Magazine article The New Yorker

FIFTY SHOTS; ON CALL; ON CALL Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

FIFTY SHOTS; ON CALL; ON CALL Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

Al Sharpton learned of Sean Bell's death while riding in a town car to his office. It was nine-forty-five in the morning on what was to be Bell's wedding day, or about six hours after Bell and his friends had left the Kalua Cabaret, in Jamaica, Queens, trailed by an undercover police officer who thought they had a gun. "The phone rang, and it was a minister friend of mine, Reverend Timothy Wright, the Grammy-nominated gospel singer," Sharpton recalled last week. "He said a young man in his church, his cousin, had been killed, and the family needed information." Sharpton, who says that he and his cohorts "aren't ambulance chasers; we're the ambulance itself"--a vehicle called upon to deliver community justice--directed his driver to make a detour across the Triboro Bridge, heading toward Jamaica. "We had no idea at the time that it was fifty shots," he said. "The first twenty-four hours, it just kept getting worse, from 'It was his wedding,' to 'He's dead,' to 'He had two kids,' to 'They handcuffed the other guys at the hospital.' " (Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, Bell's friends, took eleven bullets and three bullets, respectively, and were briefly chained to their beds in the I.C.U.) "It was like you dreamed you're falling off a cliff and you're never hitting the ground."

That night, Sharpton received phone calls from Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg, and the Queens District Attorney, Richard Brown. By last Wednesday, or Day Five, Jesse Jackson had flown in, at Sharpton's request. The two reverends assembled with the victim's friends and family at the scene of the shooting for a staged prayer session, during which Jackson called the incident "part of our national dilemma," invoking not only Abner Louima but also Medgar Evers. A black woman leaned out the window of a passing school bus and shouted at the TV crews, "Don't be harassing our people out here." Nearby telephone poles had been covered with flyers: one asked any witnesses to the shooting to call N.Y.P.D. internal affairs, while another advertised an "Outrage March Against Police Murder," sponsored by, among others, the New Black Panther Party, the Bloods, and the Crips.

Later that day, Sharpton and Jackson visited the NY1 TV studios, in Chelsea, where Sharpton proposed a kind of reverse boycott--"a 'Shopping for Justice' day. …

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