In a perfect world, the general public wouldn’t even know Sean Bell’s name. He was supposed to be just another hardworking family man from Queens, NY, who enjoyed spending Sundays with his daughters, Jada and Jordyn. He was supposed to grow old with his high school sweetheart, Nicole, and reminisce with friends about his 11-0 pitching record during his senior year. Instead, Bell became one of the most notable police shooting victims of the mid-2000s.
In the wee hours of the morning of November 25, 2006, 23-year-old Bell and his friends—including groomsmen Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman—had just finished celebrating his bachelor party at Club Kalua, a Jamaica, Queens strip joint that was under police investigation for illegal activities. Undercover officer Gescard Isnora followed Bell, Benefield, and Guzman to their car after allegedly overhearing one of the trio mention a gun during an argument with a man outside the club.
As Bell got behind the wheel, Isnora along with four other plainclothes cops approached the vehicle with their guns drawn. Bell put the car in drive and hit another vehicle in the process. The officers responded by opening fire, letting off 50 shots in total. When the hail of bullets stopped, all three passengers had been struck multiple times but Bell was the only one fatally wounded. No weapons were ever found in the vehicle.
The wedding-day shooting of an unarmed groom and his friends by the police grabbed national headlines and led to public outcry. Despite one of the officers (Michael Oliver) reloading his weapon and firing 31 of the 50 shots, all five cops were acquitted of any wrongdoing in the fatal shooting.
Sean Bell’s fiancée Nicole Paultre Bell and her mother Laura Harper-Paultre outside of Jamaica Hospital the day Sean was shot and killed by NYPD officers. Photo by Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
In the time since the tragic incident, Bell’s bride-to-be, Nicole Paultre Bell, has remained vigilant in her fight against injustice. She sponsors the Sean Bell Little League, hosts an Annual Sean Bell Summit focused on people knowing their rights, and speaks out against police violence during national marches and speaking engagements.
Now, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the shooting, the activist opens up about her struggles with depression, her fondest memories of Sean and how she plans to make sure his death was not in vain.
You became a widow and single mother at the age of 22 on what was supposed to be your wedding day. How did you find the strength to move on from something like that?
Nicole Paultre Bell.
The only thing that kept me strong was my family, my daughters, my community, my activism… The nation standing up and shouting out Sean’s name, you know, counting [down each of the shots] from one to fifty at the marches. Those are some of the moments that really brought me back to life. Because what was supposed to be the happiest day of my life, ultimately led to 50 shots being fired by the police. So, for me, it was devastating. Those were some of the darkest and scariest times of my life, being so deep in a place where nothing can bring joy, not even my children.
WE’RE LIVING IN THE DAY AND AGE OF SEAN BELL, TRAYVON MARTIN, ERIC GARNER, WALTER SCOTT, SANDRA BLAND… THE LIST GOES ON. THERE ARE FAMILIES BEHIND THE HASHTAGS AND THEY DON’T GO AWAY, NO MATTER IF THE CAMERAS LEAVE OR NOT.
Did the experience put you in a state of depression?
Yes. There were a lot of people that were affected by those 50 shots that killed Sean and permanently wounded his friends. Those bullets didn’t only kill Sean, they killed parts of who I was, parts of who his mother, Mrs. Bell, was. The scariest thing about depression is that it affects everyone and when it happens you don’t even know that you’re going through it. You just realize that nothing really brings you joy anymore. Nothing brings a smile. In my past, I’ve even had thoughts of suicide.
Wow. You’ve always carried yourself so strong in public that most people wouldn’t even have known.
We hide behind our smiles and you go to work every day, but on the inside you’re dying. That’s literally how I felt. Although I was out there at every march and every rally, at home it was very, very hard to even take care of my children on a day-to-day basis. My oldest was three when this happened and my youngest daughter with Sean was just five-months-old. I just have to thank God when I think about how far I’ve come and all the lives I’ve been able to touch just by speaking out and telling my story. It’s truly a blessing.
Jada and Jordyn are old enough to understand what happened to their father now. How have they coped with the loss over the years?
Nicole and Sean Bell on Prom Night. Photo courtesy Nicole Paultre Bell
For my daughters, it’s a very raw, unsettling feeling. Especially for my oldest Jada—she’s broken. No matter how much love and joy and support I give her or the family provides for her, there’s a piece of her that’s missing. She was Daddy’s little girl, and she knows that. There are the pictures, and it was so long ago, so her memories have faded but she’s old enough to understand and ask: how could this happen? It’s just not something that any child should have to endure. Knowing that my daughters won’t have what I have today with my father—that’s not fair. They didn’t deserve that. Today, me and my dad are the closest ever. He’s there at every moment of my life, but my daughters don’t have that with their own biological father, but we’re so blessed that we have so many men to step in but that void will never be filled.
