Reverend Al Sharpton speaks exclusively with ESSENCE about the night Sean Bell was gunned downed by New York City police officers and the fight for justice
When his cell phone rang on the morning of Saturday, November 25, the Reverend Al Sharpton was on his way to Harlem. Same as every Saturday morning, his civil rights organization, the National Action Network, was holding a rally, and he was right on schedule. But the caller had a chilling story with all-too-familiar details: A Black man. Police shooting. Questions with no answers. Sharpton didn’t have much to go on, but he agreed to go to Queens and check out the situation.
When he arrived at Jamaica Hospital and learned the heartbreaking tale of Sean Bell —a young, unarmed man who died in a hail of 50 bullets from undercover police on the morning of his wedding day —he got angry. He’d seen similar situations in the past: Back in 1997, Sharpton advocated for Abner Louima, a Brooklyn man who was beaten and sodomized with a plunger by officers while in police custody. Sharpton also fought for the family of Amadou Diallo, another unarmed man, who in 1999 was shot 41 times by undercover officers, dying outside his home in the Bronx.
These tragedies brought national attention to the issue of police brutality and provoked outrage, yet the issue remains. Sharpton, however, noted in our interview that Bell’s story seems to connect with people more than previous incidents. An experienced activist, he says this case is different from the others: Instead of one victim with only police officers being present, this case has eyewitnesses. Two of them, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman —who had also been shot that morning —had even been in the car with Bell.
With few concrete details and only a passing knowledge of who these people were, Sharpton mobilized his resources and began to piece together the final hours of Sean Bell’s life. Here Sharpton walks through the first 24 hours after the shooting, telling why he believes it was so important to get the victims’ side of the story out to the media and why the death of Sean Bell may be the case that forces police to be accountable for their actions.
In His Own Words:
I’m riding up Madison Avenue, coming into Harlem when my cell phone rings. The caller said he was a cousin of Sean Bell, who had been killed at four in the morning after a bachelor party. He said they weren’t being given any information at the hospital, and they didn’t know where the other two men who had been in the car with him were.
“Would you just call the hospital and help us get some information?” he asked.
“All right, I’ll tell you what. I’ll come out there and try to get one of the lawyers at the National Action Network to come through and help you at the hospital. But then I have to make my rally.”
Next thing I know, I meet Nicole and her mother. They had just found out about an hour before I got there that Sean was dead. Nicole said they were supposed to be married at five o’clock that day. They told me the whole story. By that time Rachel Noerdlinger, my communications director, had alerted the media that I was at the hospital. And I came out and stood with Nicole demanding a full investigation. You’ve got to remember, at this point I don’t know whether or not there were guns in the car, whether or not there were drugs in the car. This could have blown up in our faces. One of the things people don’t understand is the risk you take in activism. But I looked at her—she’s 22 years old, just two years older than my oldest daughter, and I thought, This could be my kid. You’ve got to take the risk on your people.
Then I asked where the other two victims, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were. We went over to the other hospital—and I don’t understand why they were in different hospitals. No one ever explained, and when I arrived, their family members were all being held in the lobby. They weren’t being allowed up to see them. But when the hospital staff saw me, they said, “Oh, we’ll get a conference room, coffee,” treating me very differently. I’ll never forget [one of the police inspectors]. When I walked in, he stuck out his hand and said, “Reverend.” I refused to shake his hand. I said, “Don’t shake my hand when you’re treating these people like this. Whatever these people did or didn’t do, why are you treating them like this?”
They set us up in a conference room, then all of a sudden we’re told that one immediate family member and I can visit each man. First they brought me up to see Joseph Guzman with his wife, Eboni. A doctor told us he had 17 wounds in his body. He didn’t know how many times he’d been shot because it could be entry and exit. But he had 17 wounds. And he was handcuffed to the bed!
“What is he doing with handcuffs on?” I said.
“Well,” he told me, “he’s under arrest.”
“Arrest for what?”
“We don’t know the charges.”
“You got a man with 17 wounds! Where is he going?”
Next we went to see Trent Benefield, and by that time his mother had come. He had been shot four times, and he was also handcuffed to the bed, including the foot where he’d been shot in the ankle. Shackled! I demanded immediately that they take the handcuffs off the both of them, which they did.
And I kept saying: Is it a crime to leave a bachelor party? What was there to be charged with? I think they did it to intimidate a statement out of them. I think they were going to try and tell them, “You’re under arrest; tell us what happened” to make them give a story right then. Which would have been wrong because they had no lawyer, no legal protection, and the cops could have distorted their story. That’s just my thinking.
Benefield said to me, “We didn’t do nothing, Reverend Al, we didn’t do nothing!” He said this while lying in the bed. “And I think they killed my friend.” He said the police had just come in and told him a cop had done it. He didn’t even know until then, about a half hour before he saw me, that he had been shot by a cop. He’d been there all night, throwing up and all that, and he never knew it was a cop because the guy never identified himself. I immediately went downstairs and called for a rally and prayer vigil the next day.
I went back into Harlem to the National Action Network headquarters, and we started jumping on the phones so we could bring hundreds of people out for the rally. We were there all night, and we ended up with, I’d say, over 1,000 people there that Sunday. We knew we had to show community support immediately. Otherwise the police were going to try to depict these kids as drug dealers that got in the middle of some mess. We had to make it an issue—and you have a short window, just that first 48 hours—because otherwise people will be convinced it’s nothing.
A police officer has the Policeman’s Benevolent Association. Police have lawyers; they have a media department and all of that. Somebody in the community doesn’t have anything, and that’s why we built National Action Network because we have lawyers to say, “No don’t talk—we’ll handle that.” We have a media department to put the community version out to counter the police media spin. The reason why everybody got the story about Sean Bell being killed on his wedding day, and two other unarmed men being shot, is because we walked Nicole out in front of the hospital and told that story first. The story that the police were going to put out was that the men had been arrested in their past, and they were having a wild party at a strip club.
Some people claim that this case was not racially motivated because two of the cops involved are Black, one is Latino, and two are White. I would still be here even if they had all been Black cops. Black cops can be racist, too. They know they can get away with things in the Black community that they wouldn’t dare try in the White community. In my personal view, those cops—White, Black and Latino—would not have shot 50 times at three White men in a car. Tell me one case in the country where Whites have been shot at like this. It only happens in our community.
This will not stop until we start locking cops up. Until cops see that they’ll go to jail, they are going to keep doing it. We were successful with that in the Abner Louima case, putting people in jail. But you have to keep locking bad cops up. That’s when it stops. That’s the way you stop any crime. People have to understand they’re going to pay for it.