Nicole Paultre Bell was only 22 when her fiancé was killed by the NYPD in the wee hours of what would’ve been their wedding day. The couple never got to walk down the aisle.
Ten years later, Paultre Bell is still an activist and still fighting for Sean Bell along with all the other victims of police violence. Paultre Bell, 31, is happily married, raising three daughters (two are her children with Bell and the youngest is with her current husband), in school to finish her Bachelor’s degree and publicly speaking out about accountability for cops who kill unarmed citizens.
Sean Bell, whose last name she decided to take on after his tragic murder, was one of the first cases to reach the kind of national attention that inspired even rapper Jay Z to put his name in a rap lyric. “Shawn Carter, Sean Bell, what’s the difference?” he rapped on “A Billi.” Of course Bell was certainly not the first on the long scroll of Blacks killed by police, but when Bell was killed in 2006, it marked the beginning of the shift in conversation. And the youth of the hip-hop generation were as outraged as N.W.A who had witnessed the same kind of abuse of power by the police. Paultre Bell is left to carry the legacy of her late husband while nurturing her daughters’ loss. When we catch up she is cheerful, careful with her words and fired up about people voting. November marks the 10 year anniversary of Bell’s death. And Paultre Bell still has a lot to say.
Tell me how you spend your days.
Being a mom of three you almost never have downtime for yourself. It’s never a dull moment from the moment I wake up. I wake up at about 5:30 every morning and my oldest gets up. She goes to junior high school and she’s in her last year before entering high school. My youngest wakes up about an hour after. Then I make breakfast, get snacks ready and get them to the school bus. I have a toddler who’s two. So pretty much on my days when I’m not working or holding meetings for my organization, attending events or speaking engagements, it’ll be one-on-one time with me and little Annabelle. She’s a spark in every room. No matter where we go she loves to be social and she’s so inquisitive. She’s sort of like the son I never had. She keeps me really agile. Being a wife as well I always have to find time outside of my busy day to be a wife. Speaking with my husband, touching base, maybe after his long day when he gets home from work we try to spend quality time even if it’s after the kids go off to bed.
You have three girls. What do you think is the most important thing to instill in your kids?
Remaining positive, staying graceful, and being happy. We always want our kids to be successful. We don’t want them to turn out to be homeless or have some sort of disease. But I want my children to be happy, genuinely. I want them to be happy at whatever they decide to do. I want them to not limit themselves. You don’t fit into someone else’s box. You be who you are and you be happy. And that’s it.
You’re only 31. You were really young when Sean was killed.
I met Sean back when I was in high school. We were young parents. We had Jada, our first child, right after I graduated high school. It sort of stopped me from going away to college. That’s something that I advocate for my children. I want my daughters to live life. I’ve done a lot of work and a lot of struggle has happened with our family, but they have nothing but the sky that’s the limit for them. Sean was 23 when he was killed. There’s never a day that goes by where I don’t think of him, our family doesn’t think of him. My daughter Jada was turning four when her dad passed away. It does something to a young girl who doesn’t have her father with her. My fight is solely for my children on behalf of my daughters who won’t have that experience of having Sean. We’ve been blessed to have a lot of men in our family like their stepdad, their grandfather, Sean’s father, my father, many strong men who’ve been able to step up and fill that void. But there’s nothing like having their father there. That’s what sort of hurts the most. Just as a mom having a daughter go through that at such a young age.
You went back to school. What did you study and why did you think that was important to do?
Having my daughter at a young age stopped me from doing a lot of the things that I planned to do. I wanted to go back to school and learn my history. I’m still in school. I’m taking classes part-time at night. Sociology is my major and I’ve studied courses in African-American studies as well. It’s so relative. Everything that has happened to our ancestors is so relative to what’s happening right now in 2016. We live in the era of so many Black and Latino men who have lost their lives because they live in the wrong neighborhood and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m going to continue to learn, continue to read, continue to learn about my history, culture and society.
It was in continuing your education that you met your current husband. How’d you go from not feeling like you’d ever fall in love again to marriage?
It was a long process. We’re talking a matter of years that it took me to realize that I deserve to be able to live and breathe again and be happy. There were a lot of dark days. I’ve been through times where I didn’t even know if I’d be able to make it to the next day without my family, without my faith and then the support of the community people who were listening and feeling the pain even if they didn’t know Sean. It really took a lot of soul searching and not being afraid to speak up. And that’s how I was able to heal. Now I’m solely focused on living a new life and it’s really the life that God had laid out for me. Who knows who I’d be without Him.
Sean Bell was killed 10 years ago this November. Unfortunately, unarmed Black and brown people are still being killed by police. What do you think about how little has changed?
