service. At the head of the group, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Councilman Charles Barron, Rev. Herbert Daughtry, Sen. Malcolm Smith and Nicole Paultre-Bell marched to Praise Tabernacle Church. “The reality is that even two years later, many of us realize that that could’ve been us sitting in that car,” Sharpton said. “There is nothing Sean Bell, Joe Guzman or Trent Benefield did that caused what happened that night.”

Sharpton pointed out that now that the federal government is getting involved, the chances of getting justice are greater and that the officers can be found guilty of violating Bell’s civil rights. He said chances of understanding and justice are increased with the election of President-elect Barack Obama, Gov. David Paterson in office and Sen. Malcolm Smith, who will be leading the State Senate. Sharpton is also depending on Black elected officials to pass “Sean Bell legislation.” He said, “We expect the people we send to remember why they were sent. I’ve seen Blacks rise to big places before and shame us. I hope that there is an era of change where we don’t forget the Sean Bells and the Joe Guzmans or the Trent Benefields.” Family members and friends of Bell also shared their thoughts over the last two years. Nicole Paultre-Bell, Sean Bell’s fiancee, thanked all of the supporters for their work over the last two years. Paultre-Bell tearfully read a letter she wrote to Bell, promising to remain strong as she looked for justice and also be strong for their two young daughters.

“Everyday I wake up, it feels like it just happened,” she said. “There’s so much hope knowing that there’s going to be so much change in Washington. But that’s all it is,is hope. Hopefully, they won’t forget about us.” Bell’s mother, Valerie, said that on the two-year anniversary of her son’s death she’s still grieving. Her recent meeting with the U.S. Attorney made her feel good because the federal government did not forget her son.

“I’m holding up one day at a time,” she said. “It’s never going to go away. I’m just happy that people are not forgetting him. This time of year, I try to keep focus, but I’m not giving up. He was such a positive young man.” Valerie met with other mothers of sons who died from police brutality on Tuesday, including the mother of Amadou Diallo, Kadiatou. Valerie began the group to help other mothers with grieving and support over the loss of their sons. Diallo was shot by NYPD officers 41 times in 1999 after officers thought he was drawing a weapon that turned out to be a wallet. Several elected officials attended the vigil, march and memorial service, ranging from City Council members to senators. All pledged to continue their work in fighting for the Bell family and push legislation to prevent incidents like that one resulting in Bell’s death. Councilmember John Liu attended the memorial service and has been a supporter of the Bell family since November 2006. He also pledged to use his political office to pass legislation. He said, “Even though it has been two years, we are looking for more changes so that Sean’s passing and what Joe and Trent went through will not be in vain. I will do everything that I can so that no other person or family will have to go through this ongoing

nightmare.”

“We can never let this city forget what happened to Sean Bell,” said Councilmember Charles Barron. “We are going to make sure that they do the federal piece. We are not going to stop until we get justice for Sean Bell. We’ve got to get a federal investigation, and with a Barack Obama administration, that’s what should happen.”