Amid chants of “I am Sean Bell,” and “Long Live Sean Bell,” area leaders, community members and relatives of the police shooting victim, braved the rain and bitter cold on Tuesday to unveil a new street sign.
The section of Liverpool Street between between 94th Avenue and 101st Street will be known as Sean Bell Way and supporters hope it serves as a reminder of the violence, they believe, should have been prevented.
“I feel very happy, great, excited,” Bell’s mother, Valerie, said after seeing the sign. “This would have been his 27th birthday, if he was here, but since he’s in heaven, he can shine down on us now and see that we have named a street after him.”
Nicole Paultre Bell said the memory of her slain fiance will not be forgotten. “It’s a bittersweet moment because at the same time we wish that he was here with us, and I’m sure everyone here who knows him and misses him feels the same way,” she said.
Bell was killed by police officers outside a Jamaica strip club on his wedding day in 2006. They fired 50 shots at the Nissan Altima he was driving at them. Passengers Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, were wounded.
“New generations of young people will walk by this street and they will ask, ‘Who is Sean Bell?’ and the story will be told over and over again,” said city Comptroller John Liu. “That is what is needed in this city — systemic changes and improvements so that Sean’s death will not be in vain.”
Bell and his friends were leaving the victim’s bachelor party when they were approached by undercover cops who thought the trio were getting a gun out of the car to settle a dispute inside the club, but no weapon was ever recovered. Trial testimony revealed that Bell had been drunk when he left the club and gunned the car toward the cops as he attempted to flee, striking one of them in the leg.
The bill for the designation, which included the renaming of nearly 70 other streets, was approved by the City Council last December by a vote of 41 to 7, with two abstentions. Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) was one of the members who voted in favor the honor.
“We want to pray that none of our children are ever in harm’s way again,” Comrie told the approximately 50 attendees at the ceremony. “We need to also get the message out to our young people that they need to pull up their pants. They need to handle themselves in a respectful way. They need to make sure that they focus on education and doing positive things.”
Donovan Richards, deputy chief of staff to City Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton), believes that street violence is not a racial problem or a community versus the NYPD issue, but rather one that affects people all over the country.
“There are people who are still being improperly stopped and frisked,” Richards said. “The community is not against the NYPD. We need the NYPD as well. We have to work together.”
During the four-hour long event, singers, poets and other performers entertained the crowd and there was also plenty of free food. But despite the festive atmosphere, the months leading up to the renaming were not without controversy. Some believe Bell did not deserve the honor because they claim it was his failed attempt to kill the officers that resulted in his own death. Bell also had a criminal record, which included arrests for drug sales and gun possession.
Valerie Bell dismissed the criticism of her son. “Come on now,” she said. “Fifty shots. Please. They need to look beyond his faults and see what’s needed.”
Community Board 12, which oversees the area where the sign was placed, approved the renaming in March 2009 by a vote of 30-2. One of those in opposition was the board’s chairwoman, Adjoa Gzifa. She says Bell did not meet the criteria set forth by the board, specifically that the family could not prove that he had actively served the community. The controversy even prompted CB 12 to adopt stricter criteria for future designations.
Three of the five detectives involved in the Bell shooting — Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper — went to trial on charges ranging from manslaughter to reckless endangerment, but were acquitted by a state court in April 2008. All five men, however, remain on modified duty. A civil trial is set to begin on July 20.
“We want every time somebody rides down this block to know what happened,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “They will know there was a young man who wanted to do the right thing, marry the mother of his children, be a baseball star, and we are going to fulfill his dream. We are going to finish his dream with Sean Bell Way.”