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Monday, May 26, 2008

The Phantom of Justice

Last week I had the kind of experience that can only happen in New York.

I was leaving a doctor's appointment in the fashion district at 6:30 in the evening and I was to meet my stepmother at 7:45 in Times Square to see the musical Gypsy, which we'd both wanted to see for some time. That left me much more than the twenty minutes it would take to walk uptown, so I was thinking of stopping into a bar wait out the downtime. Passing by Madison Square Garden on my way to one of its nearby sports bars, I saw twenty or so black men and women standing vigil for Sean Bell.

I won't get into the details of the Sean Bell case here. Let me just say that I'd been going through it in my mind and I couldn't see the difference between the reckless endangerment by Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq, the reckless endangerment by John White on Long Island (instead of calling the police, he brought a loaded gun out to confront a car full of boys who came to harass or beat up his son, and shot a boy when he swatted at the gun), and the reckless endangerment by police officers in Queens whose first response was to start shooting and who even, in the face of no return fire, reloaded and keep shooting dozens more bullets, putting one in a nearby living room, and one in a nearby monorail station. None of these people got up in the morning saying "why not shoot someone innocent today", and I hope I never have to face the wrenching momentum of a violent, life-or-death situation, but each was ready to use deadly force before employing a modicum of caution, and none granted their victims any benefit of the doubt before putting them in harm's way.

At the same time, I have my reservations. I can't say confidently that I would act differently than those police did. I hope I would, but what do I know about that level of violence, that place of tension and panic? And while that's not enough to absolve a private citizen who kills after being unnecessarily confrontative, it may be enough to absolve police. After all, we ask police to enter harm's way and to perform a duty that our society needs fundamentally, but which few of us are willing to do. If, having been asked by us to stand in our place, to be the ones who face bullets and must dispense justice, they prove not malicious but maybe irresponsible or negligent, how thoroughly can we blame them? My answer is: a little, not a lot.

That little bit, on the great scale of so brutal and ceaseless and haphazard a failure, is large enough for me to joined a protest. So I did, noticing that I was the only white person in it. We each held a sign with a different number between one and fifty, representing the number of bullets the police fired at Sean Bell and friends.

After ten minutes or so of this the organizers announced that we would be walking up Eighth Avenue. I didn't realize until we turned up Eighth that this meant not the sidewalk but the street itself. So we walked uptown, a very loose five abreast, occupying one lane of traffic during rush hour while people on the sidewalks stopped and stared, sometimes cheered (especially workers in the stores we passed), and occasionally joined us, and plain-clothes police officers shouted in alarm into their walkie-talkies. I didn't have work the next day so the thought crossed my mind that being arrested wouldn't be so bad, though I realized with alarm that it would mean I'd miss Gypsy. (It's Tony Awards season, when all the good tickets go to Tony voters, so finding tickets to the hottest show on Broadway is like finding a Knicks fan who still likes Isiah Thomas.)

But arrest was unlikely; I don't think the police were interested in exacerbating the city-wide tension by arresting black protesters, and besides, I didn't want the only white guy in the march to duck out as soon as things got serious. So, surprised to find myself in this situation, I marched up Eighth Avenue with the other protesters, blocking traffic, trying to stand between the passing buses and a woman with two small children who had stepped out from the crowd to join us.

Finally we reached the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, and the the organizers at the head turned as if we were going to walk West down 42nd Street. Suddenly I realized we were instead being formed into a big circle and -- good God -- we were blocking 42nd Street and Eighth, one of the busiest intersections in the city. This was something I had hardly thought possible, but there I was blocking traffic in front of Port Authority, listening to the maddest cabbies I've ever heard lean on a horn, and feeling relief that no public buses were trying to get through (civil disobedience in New York City always sucks the worst for people on the buses).

After standing and listening to the increasing chatter coming out of the police walkie-talkies for a several minutes, we finally picked up and resumed our march northward on Eighth Avenue, and I finally exhaled. After a few blocks we started to turn east, and what did I see but the very block I'd been heading for in the first place, the block where Gypsy was playing. This being prime Broadway real estate, the show right across from Gypsy is Phantom of the Opera, and in fact the organizers stopped right between Gypsy and Phantom, blocked one of the street's two lanes and called for all of us to face the theater showing Phantom of the Opera.

Several hundred European and American tourists and what seemed like a few dozen New Yorkers were already crowded on either side of the block, waiting for the shows to open, and with nothing else at all to do, all of them fixed their eyes on us and gaped. This, it would turn out, was precisely what the organizers had anticipated, and the lead organizer took the bullhorn and began a very unlikely prepared address -- not only an address to the tourists, but an address to the Phantom.

"Oh great Phantom of the Opera," he began, "you who call so many to travel far to visit our city, tonight you give us the gift of your famous entertainment."

At this point I glanced around, to see if anyone else felt this had been an extraordinary opening, but the mouths didn't seem to be gaping any differently than before.

"But I ask you, before you begin your amazing show, please give your theatergoers a moment to learn about a grave injustice, about a young man who was shot and killed by the police on his wedding day. Yes, on his wedding day. All you who have a great treat in store for you tonight at this great Phantom of the Opera, when you go home to your loved ones, and tell them about this wonderful Phantom of the Opera, tell them also that before the show began, you had a moment of conscious, a moment when you said, 'I learned that a man was killed, and I learned that that man could have been me. And I want to know, who was this man, Sean Bell?' Because it isn't about race. This young man, Sean Bell, could have been any of us -- white or black, rich or poor. So look up his story on the internet. Read about Sean Bell. Now enjoy this amazing Phantom of the Opera show, but don't forget that an innocent young man is dead and that when there's no justice there's no peace. Thank you."

He put down the bullhorn and I suddenly realized that after the protest broke up, I would be stepping right into line behind the people who had been staring at me for fifteen minutes. And after we formed a quick prayer circle and were instructed to disperse, that's exactly what I did. With many eyes on me, I took my place outside the entrance of Gypsy, nodded to staring people standing on either side of me, and waited for my stepmother to arrive with the tickets. I had walked precisely the route I would have walked anyways, and I had found a very unexpected way to make it last just long enough.

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Blogger Alice on Tue May 27, 05:04:00 PM:
Ben, this is such a wonderful story, and you've told it so well.