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Terrance Heath Headshot

My Father's Eyes: Sean Bell & Me

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This weekend, we attended a local conference for LGBT parents and families, and I spoke on a panel about interracial couples and intercultural families. At some point, I found myself speaking less as a gay dad and more as a black man raising two black sons, and wondering aloud just how I would prepare them for the reality of what they will likely face as black men, and how I will prepare them for that without catalyzing what I know is an inevitable loss of innocence; the same innocence I love to see in them, and so want to protect as a parent.

But I know that I will be doing them a disservice as their father if I don't prepare them for the reality I've experience myself, and that they will both have to face in their own time. It's no surprise that in the middle of the panel discussion, I remembered an exchange I had with my own father.

I was in college at the time. I'd been home for a weekend visit, and was heading back to school — at the University of Georgia, in Athens, GA. As I made several trips back and forth, loading up the car, my dad sat on the couch, watching television. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I caught my dad looking at me with what appeared to be concern, as though he was trying to decide whether to say something to me about it.

Finally, I finished loading the car, and said my goodbyes. But my dad stopped me before I could make it out the door and finally spoke his concern.

"Son," he asked, "is that what you're wearing to drive back to Athens?"

I was wearing my basic school "uniform" at that time: a ripped pair of old, faded jeans, and a old t-shirt.

"Um, yeah," I said.

My dad then breathed a sigh that seemed a mix of resignation, exasperation, and trepidation over what he was about to tell me — what he had to tell me, really.

"Son," he said, "You are going to be driving through a lot of southern counties. Now, I'm not saying you're going to do anything wrong. But you are a young black man, and if you get pulled over by one of these southern sheriffs or policemen, they are going to take one look at you and get the wrong idea. They're not going to treat you like they would a white boy dressed like that."

It was on the tip of my tongue to argue with him, and say that stuff like that may have happened when he was my age, but it certainly didn't happen anymore. Instead, I unpacked some clothes, and changed into a pair of khakis and a buttoned-down oxford, which met with dad's approval.

I was still thinking about my dad's words when I got back to UGA. After unloading the car and carrying everything up to my room, I turned on the television. At some point, the news came on and I saw this.

My father wasn't even one-year-old when the young black men who became known as the Scottsboro Nine were falsely accused of rape, and plunged into an ordeal that would last decades. My father was about 16 years old when the nation's last mass lynching happened in rural Georgia. My father was 25 years old and newly married when Emmett Till was murdered.

He lived through times when the life of a black man, especially in the south, wasn't worth a "plug nickel." He lived through times when his life as a black man wasn't worth a plug nickel. He lived, like so many men before him, knowing that there were people who would think no more of snuffing out his life than killing a fly, and that there were people who would set them free afterwards. He lived knowing that it could happen, even if he wasn't doing anything wrong. It could happen just because he happened to be a black man, and happened to be in a particular place at a particular time. Any time. Any place. Any day.

My dad had lived with that reality, and I think he was trying to make me aware that I lived with that reality too. He had to, because he knew — and had probably seen with his own eyes — the danger of not being aware of that; the danger of taking for granted that the world would meet and treat me no differently than anyone else.

My father's eyes had seen things I had never seen and could not imagine then, or even now. I did not have my father's eyes, and he knew that. He also knew that I needed them and that I wouldn't have them unless he spoke. It was a legacy he had to pass on to me, for my own good.

Several years later, I was living in Washington, D.C., and found myself driving home late one night. I was giving a fraternity brother of mine, also a black male, a ride home after a late night fraternity event. My car wasn't in the greatest shape. I'd been in a traffic accident just a few days before, and hadn't taken it to be repaired because I needed to drive it that weekend.

We were driving past the Capitol when we got pulled over. I saw the flashing lights, and as soon as I heard the siren I pulled over. By then, I knew the drill. Don't argue with the officers. Don't get out of the car unless they tell you to. Get out of the car if they tell you to. Answer any questions with "Yes, officer," or "No, officer," give them any information they ask for, and maybe — just maybe — you won't have any trouble. Still, what happened then was a bit surreal.

As the officer came up to my window, I said a silent prayer that my fraternity brother — Neal, who was known for having a sharp tongue and a willingness let it loose — would keep cool. The officer asked for my license and registration. She asked if I knew why she stopped me, and I said no. She said it was because one of my tail lights wasn't working, and agreed with me when I said it was probably a result of the accident I had a few days earlier. She seemed to believe me when I told her I didn't know about the tail light.

I thought maybe she'd give me a ticket or a warning, and give my documents back to me. Instead, she walked back to her car and got on her radio. I wasn't worried, because it wasn't like I had an outstanding warrant or anything more than a couple of unpaid parking tickets. But while she was in her car, another police car pulled up, and two more officers got out.

In my rear view mirror, I saw the officer who stopped us get back out of her car, at the same time that I saw yet another police car pull up. At this point, I started to get nervous — after all there we were, two black males, driving through D.C. at 4 a.m., in a banged up car, with the police units and six police officers now at the scene. Depending on any number of factors, including what we said or did, it might not matter if we'd done anything wrong.

