Senator Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" address in Philadelphia last month has been hailed as the greatest speech on race since Martin Luther King, Jr's "I have a Dream" speech in 1963. In the days since, Obama has been lauded for speaking frankly about the legitimate fears that exist between the races and the airwaves have been filled with analyses of the same.
seannicolebell Over a month later, the acquittal of the NYPD detectives indicted in the killing of an unarmed Sean Bell, allows us to become even more candid about what is perhaps the greatest impediment to equality in modern America. Namely, an overwhelming majority of black and brown people have an intuitive fear of law enforcement officers and perceive that at any moment, an encounter with "blue" could end in death. Conversely, many whites cannot distinguish between a black or brown criminal and the black or brown CEO of a fortune 500 company. As such, in the darkness of night, if a threat is perceived, then treat us all the same. (photo: Sean Bell and Nicole Paultre Bell with their young daughter)
By now, we all know that the three indicted officers perceived Bell and his cohorts to be a threat, assuming that the car in which they were driving would be used as a weapon. The officers pumped 50 shots into the vehicle, mortally wounding Bell in the process.
In court, the outcome of excessive use of force cases usually depends on whether the officers' subjective fear for their lives was reasonable. These cases are difficult indeed, because when a well-trained officer takes the stand and says that they legitimately felt threatened, most jurors and jurists, particularly whites, are inclined to agree without hesitation.
Each time an incident like this occurs, a number of white pundits immediately question why black organizations, like the NAACP and leaders, such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are "playing the race card." Whether it is in seeking legal redress, when protesting the killing of 14-year old Martin Lee Anderson at the hands of law enforcement in Panama City, Florida in 2006, or in the disparate treatment of the young black offenders in Jena, Louisiana last year, blacks are not playing the "race card." Rather, it is a "reality card" that some law enforcement officers fear black and brown men.
Curiously, this fear has not been adequately addressed by any of the presidential frontrunners, to date. One can only hope that the issue of crime in general, and the excessive uses of force in particular, will draw more attention in the days to come.
Sean Bell should still be alive. As hard as I try to find reasons other than race for his death, I keep being reminded that there are few instances in which young white males, after a night of partying, are shot down by fifty or more bullets by police officers.
Some suggest that the disparate numbers of black and brown deaths, at the hands of law enforcement, are due to the "War on Drugs" that began in the 1980's, escalated in the 1990’s and has continued ineffectively to the present. We all respect the fact that officers must deal with the reality that they place their lives on the line each day policing urban neighborhoods riddled with drug selling and use. We also understand that, as with any war, there will be casualties.
The irony, however, is that in too many cases, police officers are not killing black and brown drug dealers. The minorities who wind up in the morgue are often citizens who may have committed the tiniest of infractions, but when encountered by an officer fearful of their dark skin, wind up dead. Anthony Baez, Jayson Tirado, Abner Louima, Timothy Stansbury, Amadou Diallo, and Sean Bell are but a few examples of this disturbing trend. For Black women – even elderly - across the country the same is true. Eula Love in Los Angeles, Kathryn Johnson (92 years old) in Atlanta and Eleanor Bumpurs (66 years old) of the Bronx were all gunned down by police officers.
For all we know, Sean Bell could have become the next Barack Obama or Condoleezza Rice. Or, he could have been a regular middle class guy who provides for his family and follows the law, like most minorities do. The question is, how do we get those who are sworn to "protect and serve" to understand the difference? For starters, police leaders must first recognize that there is a perception problem.
Additionally, our grand and petit juries, which are often predominantly white, must be more discerning in determining whether the officer's subjective belief of danger is reasonable. In this case, it is highly unlikely that Bell, 12 hours from his nuptials, posed a serious threat.
To be frank, most of my educated black friends continue to fear that a routine traffic stop could easily turn into a funeral. Just last month, while traveling to Orlando, I was pulled-over for speeding. Despite the fact that I was driving a late model Mercedes and clearly dressed in business attire, I immediately sensed fear in the officer who cautiously approached my car and barked out commands. Sweating profusely, I reminded myself to remain calm, remembering that if I reach for my registration in the glove box too hastily, it could be my last moment on Earth. In the days since, I have wondered, would my white male colleagues have felt the same fear?
Chuck Hobbs is a trial lawyer and partner in Hobbs & Richardson PLLC. Listen to the Chuck Hobbs Show on Fridays at 1pm on WTAL 1450 AM or via the web at www.wtal1450.com