Unfortunately, witnessing things unfold following the recent deaths of Michael Brown Jr., John Crawford, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley feels like watching the same heartbreaking movie over and over again with different actors. Eight years ago, the nation was mourning the death of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man who was fatally wounded by the NYPD on the morning of his wedding. We recently sat down for an interesting conversation with Nicole Paultre Bell, the woman whom Sean was scheduled to marry that day. During out chat, the aspiring civil rights attorney opened up about the recent Eric Garner and Michael Brown verdicts, turning tragedy into triumph and how people can continue to fight against social injustice in a productive way.
MN: What were your first thoughts when you heard that there would be no indictment in the Eric Garner case?
Well initially, it’s beyond disappointment, but I have to admit that I wasn’t surprised. With everything that has been happening in the media lately with all of the police shootings and the Justice Department failing to bring up charges on officers all across the nation, it did not surprise me that they didn’t indict these cops. However, I think that the community and the nation are outraged and I completely agree with everyone. It’s just a matter of time before federally, nationally; we have some reforms that will allow families to get justice when we lose our family members innocently at the hands of any police officer.
MN: Have you spoken to Eric Garner’s wife, Esau Garner, at all?
Yeah, I met her initially at the National Action Network as well as her mother-in-law, Gwen Carr. Just knowing what it feels like to be in that place, not knowing how she feels but knowing that we both had a similar pain and loss and both of our children are fatherless, it’s very painful. All I can do is try to use my life experience to encourage and inspire other people in their lives and in their trials and tribulations.
I strongly stand by that family because we have to support each other. When our family lost Sean in 2006, everybody stepped up. It was the case that rejuvenated the Civil Rights Movement and it’s only right that I be there to support Eric Garner’s spouse, his mother, his daughters and his entire family. It’s just a matter of it being the right and just thing to do.
MN: The common denominator in all of these situations is that Black men are being killed by police officers. I know that’s it’s impossible to get into people’s heads, but I wanted to ask what you believe is driving these officers to feel the need to snuff out the lives of innocent people.
You know, many people want to blame it on training and many different things but at the end of the day, it doesn’t take any training to realize that a man who is pleading for his life on the street telling you that he can’t breathe, the human side of you should kick in—not the cop side, not your race or whatever neighborhood you grew up in—the human side. At that point, humanity is supposed to step in and get this man oxygen and the life that he deserves. You know training, maybe, but the other side is in urban neighborhoods where the majority is black and brown men, those neighborhoods are being targeted and those neighborhoods are the ones where you see Sean Bell, Eric Garner, and Akai Gurley, whose funeral is today. This is a systematic problem. It’s not just one officer here, one officer there. Like in any group, when there is a bad bunch, you’ve got to deal with that. You’ve got to deal with those bunches because it really gives the entire department a bad reputation.
We know that not every single police officer is bad. We have friends who are police officers, family members close to us who are in law enforcement, but when you have the Blue Wall of Silence and everyone is taking up for each other and turning the other cheek like nothing happened and there are no criminal charges and no criminal accountability on top of that, the community loses trust in the police department. The community then begins to riot, protest, hold die-ins and sit-ins and shut down traffic. The only thing that I can do is try to use my voice to inspire and encourage those who are outraged and affected by the overuse and abuse of force by police officers.
MN: Do you feel that officers act out in this way and are callous about it because they feel that they will be protected by their departments and prosecutors, whom they work closely with on a regular basis? For example, Darren Wilson expressing that he wouldn’t do anything differently if he found himself in a situation similar to the one that led to Mike Brown’s death?
Well that mentality right there is what needs to be dealt with. In 2006, the detective who started the entire barrage of 50 bullets towards Sean and his friends, he made the same statement. My family dealt with that years ago. It’s sort of a mentality that they take on as if it’s us against them. When in reality, the person who committed the crime needs to be held accountable. We’re not holding everyone who has ever pledged an oath responsible for these killings; we’re holding those individuals and they deserve to be held accountable.
When I think about the mentality and the statements that are made, it’s insensitive to the family, to the community, to the nation, who is standing up right now, and only because no one should be above the law. No police officer or anyone else should feel that it’s necessary to take someone’s life into their own hands, especially when they’re an innocent person and especially when they’re someone who wasn’t posing a threat like Eric Garner.