"Is this your vehicle?" the officer asked me when she arrived back at my window. "We've had some car thefts reported in this area."

I assured her that it was my car, and she stepped away for a moment to confer with one of the other officers now milling about the scene. At that moment, a police van showed up, and stopped alongside the passenger side of the car. Neal, who hadn't said a word up to this point, looked at the van, looked at me and just said "What the..."

I finished his sentence silently, in my mind.

The officer, at this point, was back at my window. "Sir," she asked me, "do you have the title to the vehicle."

How many people keep the title to their car in the car itself? I didn't know, but I knew that I did have the title in the car. I knew just where it was. It was in my briefcase, which was in the trunk of the car. I knew that in order to retrieve the title, I'd have to get out of the car — and with at least eight officers now pretty much surrounding us — walk over to the back of the car, open the trunk, open the briefcase, and retrieve the title.

What if, I thought, just one of these officers thought I was reaching for a gun at any point in that series of steps? That I had no gun — had never even owned one, in fact — was and would have been meaningless in that moment. It wouldn't have mattered.

This was about four years before the Amadou Diallo shooting, but just about two years after the death of Malice Green. So, I knew we were one misunderstanding, one miscommunication, one hesitation, one angry word, one hint of resistance, one moment of frustration away from being another one of those stories.

I told the officer that I had the title, and that it was in my briefcase, in the trunk of the car. I told her I'd have to get out of the car, open the trunk, and open the briefcase to get the title out and show it to her. She gave me the go ahead, and I walked around to the back of the car, opened the trunk, opened the briefcase, and got the title. I don't remember if the officer followed me, and I didn't look to see if any of the officers had their hands on their weapons. I couldn't.

I showed the officer the title. She looked it over, handed it back to me, and told me to get back in the car. The van drove away, and one of other police cars drove away. Finally, the officer came back to my window.

"I'm giving you a warning," she said. "You take him home, get yourself home, and then I don't want to see you driving this car again in this condition."

I assured her that she wouldn't.

"Alright," she said. "Have a good one."

I rolled up my window, and started the engine. To this day, I am eternally grateful that Neal waited until the windows were rolled up and we were driving away from the police officers to exclaim — well out of their earshot — "Have a good one? F___ you!"

I laughed, out of sheer relief, but I understood that there was a moment back there when we could have been "another Rodney King." We could have been "another Malice Green." We could have been Amadou Diallo, or even Abner Louima.

And now, as I remember that night, I know we could have been Sean Bell too.

Bell, 23, had just left his stag party at a club in Jamaica, Queens, when he was shot and killed on November 25 2006.

Two of his friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were also wounded as the three plainclothed police detectives opened fire on Bell's car.

All three of the men in the car were unarmed and the shooting - which recalled a 1999 episode in which an unarmed immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was shot dead by police - brought fierce criticism of the detectives.

But after a seven-week trial, Judge Arthur Cooperman ruled that the three police officers, Michael Oliver, 36, Gescard Isnora, 29, and Marc Cooper, 40, bore no criminal responsibility for the death of Bell or the wounding of his friends.

...However, the New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who had been critical of the shooting, said that the judge had followed his duty to decide the case on evidence presented in his courtroom.

"There are no winners in a trial like this," he said in a statement. "An innocent man lost his life, a bride lost her groom, two daughters lost their father, and a mother and a father lost their son. No verdict could ever end the grief of those who knew and loved Sean Bell."

Oh, but there are winners in a trial like this. The winners are the officers who walked out of the courtroom, never to bear legal consequences for actions leading to the death of a young man who should be alive today. The officers will return to their lives. However changed those lives will be, they have them to return to.

They will return to their families. They will return to their children. They will very likely see those children grow up and — if they're fortunate — live to hold their grandchildren in their arms. Sean Bell will not, though there is no good reason why. So, yes, there are winners in this trial. And there are losers. To say "Nobody wins," diminishes the magnitude of loss experienced by Sean Bell's family.

Under the right circumstances, I could be Sean Bell and people could be expressing the same outrage.

Hundreds of angry people marched through Harlem on Saturday after the Rev. Al Sharpton promised to "close this city down" to protest the acquittals of three police detectives in the 50-shot barrage that killed a groom on his wedding day and wounded two friends.

"We strategically know how to stop the city so people stand still and realize that you do not have the right to shoot down unarmed, innocent civilians," Sharpton told an overflow crowd of several hundred people at his National Action Network office in the historically black Manhattan neighborhood. "This city is going to deal with the blood of Sean Bell."

Sharpton was joined by the family of 23-year-old Sean Bell — a black man — and a friend of Bell who was wounded in the 2006 shooting outside a Queens strip club. Two of the three officers charged were also black.

The rally at Sharpton's office was followed by a 20-block march down Malcolm X Boulevard and then across 125th Street, Harlem's main business thoroughfare, where some bystanders yelled out "Kill the police!"

Fifty of the marchers carried white placards bearing big black numbers for each of the police bullets fired at Bell and his friends.

