A long-awaited measure to rename a street after Sean Bell, the Queens man shot and killed by police in 2006, was approved by Community Board 12 last Wednesday.
The motion passed with a 30-2 vote in favor of renaming a portion of Liverpool Street between 94th and 101st avenues in Bell’s honor, putting the surviving parents one step closer to what they say would be a fitting tribute to their then-23-year-old son, who was unarmed when his Nissan Altima was sprayed by more than 50 police bullets on his wedding day.
Three of the five officers involved in the Bell shooting were acquitted in April 2008.
“This is one good stepping stone, because my son’s name will be seen out there on that street,” Valerie Bell, Sean’s mother, said after the board approved the renaming. “We have a few more hills to climb, but we won’t stop until we have justice for Sean.”
The borough board has 60 days to vote on the measure before it moves to the City Council. A vote on the street name change was first scheduled to be heard in a March C.B. 12 meeting, but paperwork issues delayed the vote until last week.
Outrage has festered in Jamaica since Bell’s death, centering on the corner of 95th Ave. and Liverpool Street where the incident occurred. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who was at the forefront of protests following the Bell trial and subsequent acquittals, was scheduled to speak at Wednesday’s hearing but could not attend because of a personal matter, Valerie Bell said.
As the roll call circled the board’s four tables, the crowd became agitated by any vote other than “approve.” Expressions of “vote for” or “in favor” were met by perplexed whispers. Five abstentions brought about restless groans. And the two “opposed” votes, from Chairwoman Adjoa Gzifa and board member Maylean Brown-Thompson, incited anger from the crowd.
“I am one vote, one person, and I don’t think I have to justify my vote,” Gzifa said after the meeting. “I just didn’t think this was a worthy renaming.”
For a street to be renamed, the person honored must meet certain criteria. For example, someone should be of great character or have impacted the community through volunteerism. However, Bell did not reside in Jamaica and, though no one can say what might have been had he lived longer, Bell did not perform exemplary amounts of community service. Also, when Judge Arthur Cooperman ruled in the police’s favor in 2008, he said Bell and two friends allegedly made threats about a gun during a confrontation with another group that night.
Brown-Thompson, who was indifferent as to whether she was counted as a no vote or an abstention, gave the recorder a choice between the two. That brought the Rev. Charles Norris, pastor of Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church in Jamaica and an NCAAP member, out of his front row seat, shouting at the board to pick a side.
“Let them announce their vote,” Norris yelled at Gzifa, “so we can know who is good and who is bad.”
Regardless of the insults directed upon the opposed, it became clear the measure, while not unanimous, would pass by a lopsided margin. Before the vote, Councilmen John Liu (D-Flushing) and Thomas White Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) made impassioned speeches in support of the street renaming.
“Sean Bell didn’t want this. His parents, who are here with us, they didn’t want this,” Liu said. “They don’t want this street to be renamed. And yet, what happened nearly two and a half years ago at this point did happen. It’s undeniable.
“And now this community is short one promising life. So, the least we can do for this city is mark the spot where this tragedy occurred so that it does not happen again.”
White said he believes renaming the street would go a long way toward rebuilding police-community relations which were strained by the incident. And while the sign could serve as an everyday reminder of what happened to Bell as he left his bachelor party at Club Kalua, it could also keep alive the spirit of a life cut short. Bell didn’t have the chance to meet many of the renaming criteria cited by those opposed to the measure, White said.
While he worked as an electrician, the L.A. Dodgers had called about a spring baseball tryout on the day he died. White promised to personally see to it that the street name change passes through the City Council.
“It is a righteous thing for the community to do,” White said. “Out of respect for his parents, it is the correct thing to do.
“I am dealing with the fact that a young man lost his life, was about to get married. A father will not have his son. A young lady will not have a husband, and two children will not have a father to call them daddy. Is this enough? Well, it’s a start.”