The Murder of Sean Bell

From pain to poetry

By Renée Watson

Illustrator: Alain Pilon

Illustration: Alain Pilon

“I’m afraid that one day I’ll be shot by the cops for no reason,” a 7th-grade student blurted out in our class discussion. My teaching partner and I had asked students to call out their hopes and fears. “What do you hope for your community? What is it about your community that makes you afraid?” we asked. I wrote their answers on chart paper and by the end of the discussion, our class list included better schools, more parks, peace, and safer neighborhoods. Our list also included violence, drugs, bullying, and police brutality.

One student, Felix, passionately talked about the mistreatment from the police he’d seen with his own eyes just outside his Bronx apartment window. “They always shoot us,” he said. “It makes me angry.”

“Me too,” students in the class shouted. “They do us wrong.”

Us. The word was so alive, so inclusive. Even the students who just last week had been outsiders to the cliques that often form in middle school classrooms were a part of Us. Everyone who lived in the Bronx, agreed among themselves that there was an Us and Them. Ninety-five percent of the students were of Latino or African decent. Their school was one of many New York public schools that was under corrective action from the state because of low test scores.

Felix continued: “Nobody cares about what happens to us. And there’s nothing we can do. You ask us to write poems about how we feel, but words don’t have no power to change things.” Felix wasn’t being disrespectful. I believe he honestly felt helpless.

I asked the class, “Are words powerless?” Some agreed with Felix. But others pointed out that song lyrics have caused people to fall in love, that speeches have healed nations, that story books have calmed sleepless, crying children.

I believe deep down Felix knew this. I wondered if maybe he thought his words were powerless because he’d never been heard. Never truly been listened to. I wanted him, and the rest of the class, to know that their angry, hurt, questioning words mattered. I wanted them to know that for centuries poets and writers have put ink to paper to celebrate, encourage, heal, challenge, teach, and even chastise their world.

I hoped they’d join that legacy.

It was our 10th creative writing workshop together. As teaching-artists coming in only once a week to teach a poetry residency with the theme of community and social justice, my co-teacher, Nikki Westfall, and I were careful to build trust and mutual respect. Each day served as a building block for the next lesson, which deepened in content and encouraged students to become more vulnerable in their writing.

First, we wrote prose about our names, using Sandra Cisneros’ piece “My Name” (House on Mango Street). Students also celebrated their community by writing “Where I’m From” poems, inspired by Willie Perdomo’s poem, “Where I’m From” (Smoking Lovely) and Linda Christensen’s lesson in her book, Reading, Writing, and Rising Up .

We turned to Perdomo again when we realized police brutality was a concern for youth living in the Bronx. Perdomo’s poem, “41 Bullets Off Broadway,” was written about Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African who was shot 19 times in a hail of 41 bullets by the police in the Bronx. The year was 1999. These 7th-grade students were only 3 or 4 years old then. Most of them had never heard about Diallo. But now, at 12 and 13, they were introduced to Sean Bell.

Bell, 23, was shot by the police in Queens and died the morning of his wedding. In total, 50 bullets were fired. Bell and his friends were unarmed. It was 2006. In the year and a half that led to the final ruling — acquittal for all five officers — Bell’s picture, along with photos of his fiancée and their two children, were constantly on the news. New Yorkers talked about the case on the subway, in coffee shops, in churches, and now in classrooms.

We began the Sean Bell unit by bringing in a CD of Perdomo performing “41 Bullets Off Broadway.” I gave students copies and they followed along as they listened. Bringing the poet’s voice into the classroom was a powerful tool and is something I try to do often. It is important to me to provide students several entry points to the lessons. I layer lessons not only with printed words for students who have strong verbal skills, but I also bring in music, movement activities, and visual components to help address the multiple intelligences of all students. It is one thing for me to read the poem to the students, but to have Perdomo perform it like only he can, brought the stanzas to life:

. . . From the Bronx to El Barrio
we heard you fall face first into
the lobby of your equal opportunity
forty-one bullets like silver push pins
holding up a connect-the-dots picture of Africa
forty-one bullets not giving you enough time
to hit the floor with dignity and
justice for all forty-one bullet shells
trickling onto a bubble gum-stained mosaic
where your body is mapped out.

