“When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed… The government put them outside the equal protection of the law… and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government… wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no. Not God bless America, God damn America! That’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human! The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent. Think about this… think about this.”
– Reverend Jeremiah Wright, 4/13/03
“The testimony just didn’t make sense… Accordingly, the court finds each defendant not guilty of each of the respective counts in the indictment of which they were charged.”
– Judge Arthur Cooperman, 4/25/08
About a hundred years ago, WEB Du Bois predicted that the question of the color line would be the defining problem of the 20th Century. In spite of Martin Luther King’s elusive dream of the day when black Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, it appears that it is destined to remain the incendiary issue of the this century as well.
Earlier this year, even a suddenly-introspective Condoleezza Rice referred to slavery as the country’s original sin, lamenting, “What I would like understood as a black American is that black Americans loved and had faith in this country even when this country didn’t love and have faith in them – and that’s our legacy.” And now the not guilty verdict in the Sean Bell case is a clear indication that African-Americans are still considered second-class citizens in the eyes of the Criminal Justice System.
How else can you explain the rationalization by Judge Arthur Cooperman that five undercover NYPD detectives were legally justified in pumping 50 bullets into an unarmed Sean Bell on the night before his wedding? Although the black community had understandably been outraged back in November of 2006 upon learning of the tragedy, patience prevailed as it opted to abide by the Queens District Attorney’s Office assurances that justice would eventually be served.
It is for this reason that I find Judge Cooperman’s rewarding that trust by handing down such an insulting decision so dismaying. He totally exonerated the police of all eight counts in the indictment while simultaneously ridiculing the prosecution’s case and eyewitnesses as if they were a joke. This amounts to a slap in the face of the community.
I am very familiar with South Jamaica, the middle class neighborhood where the incident occurred, for I was born and raised there. And my mother still lives there with one of my brothers and his family, as do many of my cousins and other relatives and childhood friends.
The tone of Cooperman’s remarks would never have been so insensitive if the same cops had unleashed a hail of bullets on an innocent, defenseless white man. Many are asking, how is it that such trigger-happy policing of African-American communities can continue to be rubber-stamped by the bench as if there is a much lower threshold for state-sanctioned use of deadly force against blacks than against whites?
Neither this incident nor its resolution is without precedent. All I have to do is mention the name of Amadou Diallo to trigger thoughts of the country’s disgraceful legacy of dispensing vigilante justice to blacks, from the whippings and brandings doled out during days of slavery through the 100 years of lynching post emancipation clear up to present-day police intimidation tactics like racial profiling which inexorably lead to unfortunate deaths like that of Sean Bell.
So, the next time the mainstream media replays its favorite sound bite of Reverend Jeremiah Wright fuming, “God Bless America? No, no, no! Not God bless America, God damn America!” just remember that he’s merely ministering to a beleaguered people with whom that message has been readily resonating for ages.