by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Like the rest of the world, the Sean Bell verdict shocked me out of my socks. I was taken aback that the officers in the case were acquitted of all criminal charges. The case hurt me because, like Sean Bell, I am a black man and a father. Also, unlike most others, my father has been in law enforcement for the past 25 years.
When I see cases of black men who are shot by police, my emotions are as torn as a human body being ripped apart by thoroughbred horses. I understand and fight for the plight of black men as part of my human duty. At the same time, I have spent years listening to officers describe the frightening experiences they endure on a day-to-day basis.
Let’s be clear: police officers get scared like the rest of us. It is difficult for us to judge the plight of an officer without knowing what it’s like to be consistently exposed to orphan-makers on a day-to-day basis. One bad move, you can end up dead or paralyzed.
When it comes to the case of Sean Bell, the truth is that I wasn’t there and there is always a possibility that officers were justified in their use of force. So, I am not here to argue guilt or innocence in this particular trial.
At the same time, there is a history of Sean Bell-like incidents occurring throughout our nation, both past and present. It is no coincidence that, in many of these cities, black men are the only ones being shot, arrested and incarcerated by a system of justice that has been a tool for black oppression. I don’t hear much about unjust shootings of white women or people who live in the suburbs. The use of force is not nearly as acceptable or likely in suburbs or on college campuses, where young people get as rowdy as anywhere else. That’s a fact.
Even beyond the Sean Bell case, black people have strong reason to be angry. This black anger is not just about Sean Bell or the possibly unjustified use of force. It is about the cumulative impact of 400 years of the same old lies. If someone kills an officer, even in self-defense, he is sure to get life in prison since the words of other officers carry tremendous weight. For the same reasons, an officer who shoots a black man has a good chance for acquittal. There is something wrong with that. The anger is righteous and justified, since the justice system has earned almost no credibility in the eyes of black people. We can’t tell a lie from the truth and
One cannot deny that there is an historical “blue line” in which officers protect one another, even in the event of wrong-doing. This line, along with the fact that an officer’s word is almost always going to be taken over those who’ve been arrested, has led to thousands of false incarcerations, particularly of black men. The additional notion that some departments do not take abuse complaints seriously adds to the (sometimes correct) perception that officers exist to control poor and black people, who are included in the distribution of true justice in America.
I expect that the summer of 2008 is going to be as racially hot as the summer of 1968. Racial tensions are boiling over from a pile of incidents ranging from the Sean Bell case to the “ghettoization” of Barack Obama’s candidacy for the White House via distorted reporting on Fox News. The sores of our past are beginning to fester, and the reality is that our sick nation will die without proper treatment.
There is no more critical time for an honest dialogue on race. Sean Bell is just the beginning.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” He is a regular commentator in national media, including CNN, BET, ESPN and CBS. For more information, please visit www.BoyceWatkins.com.