Unfortunately, Sean’s case was not an anomaly. Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen countless other men and women unjustly killed by the police. How do you discuss those incidents with your daughters?
Jada attends a private high school in Queens, and every time there’s another person killed by police officers, I have to sit her down and have a conversation with her, just to prepare her because someone may bring up her father’s name. I don’t think anyone could even fathom how difficult it is to explain police violence to a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old. Yes, Mommy’s fighting for justice alongside some other powerful leaders, but we can’t seem to stop this the way we thought we could. And every time another person loses their life, for a split second, I get that thought that: What are we not doing right to stop this? It’s 2016 and racism is alive and well. We’re living in the day and age of Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland… the list goes on. There are families behind the hashtags and they don’t go away, no matter if the cameras leave or not.
You mention victims like Eric Garner and Sandra Bland; have you had an opportunity to talk about your shared loss with other family members of victims of police violence?
REALLY, WHAT WE HAVE TO START DOING IS RAISING OUR KIDS AND TAKING OUR COMMUNITIES BACK. AND WHEN I SAY RAISING OUR KIDS, I MEAN RAISING OUR KIDS TO BE THOSE LAWYERS, THOSE DOCTORS, THOSE POLITICIANS, THOSE POLICE OFFICERS, WHOMEVER.
I’ve had so many conversations with these mothers but nothing about the deaths! We talk about regular, everyday stuff, and you would just laugh at how funny, smart, and intelligent these people were before they died. I can’t help but think if more officers took the time out to get to know the people in their communities, maybe they would have known that. It’s not even a civil rights issue anymore; it’s about human rights. We’re all human beings, and everyone deserves to be treated with respect, and when police officers approach a young child or a grown man or a grown woman, they need to act as if it’s their own son or their own brother or their own daughter that they’re speaking with, and really protect and serve like they’re hired to do.
It’s been 10 years since Sean’s death and we’ve seen countless more since then. What do you see as the possible solution to police shootings of unarmed men and women—especially people of color?
I know a lot of people say it’s white on black but in the case of Sean and his friends, Joe and Trent, the officer who started the initial shooting was a minority man. He was 28 years old. So, there’s a systemic issue here of discrimination that just continues to go on, and there is something about the black or urban community being known as “low-income” and being harassed and targeted by unfair, over-aggressive police practices. I’ve met with politicians, elected officials, lawyers and other activists trying to find ways to fix this. Really, what we have to start doing is raising our kids and taking our communities back. And when I say raising our kids, I mean raising our kids to be those lawyers, those doctors, those politicians, those police officers, whomever. We have to make the change that we want, because I don’t see it any other way at this point.
“IT’S A BLESSING TO KNOW THAT THEIR COLLEGE WILL BE PAID FOR, BUT FOR THE PRICE OF THEIR FATHER’S LIFE? IT’S UNACCEPTABLE. THEIR FATHER SHOULD BE HERE WITH THEM, AND THERE’S NO AMOUNT OF MONEY THAT COULD EVER FILL THAT VOID, EVER.”
So often we see police officers acquitted of these crimes in Federal court but later found accountable in civil court, which was the case with Sean. Did that provide any form of solace for you?
The civil suit is now the only legal matter where it seems like the city will provide some sort of accountability for the family. But accountability means going to jail for the life that you take—going to jail for murdering someone. So, time and time again, you have the civil suit, which is what they think will quiet the family down. For me, the civil suit meant nothing. Sean and I weren’t married. I had no legal rights to a civil suit. My daughters, on the other hand, were his next to kin, so one day, when they’re old enough, they’ll be able to use the funds for their financial future. It’s a blessing to know that their college will be paid for, but for the price of their father’s life? It’s unacceptable. Their father should be here with them, and there’s no amount of money that could ever fill that void, ever.
What is one of your fondest memories of Sean?
Sean on daddy duty with oldest daughter, Jada. Photo courtesy Nicole Paultre Bell.
One day, Sean and I had a conversation when he was still alive, he said, “If anything ever happens to me, just make sure that you take care of my daughters.” And that is one memory that I keep close to my heart. So I’m going to continue to raise my daughters to be strong, to be happy, to speak up when something is wrong. And until we stop seeing people losing their lives, we’re not going to sit down. We’re going to continue to fight for justice. November 25th will mark 10 years and I don’t see a reason to ever say it’s been long enough or it’s time to take a rest. No, I’m breathing and as long as my children are breathing, I have a reason to fight for Sean Bell, and I will continue to.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for part 2, an extensive video interview with Nicole Paultre Bell as we continue to go Beyond the Hashtag to uncover the true impact police-related shootings have on the victim’s family.