In the early-morning hours of Nov. 25, 2006, 23-year-old Sean Bell left a Queens club after a night of celebrating. It was his wedding day. Moments later, police officers fired a barrage of 50 bullets that killed Bell and injured two of his friends. Officers later said they thought the men were armed. None of them were. Three officers in Bell’s case faced charges ranging from manslaughter to reckless endangerment, but all were acquitted.
It’s a storyline that’s become all too familiar for moms of black sons, most notably the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. Sadly, the list continues to grow. On Tuesday, graphic video surfaced of the fatal shooting of 50-year-old Walter Scott, a father of four, by a police officer in South Carolina following a traffic stop. In an interview with NBC News, Scott’s mother said the footage, which depicted her son “running like you would kill an animal,” was too heartbreaking to watch. The officer, Michael T. Slager, has been fired from the police force and charged with murder.
We spoke with with Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, and asked for her thoughts on the Walter Scott tragedy and what justice in this case might look like.
Women in the World: Looking back at the tragedy surrounding your son’s death in 2006 to Tuesday’s news of the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in South Carolina, do you feel that any progress has been made? Why or why not?
Valerie Bell: No, because it’s happening over in so many different states. It’s unbelievable. Cops are just taking over. Instead of them being there to serve and protect us, they are acting like they’re afraid of us. They are charging him for murder, but are they gonna put him in jail? We know you’re innocent until proven guilty, but a film like that, what can they not see? I don’t understand that one.
WITW: Have you seen any changes in the public’s reaction to your son’s death compared to those who died after? (Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin)
VB: I pray they don’t riot. We all have to learn how to stick together and be there for each other. There is nothing wrong with continuing rallies and speaking out, but change has to be made amongst us. There needs to be changes in the police policy. But it’s still like a never-ending story, every year it opens up wounds for my son when you hear about these deaths. There are so many out there that you don’t know much about because it’s under cover, they don’t have the right people to voice for them so it’s constantly going on. The police are killing African-American men, Latino men. Why are they doing this to us?
WITW: What’s your response to the officer being charged with murder?
VB: They’re charging you for murder, but are you going to jail? Like my son’s case, they were indicted, but they were all set free, so you have to see how it’s going to work in South Carolina, time will tell.
WITW: What would you say to Walter Scott’s mother if you could speak with her today?
VB: I know it hurts. It’s OK to scream and cry and let all the pain out. It’s going to take time and it won’t happen overnight, but keep your head up for your son. Do not let them belittle him because they will do that, especially in the courts. Mom, I’m praying for you, keep your head up and stay strong in the Lord.
WITW: There have been conversations in the media on how black parents should speak to their sons about police brutality. What do you think schools, parents, and colleges are missing as part of that conversation?
VB: You have to show respect in order to get respect. All police officers are not bad. What the police officers need to start doing in the communities is if they see the teenagers hanging out: “Hi, how you doing?” The way so many things are going on with these killings, they’re afraid to say that. When you talk to your children or your youth, you have to explain to them, respect them. If they tell you to stop, you stop. Cooperate with them, cause if you don’t cooperate something like this will happen.
WITW: What can be done to change the movement?
VB: You need to get people more organized. You have to have a voice. You have to keep doing it. You have to keep going on and on. With these movements it shouldn’t stop. You don’t know when people are gonna need people like you to help them out.
WITW: What do you want people to know that no one has spoken to you about so far?
VB: To share the life of my son. During the court trial they put him down like a bad guy, but he wasn’t. He had a heart. He was only 23, but he did a lot for a young age. At 6 years old he played baseball and that was his gift. His trade was to be a electrician. Never give up, thats what I always told my son. I always told him when he was ready to give up: “Sean, Phillipians 4:13, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Do not give up.”
He didn’t give up in high school. He was a senior, everybody from afar was supposed to come to his graduation and that month they told him he couldn’t walk down the aisle because he failed a test, but you know what? Sean did not give up. He went to summer school and he got his high school diploma in September. At his bachelor party, he was taking calls from the L.A. Dodgers that they wanted him to come to their camp. He went from job to job, but he didn’t give up to help his children. In January 2007, he was called to go to an electrical program. So as a young man, do something that you love doing. Do not give up.
WITW: Do you feel like technology and video accounts are pivotal in shaping the storyline of these tragedies?
VB: They see them, it’s the question: Do they believe it? You see it with your eyes clear as day, but then they turn their back to say: Not guilty. How much more? What can a person do to show them this is what happened to this person for no reason. They may start putting them out with the police officers, but will they really work? They don’t work for the videos that people make nowadays on the street with their phones. Like Eric Garner’s case, they see it clear as day, but that’s why people have doubt that someone is going to be convicted for killing somebody when they have it clear as day on video. What is going on? It’s like the DAs, the prosecutors, and the police department are all working hand in hand. They have to make the change in their system to say enough is enough, we’re not going to tolerate killing civilians for no reason, especially when you’re unarmed. They’re always saying training, training. Training for what? To kill more people? You have to hold them accountable.
WITW: How do you feel when you see that none of the other officers have gone to jail?
VB: It makes me feel doubt. They’re killing us and they’re all getting away with it. It makes you feel there is no hope in that situation. It’s been happening over and over again, and I give my condolence to the mother. He is somebody, we all are somebody. But I give my condolences to a mother who just lost her son for unnecessary reasons.