One thing for sure is we have camera phones now. Everyone has a camera on them at all times. We’re seeing people killed on camera like Eric Garner and Walter Scott. In 2006 there weren’t camera phones. It was our words vs. theirs. The victims who were there stood strong, but they were terrified and running for their lives. Technology has done a lot for the movement. But that’s not enough. It’s not bringing accountability. We need cooperation from everyone involved — whether it be the family members or the police officers and everyone who knows them. We’re not going to stop, we’re not going to quit until people are held accountable for the crimes they commit.
This year is a critical election season. A lot of the mothers, wives and daughters who’ve been affected by police violence have endorsed candidates who they think will tackle police reform. Have you endorsed a political candidate?
I publicly endorsed Secretary Clinton and I did so because I believe that she cares. I personally believe for me and my community that Secretary Clinton is the right choice. She reached out to my family personally back in 2006 after I lost Sean. She wrote letters and kept in contact and promised to keep this as part of her fight and her dialogue, and she has ever since then. That’s something that hasn’t wavered. I believe that there are too many young people losing their lives [to gun violence]. When you say something like 33,000 people a year are losing their lives to gun violence that is unacceptable. We need someone who is going to have the knowledge to make these changes. And we’re going to hold our next president to that. We have some people who don’t want to vote because they’re not happy with the candidates.That is just as bad as starting a riot. You can’t sit back and do nothing. Do your homework. Read up on the presidential candidates. If you’re eligible to vote please do so. Everyone needs to vote.
I was reading an article in ELLE where Rev. Al Sharpton said you’re very aware of how narratives are created so at the time that Jay Z set up a college tuition for your kids you asked Sharpton if you should accept it. Why was that?
Initially people were supportive of Sean, but there was a small portion of people who felt he had done wrong and that whatever the police do must be right because they’re police. So for me it was important that anything in Sean’s name was done in dignity and grace. He wasn’t here to defend himself. So it was my job as his wife-to-be at the time and the mother of his children to make sure that everyone understood who he was and who the family is. We’re not here for the celebrity. We’re here for people to understand that this was wrong. So it was just important to make sure anything done in Sean’s name is done with dignity because that’s the type of person he was.
Behind closed doors the Carters have donated to Black Lives Matter and bailed protesters out of jail in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you have a relationship with Jay Z?
Rocawear, which is owned by Iconic, they’re an annual contributor of my Sean Bell Family Day. Every year we give memorable shirts to hand out to everyone that comes. We’ve had a relationship since about 2008 with Rocawear. I’ve met Gloria Carter, which is Shawn Carter’s mom. She is very down to earth, someone who is like your next door neighbor slash auntie. No, I don’t have an ongoing relationship there. But they’ve stepped up and they’ve been doing that.
I wonder if 10 years later you still mourn.
No. Well, first let me say this, the mourning process is a phase. No one should live in mourning their entire lives. No one. I didn’t understand that right away. It took years. Even now I seek counsel and reach out to people who may have the knowledge to empower me at different times. There are days when things may not be going right or my daughter may be affected by something and [she’ll say] she wishes she could have a conversation with her father. Those scenarios are very difficult to deal with. Mainly it’s about my daughter though. My pain that I have is from seeing my daughter who struggles with this. I can’t say it doesn’t still hurt when I think back on all the memories and the things that were done. Those things are very, very difficult. I’m able to remain positive by reminding myself we’ve come really far. We’ve done a lot. Giving myself those pep talks. Sean Bell would be proud and I am very content in knowing that.
You’re at ESSENCE Festival this year. What will you talk about?
I think for the past three years I’ve been part of the ESSENCE Festival. This year I’m on a Mothers of Courage panel. [It will include] women from different walks of life and mothers who have dealt with some sort of adversity. ESSENCE Festival is the highlight of my year. It’s so much fun. There’s so many things to do — the performances, all the different vendors, the giveaways, all the empowerment sessions that take place. When they say party with a purpose they mean it. You can have fun and not feel guilty about it.
Any acts in particular you’re looking forward to seeing?
I love music. Kendrick [Lamar]! When he was there last year he tore the house down. So I’m looking forward to Kendrick definitely.
What makes you happy?
Oh, man. Family. Family makes me happy. Being a wife, being a mother, it really completes the entire idea of how I feel fulfilled as a woman. I feel empowered, I feel sexy, I feel intelligent. I love to be around good genuine people. There’s nothing better than positive vibes. I learned years ago to distance myself from negativity. It takes a lot of wisdom because sometimes negativity is right in your immediate circle. It’s really hard to distance yourself from people you’ve known your entire life or many years. But what makes me happy is being around family and knowing that tomorrow is another day.
Don’t miss Nicole Paultre Bell on the ESSENCE Empowerment Experience stage at ESSENCE Festival in NOLA. Buy your tickets now!