Sharpton urged people to return for a meeting this coming week "to plan the day that we will close this city down" with the kind of "massive civil disobedience" once led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Why shouldn't the city come to a halt? Why shouldn't they march and shut down the city? Why shouldn't there be a peaceful demonstration of outrage; justified outrage at an absolute lack of justice?

Sure, depending on your perspective, the system worked just the way it's supposed to.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution ensures that we have the right to a trial by a jury of our peers in a serious criminal case. But as with all rights, you can voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently waive that right and instead have your case tried by a judge.

That is what Michael Oliver, Marc Cooper and Gescard Isnora did. Many thought it was a gamble. It was a gamble that paid off.

Justice Arthur Cooperman, a 74-year-old bench veteran, acquitted all three detectives. The public is outraged. But it shouldn't be. Cooperman did what we ask every juror to do: consider and determine the facts of the case -- that is, what he believed to be the true facts -- from among all of the evidence in the case.

Again, that there are "no winners" in a case like this is a misstatement, at best, that serves as an attempt to blunt outrage. It's the flip side of calls to redirect that outrage at less specific targets.

...The history of policing in America really is the history of race relations. So, if the takeaway from this is that there's no problem because the police weren't convicted, then that would be tragic and that would be completely missing the point. This was an operation that was extremely problematic, and every effort has to be made to make sure it never happens again.

This really is a legal case more than your ordinary criminal case, because the law of self-defense is very favorable to the police. I think what they were trying to avoid was the possibility that a jury of individuals might say, well, with so many charges, we have to convict them of something. New York law allows police ... to make pretty serious mistakes and still not be criminally liable, because the state has to disprove any justification beyond reasonable doubt--which is a very high standard. A judge has to put himself in the police's shoes and look at the case through their eyes. With the jury, the concern would be that the jury would say, well, let's compromise. But this judge saw that if you have doubts about whether the cops are completely justified, then, following the law, you must return a not guilty verdict, which is what he did.

...The larger message is that there's an over-reliance on the criminal-justice system, and that that has really fallen in a whole host of ways on minority Americans. This is just one example. And it's really not fair or decent to blame the cops--they're not the ones who create the system that we have. The outrage that should really be sparked by this event should be over how we have a system where so many minorities end up on the receiving end of our criminal-justice system? Why are they constantly on the receiving end? Can't we have a more balanced and a more just approach, and a more decent and humane approach?

The problem is that the target for outrage is amorphous, faceless, and too esoteric to inspire the kind of passion — or focus — that a case like this one does.

And it does little to address the specific injustice in this case. Sure, a jury probably would have recognized that injustice. A jury, or at least a significant number of jurors, wouldn't have felt right about letting that injustice go un-addressed, and probably would have wanted to charge the officers with something, rather than let those responsible for Bell's death walk out of the courtroom and back to their lives. A wrong was done to someone, and a life lost as a result; circumstances that usually call for

Mayor Bloomberg can say "there are no winners" in a case like this, but there are victims; victims who have not and most likely will not get anything even approaching justice.

Black male lives are meaningless in America," a female friend just texted me, and what can I say to that? Who's going to help Nicole Paultre Bell, Sean Bell's grieving fiancé, explain to their two young daughters that the men who killed their daddy are not going to be punished?

I am willing to bet that at least half of all African American families, somewhere in their history, have a story of at least one male family member who was lynched or murdered, or at least have passed down stories of what happened to young men in their communities. They know, too, where an incident like this probably wouldn't happen, and who it wouldn't happen to.

Real talk: this tragedy would have never gone down on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan or in Brooklyn Heights. I am not just speaking about the judge's decision, but the police officer's actions. Those shots would have never been fired at unarmed White people sitting in a car. Until we understand that racism is not just about who pulled the trigger in a police misconduct case, but is also about the geography of racism, and the psychology of racism, we are forever stuck having the same endless dialogue with no solution in sight.

My dad never spoke of it, but I'm willing to bet as he was growing up he knew someone, or heard about someone, who met that same fate. He probably thought about that as he saw me about to walk out the door to drive back to school. I couldn't, in that moment, see myself through my father's eyes. Instead, he looked at me and saw all the others who'd gone before me, out of their own front door; those who are now just plain gone.

Can my dad be blamed for thinking that so little had changed? Can anyone be blamed for thinking that the more things change, the more they stay the same?

William Bell showed the most frustration. At one point, while everyone stood and chanted, he sat stiff-jawed in his seat, his elbows on his knees and his fingers interlocking. Later, he stepped to the microphone and said, "Is this 1955 Alabama?"

Is it? It's easy to say "things like that don't happen anymore." But we all know better. I was raised on it, and even when my father reminded me that I — as a black male — would not be treated the same as a white male my age, I knew enough not to even try to say he was wrong.

He wasn't wrong then, and he isn't wrong now. And if the day comes when I must have the same conversation with one of my sons that my father had with me that day, will I be wrong? Will that marrow-deep intuition — that knowing — finally be wrong?

It isn't, yet.