On Sean Bell: fear is cause for slaughter only when victim is black

by guest contributor dnA, originally published at Too Sense

Kai Wright ain’t never lied:

Ida B. Wells, at the turn of the 20th century, called it a “threadbare lie.” She was talking about how lynch mobs masquerading as law enforcement justified their actions by claiming black men were raping white women. But Wells was on to a larger delusion, one that not only inspired sexual hysteria 100 years ago, but that continues to legitimize all manner of brutality against black men today. The simple and sadly lasting truth is this: We scare the shit out of America. And that fear excuses just about any reaction it spawns.

It’s what led a group of New York City cops to riddle Sean Bell’s black body with bullets in November 2006. And just as in Wells’ day, it’s what made the slaughter legal. Justice Arthur Cooperman ruled last Friday that Bell’s killing was understandable because the cops were scared. Driven by their own dark fantasies about the people they were policing, the officers’ frightened minds conjured guns into the hands of unarmed men and recast a bachelor party as a gang fight. Or, in Cooperman’s more restrained words, “The officers responded to perceived criminal conduct.” Those perceptions, no matter how hysterical, legalized their murder.

Police are imbued with extraordinary powers as law enforcement officials. That makes it more, not less important that they be held accountable when they make a tragic mistake.

You’ll recall that fear was not an adequate excuse for John H. White when he was tried for manslaughter in the death of Daniel Cicciaro after Cicciaro and a bunch of his boys showed up on his front steps screaming racial slurs and making threats.

My feeling was that White is a grown man whose actions resulted in the death of another, and so he needed to be held responsible. The fact that these cops were professionals trained in the use of deadly force means they are even more accountable than Mr. White for their actions, and yet while White is serving time they have been held responsible for nothing.

That is a terrible double standard, and it isn’t the race of the perpetrator that counts in this instance, it is the race of the victim. If Sean Bell had been white, someone would have been held responsible for his death, the way someone was held responsible for Daniel Cicciaro’s. Wright points out that:

Much has been made of the fact that two of the three detectives who shot Bell and his two pals were people of color. It’s significant that the one white cop, Oliver, fired 31 of the 50 shots, and that the black cop, Cooper, is the only one to have apologized to the Bell family. But the reflexive assumptions of threat that drive the death-by-cop racial disparity are systemic rather than individual. Black and Latino cops like Cooper and Isnora operate within a bureaucracy that not only condones but encourages them to see black men as combatants.

That’s why the arguments about how this has nothing to do with race don’t wash; if victims of racism could shrug off its without internalizing it, racism wouldn’t actually be a problem.

As a ColorLines magazine investigation documented last fall, blacks accounted for 66 percent of those killed by New York City police between 2000 and 2007 (New York is a perennial leader in police fatalities, averaging 12 a year over those years). And while the violent crime rate plunged to historically low levels in that time period, the number of people killed by police has not budged—indeed, the number of cop bullets fired has skyrocketed. And it’s happened with impunity. Out of 88 fatal shootings, including at least 12 in which victims were unarmed, in only one instance was an officer convicted of criminal wrongdoing.

The Bell verdict will only cement the NYPD’s indifference to wasting black life. They simply aren’t held accountable. All they have to do is say they’re “scared”, and the media sympathizes, because they’re scared of us too.