. . . Before you could show your
I.D. and say, “Officer — “
Four regulation Glock clips went achoo
and smoked you into spirit and by the
time a special street unit decided what was
enough another dream submitted an
application for deferral

By the time you hit the floor
the special unit forgot everything they
learned at the academy
The mayor told them to take a few
days off and when they came back he
sent them to go beat up a million young
black men while your blood seeped through
the tile in the lobby of your equal
opportunity from the Bronx to El Barrio
there were enough shots to go around.

My teaching partner and I, along with the classroom teacher, led a class discussion. We asked the class, “Does anyone know who this poem is about?” Most of them answered Sean Bell. “Why do you think this poem is about Sean Bell?”

“Because it’s about a man who was killed by the police,” many answered.

I wrote on the board: Amadou Diallo. “Unfortunately, Sean Bell is not the only person who was shot by the police. This poem is about an incident that happened in 1999.” We then asked students to turn their poems over. On the other side there was a New York Times article about the Diallo case. My teaching partner read the article to the class as they followed along. We encouraged students to read critically. “Star any questions you have or words you don’t understand and underline the similarities between Diallo and Bell.”

There were many similarities.

Students called them out. “It happened in New York.”

“They were both black men.”

“He was in his 20s, too.”

“They were both unarmed.”

We then asked students to look back over Perdomo’s poem. “Where does the poet use facts from the case in his poem? Where does he use his own imagination? What parts of the poem show Perdomo’s feelings? What are some of the images that come to your mind as you read the poem?”

We recorded their answers on the board in three columns: Facts, Emotions, Images. Many students focused on the lines in the poem where Perdomo describes the bathroom and lobby of Diallo’s apartment. They pointed out that Perdomo probably never saw it, but used his imagination to add these descriptive images. After our list was complete, I asked, “Why do you think Willie Perdomo wrote this poem?”

One student responded, “Because he thought what happened was unfair.”

Another added, “Because he wanted to speak for Diallo since he couldn’t talk for himself.”

A girl in the back of the class thought Perdomo wrote it for Diallo’s mother. “It won’t bring Diallo back, but it will let his mother know that someone cares about what happened to her son.”

We asked the students, “What emotions do you think Willie Perdomo feels in this poem?”

In unison the class replied, “Anger.” Some answered, “Sad, frustrated, confused.”

We then talked about how Perdomo chose to handle his emotions. He wrote.

“How many of you are angry about the Sean Bell case?”

All the students raised their hands.

“Well, today, we’re going to write about it.”

At this point, we passed out an article about Sean Bell. After reading it as a class, students were given the assignment in three steps.

First, they were to complete their own chart, like the one on the board, about the Bell case using the article. I gave students a worksheet that had three columns — Facts, Emotions, Images — and asked them to write at least four words under each column.

Second, they were asked to choose which voice they wanted to write in. I asked, “Who was talking in Perdomo’s poem?” He was. “Who was he speaking to?” He was speaking to Diallo. We gave students a choice. They could write in their own voice to Sean Bell, or they could write as Sean Bell. They could write as his fiancée or mother. Or they could choose to be one of the bullets or an officer.

By this point in our creative writing residency, students were equipped with several literary devices and we wanted to push them to be as creative as possible, especially since most of their poems up to this lesson were autobiographical. We reminded them of their Literary Tool Box. Their toolbox included anaphora, alliteration, metaphor, simile, personification and sensory detail. These literary devices were taught in prior lessons and we’d reviewed them throughout the residency.

Literary Tool Box

Anaphora: When the beginning of a line repeats.

Alliteration: Words that begin with the same sound.

Metaphor: Comparing two unlikely things without using like or as.

Simile: Comparing two unlikely things using like or as.

Personification: Giving human attributes to an animal or nonhuman thing.

Sensory Detail: Images described using the five senses.

I reminded the students, “Willie Perdomo didn’t just say, ‘Diallo was shot by the police. I’m mad. It wasn’t fair.’ Be creative and use the tools you have to add sensory details to your poem.”

Step three was to begin writing. “Use the words from your chart to get started and if you get stuck, refer to Willie Perdomo’s poem as an example.”

Then, we reviewed the assignment guidelines and handed out their Poetry Checklist. “You’ll know your poem is complete when you have at least three or more stanzas, you’ve used three or more phrases from your chart, and you’ve applied one or more of the literary devices from your toolbox.”

During class time, students finished the chart and decided from which point of view they wanted to write. The following week, students wrote their poems. Volunteers shared their poems in class and several students submitted their Sean Bell poem to our end-of-the-year anthology.

