“This city’s going to see some mobilization like they never did before,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton at a meeting Tuesday night. Flanked by members of the Bell family, Nicole Paultre Bell, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, Sharpton announced the tentative plan for boycotts, demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience that will comprise the official response to the “not guilty” verdict in the Sean Bell case.
Sharpton held a closed door meeting in Manhattan with community members and city leaders, many of whom were from Queens. The purpose was to outline plans for the coming weeks, the promised response after Sharpton’s pledge to the media to “close this city down.”
The meeting, held at the Midtown headquarters of the 1199 SEIU health workers union, lasted from shortly before 6 p.m. until nearly 8 p.m., when representatives from across the city began to trickle into the lobby and talk to members of the press.
One of the first people out the door was Sean Bell’s father, William Bell, who recently made headlines with his wife, Valerie, for speaking out strongly against Detective Michael Oliver, whose 31 shots fired in the incident contributed to the death of their son.
“I'm here to get justice for my son,” William Bell said. When asked whether he thought the demonstrations in the city might lead to violence, he was quick to dispel the notion “Peace, peace, peace. We got to have peace.”
Bishop Lester Williams, the reverend who was to marry Sean and Nicole Paultre Bell the day Bell was killed, said he “thought the meeting was very productive,” and while he didn’t have an immediate timetable for how the upcoming events would play out, he characterized them as an “immediate response.”
Several members of the City Council were in attendance, including John Liu, Hiram Monserrate, Matthieu Eugene, Charles Barron, Leroy Comrie, and James Sanders Jr.
“Every approach was discussed,” Sanders said. “What the outcome will be, will be determined by the people in the streets.” Sanders was also adamant that while the verdict had already been rendered in the case, there was still more to be said.
“There are many courts. One court is on Queens Boulevard, one court is on the streets, and the jury is still out for that court.”
Sanders described the mood in the meeting as “somber, fiery and very determined.”
Sharpton himself said that the meeting provided an opportunity to organize concerned citizens into several groups, some in charge of boycotts and civil disobedience, others in charge of organizing what he referred to as “a massive march.”
Still another group, likely to include the City Council members in attendance and members of the state and federal legislatures, was banding together to tailor new legislation designed to protect civilians from tragic incidents like the one that befell Bell and his compatriots in late 2006.
Congressman Gregory Meeks, who has been among a handful of strong public advocates for the Bell family, is one of the legislators likely to try and push through new federal laws regarding police interaction with the public.
In an interview on his way to Washington, D.C., Meeks said he was pleased with the way the demonstrations were being organized thus far.
“People are galvanizing together and organizing together, an organized mass movement of folks, coming together all speaking for one thing, and that is that we’re trying to get justice in this case,” Meeks said. He also praised the Bell family, marvelling at what he called their patience and strength.
Sharpton had apparently issued a gag order at the meeting, because no one present was willing to talk about the exact timetable for events, or any concrete details about the locations or nature of the upcoming demonstrations.
One source who sat in on the meeting said many members of the community had advocated starting demonstrations as early as that night, but that a more likely start date was the end of this week.
Sharpton himself said the events would “roll out over the next 10 days.”
He also admitted that all the demonstrations were targeting the U.S. justice department, and other legislative bodies which had the power to take action to affect a federal investigation into the case, and rewrite the legal code.
“We are a collective,” Sharpton said. “This is not about one person.”
Sharpton said he was willing to endorse non-sanctioned boycotts and civil disobedience as long as they were not destructive.