Facing system failure

On April 25th, the three police officers who killed Sean Bell of Jamaica, Queens, were acquitted in NY State Supreme Court of all criminal charges.  [For anyone unfamiliar with the case, the plain-clothed police officers—two black and one white–shot Bell fifty times, as he and his two friends left a nightclub in Queens.  Bell would have been married the next morning.  Apparently the officers thought they were in danger.  One officer fired 31 bullets at Sean Bell, which required that he actually reload his semiautomatic pistol.]

I understand that police officers deal with an extreme amount of stress in their jobs—probably even more than teachers.  Mistakes are inevitable when humans are involved, and the realm of human error for police officers may at times involve the wrongful use of a weapon.  I do not understand, however, how it is possible to mistakenly shoot an unarmed man 50 times.  I also thought that when an individual unintentionally caused another person’s death, the law called it manslaughter.  But the State of New York has decided that the shooting rampage that left Sean Bell’s fiancée and daughter to live on without him was completely lawful.

There is an awkward silence that surrounds the verdict here in New York City.  People seem to be swallowing their hurt and anger, awaiting further news—a sign that justice may be served somehow after all.

I myself am stunned by the implications of the case.  As a teacher in a New York City public school, I work for and represent an arm of our government.  I have been trying to compel my students, all of whom are black, to participate wholeheartedly in their education through the public system.  I want my students to believe that if they continue on in school and go to college, the world holds unlimited opportunities for them.  And it does… except that the verdict in Sean Bell’s case reminds us that this same system does not feel obliged to protect black citizens from violence perpetrated by the very people it hires to keep people safe.  How can my students not feel betrayed by this decision?  (I do believe that if Sean Bell had been white, he would likely not have been killed, and that if he had, the officers would have been held criminally accountable.)

Lately on the Teacher Leaders Network, following the refusal of teacher Carl Chew to administer a state standardized test to his students, teachers have been discussing civil disobedience and its role in a democracy.  Some expressed concern that Chew’s actions did not set a good example for his students of responsible disagreement with authority.  I’ve been asking myself, how DO we tell our government in a responsible way when we find its actions unacceptable?  And how do I model this for my students?

[photograph of Jada Bell, Sean Bell’s daughter, found at http://www.smh.com.au/ffximage/2006/11/27/rallyseanbell_w