Belkis wrote from the point of view of Bell’s fiancée:

My expectation on that day
   was for me to walk down the aisle
to you,
   but instead I walked down the
   towards your casket…

My expectation on that day
   was to be next to you saying,
      “I do.”

But instead, I stood next to your
   body, crying…
   You are the love of my life.
   We miss you.
   We hope you’re doing better
       where you are
   than how we’re doing here.

Mokhtar imagined what it would be like for a mother to lose a child. He made a list of all the things a mother might remember and feel. “Am I doing this right?” he asked, showing me his first stanza:

To everybody else it’s just a news story.
To me, it’s different because he is my son.
I remember when I changed his diapers.

Johnny, the class clown in the group, took this assignment seriously and wrote from the perspective of one of the bullets:

I struck you in the neck and arm.
If it was up to me, I would have never even touched you.
I felt really shocked when the guy that took control of me
pulled the trigger.

I didn’t know what to do.
I couldn’t change my direction once I was in the air.
I’m sorry, man.
I’m sorry I caused your death.

Two baby girls.
I had no right to keep you in shock like that.
It was really wrong.
The day of your wedding.
Man, I’m sorry.

It is important for me to say that while I want students to use their writing to empathize with others, release their anger, and celebrate their cultures, I don’t do this work at the expense of teaching basic literacy skills. I make sure my workshops are aligned with the classroom teacher’s curriculum. I find that when students care deeply about the topics presented in the lesson plans, they work harder to revise and hone their writing.

My goal is to create balance in the classroom, where creative writing serves as a vehicle to heighten social awareness and academic success. I hope that my creative writing residencies provide a safe place for students to let out everything they are holding in. I encourage students to see poetry as a container that is strong enough to hold their rage, questions, and wildest imaginations.

After completing the Sean Bell unit, we continued with the theme of telling someone else’s story. Using Martín Espada’s poem, “Jorge the Janitor Finally Quits,” we moved forward to lessons about empathy and giving voice to invisible communities. Our residency ended with a reading and celebration of our anthology.

Almost a year after working at MS 279, the verdict for Sean Bell’s case was announced. Every officer was acquitted. I thought about my students at MS 279. By then, I was no longer at their school. I was now working with freshmen students at Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts. They had just finished the unit on Sean Bell and the assignments on Invisible Communities. There had been heated discussion and debates, including students who understood the officers’ point of view, students who brought up the perceived deviant pasts of Bell and his friends, and students who believed people of color were overreacting. Some believed it was sad that Bell died, but didn’t think the police were negligent.

“If those officers don’t get no punishment, there’s going to be a riot,” one student said. “People are going to be so angry.”

The city of New York thought so, too. The day of the verdict police were out in full force. But there were no riots.

Citizens marched.

Actors performed in Bell’s honor.

Artists painted murals, designed shirts and buttons.

Writers wrote poems and recited them at open mic poetry slams in remonstration of the acquittal.

On the afternoon of the verdict, I watched the live broadcast of the acquitted officers making their statements. Occasionally, pictures would flash on the screen — Bell with his fiancée and two daughters, the yellow tape that sectioned off the block. Then, the camera would pan across the large crowd of New Yorkers who’d come out to the courthouse to hear the verdict themselves. There was so much interest in this case. So much support for the Bell family. I wondered what it meant to them to see New York show up for them, for Sean Bell. I was reminded of a question Felix asked the day we read Perdomo’s poem. “Do you know if Amadou Diallo’s mom ever read this poem?” he asked. I told him I didn’t know. Now, sitting in front of my television watching those same images that were shown almost two years ago, I wanted to make sure Sean Bell’s mother and his fiancée and his friends read these poems. A fellow teaching-artist, Nanya Goodrich, and I created a booklet of the students’ tributes to Sean Bell — both from MS 279 and Bronx High — and we sent them to the family.

People thought there’d be riots. They thought young people would join in and loot and burn up buildings. Instead the young people I know joined the legacy of Perdomo and Espada. They protested through poetry. They gave voice to a grieving family and an angry, disappointed community.

The young people I know turned their pain into poetry.

Renée Watson (Contact Me) has been a teaching-artist for 10 years, teaching theater and creative writing residencies in public and private schools in Oregon, Washington, and New York. She currently works with New York City arts and education organizations. Watson is also a contributor of Teaching for Black Lives. Her articles in Teaching for Black Lives include “Happening Yesterday, Happened Tomorrow,” “Bearing Witness Through Poetry,” and “Black Like Me.”