Bell, 23, and two of his friends who survived the confrontation had no weapons in their possession, nor they had committed any crime. They were driving home after spending a few hours of fun in a nightclub when the incident took place. The police officers, who were investigating alleged prostitution at the club, said they thought the group was armed and tried to stop them, at which point the situation spun out of control.
The acquittal of the officers triggered a massive outcry around the city, with critics charging that authorities have repeatedly failed to stop police abuses -- most often directed at young men of color, particularly African Americans and immigrants.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), there "are troubling patterns" in police shootings due in part to the lack of diversity in the department's highest ranks. Currently, about 84 percent of leadership positions are held by whites, while African Americans constitute less than 4 percent.
In its latest analysis of police conduct released this week, the group says during the past two years, nearly 90 percent of those shot by the police were either Black or Latino. In 77 percent of the incidents, according to NYCLU, where officers fired their weapons between 1999 and 2006, "the officers were the only ones shooting at unarmed civilians."
"These numbers scream out for serious review by the City Council," said the group's executive director Donna Lieberman. "As with the hundreds of thousands of stops and frisks, and the hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests, being black should not make people a target for shootings."
According to a recent UN report on racial discrimination in the United States, excessive force by police is a problem in a number of big cities across the nation.
In its latest report, the Geneva-based UN Committee against Racial Discrimination said it was extremely concerned about racially motivated police excesses, and urged the government to take corrective measures in abidance with international law.
Two new reports released this week, by Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, found that in 34 U.S. states, a black man was nearly 12 times more likely than a white man to be sentenced to prison for drug offences. A black woman is nearly five times more likely to go to prison than a white woman.
Overall, the rate of drug arrests for African Americans increased by 225 percent, compared to 70 percent among whites, between 1980 and 2003, despite the absence of any statistical evidence that the rate of drug use in each community had changed.
On Wednesday, before being handcuffed by the police, Rev. Al Sharpton urged activists to denounce the state court verdict and continue their acts of disobedience until Bell's case is reviewed by a federal court.
"We are all Sean Bell," the crowd outside the police headquarters roared in unison as police began to make arrests. There were many children among the crowd. One of them, a five-year-old girl, held a placard that read: "Damn this system." Protesters counted to 50 in reference to the bullets that caused the young groom to bleed to death.
As they prepared to be arrested, some demonstrators knelt in prayer as religious leaders blessed the crowd. People at the rally, both white and black, told IPS they have been protesting against racial injustice and police abuses since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
"It's outrageous. It's intolerable," said Andy Stapp, a veteran of the civil rights movement and author who spent many hours in police custody for taking part in the protest. "You have to do something. You can't just sit there. I am optimistic about [the outcome] of this movement. It's a good start."
Mindful that public anger is growing day by day over the acquittal, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney said Wednesday that the case was "under review." It remains unclear whether a federal court will retry the case.
In an interview with Pacifica Radio, New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg said he and the police commissioner were "very proud" of the New York Police Department and its officers. He added, "I can't tell you that every time, everyone does the right thing. And whether they did the right thing or not this time, it sounds to me like excessive force was used."
For its part, the NYCLU wants the police to release complete information about shooting incidents, including the race of the civilian targets. In 1998, according to the group, the police department stopped disclosing the race of civilian targets and "started reporting the breed of dogs being shot."
"We want full disclosure about every aspect of police shootings, including the role that race may be playing," said NYCLU's Christopher Dunn. "We are deeply concerned about the figures that everyone showing that virtually everyone shot by the police is black or Latino."
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Albion Monitor May
7, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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