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Hundreds to Attend Sean Bell Funeral, Community Leaders Criticize NYPD for Raids

StoryDecember 01, 2006
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Hundreds of people are expected to attend the funeral of Sean Bell today at the Community Church of Christ in Jamaica, Queens. It is being held in the same church where the 23-year-old Bell was supposed to be married last Saturday to his high school sweetheart. Meanwhile, community leaders are now accusing the police of also harassing friends of Sean Bell when they raided an apartment in Queens and arrested four people who knew Bell. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in New York, at least hundreds of people are expected to attend the funeral of Sean Bell today at the Community Church of Christ in Jamaica, Queens. The funeral is being held in the same church where the 23-year-old man was supposed to be married last Saturday to his high school sweetheart. But hours before the wedding ceremony, he was killed when five undercover police officers fired 50 shots at the car carrying him and his two friends. They had just left his bachelor’s party at a club in Queens. Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield survived the shooting but remain hospitalized. None of the victims were armed.

The police officers have been widely criticized, even by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, of using excessive force. The Reverend Jesse Jackson said of the shooting, quote, “This is a symbol, not an aberration. Our criminal justice system has broken down for black Americans and young black males.”

Community leaders in Queens are now accusing the police of also harassing friends of Sean Bell. On Thursday morning, police raided an apartment in Queens and arrested four people who knew Bell. The police claim they’re trying to determine if there was a fourth man in the car with Bell who might have had a weapon. Meanwhile, the New York Police Department has announced it will review its undercover operations because of the fatal shooting.

Graham Weatherspoon is a retired detective with the New York Police Department and a spokesperson for 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. He joins us in our firehouse studio. We’re also joined on the telephone by Democracy Now! co-host and Daily News columnist, Juan Gonzalez. Juan, you wrote another column on the shooting today in the New York Daily News. Can you tell us what you found?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, Amy. Well, I was writing about this dragnet now that the police are conducting in Queens. And actually it was Wednesday morning that they arrested four people in an early 6:00 a.m. raid. They broke down a door of an apartment in Queens and put guns in people’s faces, including a woman, LaToya Smith, who was with her seven-month-old son in bed. And they rousted her out of bed with guns in her face, and they herded all the family members. Eventually, they claimed that this was a drug location and that they found a loaded gun in the apartment and took LaToya Smith, two of her brothers and another young man to jail, although they eventually released her. But interestingly, they didn’t conduct the raid for guns or drugs. The young people all said that the main questions had to do with the shooting in Queens, because these are all friends of the victims. And they kept asking them information about who they knew who had been at a bachelor party, what they knew about these young men.

The next morning they came back again to the same building — this was Thursday morning at 6:00 a.m. — and arrested two more young men, including one was arrested for an overdue $25 fine on a ticket from last year, and he was hauled off to jail on that. And again, he was a friend of Trent Benefield, who had been at the hospital several times during the week, one of the wounded men. And he was again asked about what was his conversations with Trent Benefield, what did he know about other people in the neighborhood.

And basically, what’s been happening now — we know of at least six people, then, who have been hauled in, and possibly more. And the police — the folks in this community are now saying that the police are now turning the victims now into suspects, as well as their friends, in an effort to find what they say is a fourth man who they believe was near the car when the shooting occurred and who may have important information that would corroborate the police account. But they have, late last night, arrested one man, Jean [Nelson], who they claim may be the person, this fourth person, mystery person, that they’re looking for. But it’s not clear yet.

But the lawyers of the men have said that there is no fourth person, that there were only three people in the car when the shooting occurred and that obviously no one in the car had a gun, because that, the police confirmed that. So it’s really been a bizarre twist now that the community that has already suffered the loss of one young man and the severe wounding of two others is now being subjected to police raids.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Gonzalez wrote his piece in the New York Daily News today: “Black and Targeted by NYPD.” Graham Weatherspoon, you’re a retired New York Police detective, so as you have the leadership being applauded for actually, unlike in the case of Amadou Diallo, speaking out — the mayor, the governor, Pataki, from Kuwait, saying, quote, “excessive force was used.” You have these raids going on. And now I think in the corporate media they’re reporting in one apartment some marijuana and a gun was found. Not clear how this relates.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: You know, Amy, it’s ironic that the police commissioner and the mayor met early this week with clergy in Queens at Thomasina’s on Linden Boulevard to discuss the situation. They also had a meeting at City Hall the day before. As a matter of fact, that City Hall meeting was Monday, and they met Tuesday at Thomasina’s.

One of the people who was arrested yesterday — and Juan spoke of a young man who had a $25 summons that had not been paid — he was the son of one of the clergymen that met with the mayor. The mayor and the police commissioner — Police Commissioner Kelly is not to be trusted. NYPD at this point cannot be trusted to conduct a fair and impartial investigation. This young man was taken from his home early morning. The bishop was trying to find out where his son was, and they lied to him through the entire morning into the afternoon. He called the 103 Precinct, looking for his son. They said he was not there. He called the deputy inspector from the borough. He said he was trying to find out where he was. The fact was, at 1:15 yesterday afternoon his son called him to tell him he had just been released from the 103 Precinct.

He was not questioned relative to the summons, which was outstanding, for which they said they came to the house to seize him, but he was questioned with regard to Guzman, one of the fellows who had been shot. And he is a friend of Guzman’s. So if I knew Mr. Bell or Guzman or one of these men, would they be kicking in my door to ask me questions?

There is no credibility at this point with the New York City Police Department or with anything that the commissioner has to say. And we have called for his removal, from the inception of this incident. And it is now panning out that the tactics that are being used against the community, they’re criminal. And something has to be done to stop this. We’ve called for the feds to come in and review. We’ve also contacted Mr. Conyers to initiate some hearings, as he did 18 years ago, and found that the feds needed to come in, although that did not happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Graham Weatherspoon, there has been this term that’s being thrown about, when you see police spokespeople questioned on the networks, of “contagious shooting.” You had five police officers — two black, two Latino, one white. The white police officer is the one who shot off 31 bullets, but he had to stop and reload and then continue shooting. What is this term, “contagious shooting”? Can any criminal use it to say, if he’s with his buddy and starts shooting, as well, “I was suffering from this syndrome”?

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: You know, it’s interesting. They always come up with this doublespeak. A “war theater,” war is not a theater. “Contagious fire.” We can go back, back into the '60s. A police officer said he had a new form of epilepsy, which is why he shot a 12-year-old boy in East New York, near my home. Now, it's “contagious fire.” I don’t know where these terms come from. I don’t know who in the police department whips them up. But one is required by law, as a police officer — and I have been in actual situations where people were armed, Amy, not the thought of or a guy says, “I’m going to get a gun,” they were armed. I’ve been in bank robberies where the bank robbers knew me and held me at gunpoint and, rightfully so, could have fired — could have fired, did not fire. Yes, numerous situations where actual weapons were present. I had a young fellow draw on me once. I did not kill him. He dropped his weapon.

We have no visual sighting of a firearm in the vehicle or even with this fictitious fourth man. “Contagious fire”? Before anybody fires a weapon, they have to assess the situation, determine what the target is, and then respond accordingly. That did not happen. You don’t just contagiously open fire, because you hear a shot. If you don’t know where the shot is coming from, where are you shooting? Who are you shooting at? We had bullets that went into the home of residents. I don’t think that the lamp sitting on the table in the living room of the house across the street was a suspect in this matter. I don’t think that the Airtrain, 50 feet above the ground, was a suspect in this shooting.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was shot.


AMY GOODMAN: The train to the plane.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: The train was shot. There were bullets in people’s homes. Thank God this was early morning. God forbid someone was standing in their living room. They could have been shot. And if there is such a thing as contagious fire — and I remember in the Desmond Robinson shooting, in talking with the officers at Bellevue —- well, I’m going to hold that, because I don’t want to give -—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, but very quickly, what do you think has to happen right now? The funeral for Sean Bell will be held in the very church where he was going to be married later Saturday before he was killed.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Yes. We have to go out this afternoon to manage that, at the behest of the family. And we are just trusting that people will keep a cool head. And we really need someone to come in and monitor and take over this investigation, because Police Commissioner Kelly, Chief Izzo, the people who are primarily responsible, they cannot do this investigation. They are not to be trusted at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Graham Weatherspoon, I want to thank you for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow this case. Retired detective with the New York Police Department, spokesperson for 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. And Juan Gonzalez, on the line with us, continuing to investigate this story, as well.

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