Sean Bell was killed on November 25, 2006, in New York City. The night before his wedding, NYPD officers approached Bell’s vehicle outside a club and fired fifty shots at him and his companions, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, on the suspicion that one of the young men had a gun and was intending to shoot someone. No gun was ever recovered, and while Benefield and Guzman survived the shooting, Bell did not. Officers Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver (Oliver fired thirty-one of the fifty shots himself) were charged with manslaughter, reckless endangerment and assault, while Detective Marc Cooper was charged with two counts of reckless endangerment. In 2008, all three were acquitted of all charges. They remained on the force until March of last year. Bell was 23 years old.
Oscar Grant was killed on New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland, California. Officer Johannes Mehserle fired one shot into Grant’s back while he lay face down and restrained on the platform of the Fruitvale train station. He and his fellow officers were responding to a report of a fight involving about a dozen people on the train. Grant and his friends were identified as being involved in this fight and were confronted by the officers, several of them handcuffed, with Grant reportedly resisting arrest, which led to officers’ attempts to restrain him. Mehserle claims to have meant to reach for his taser, pulling out his gun and shooting Grant by accident. The incident was captured on several cellphone cameras. Of the three possible convictions, a jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the charge carrying the least amount of prison time. In November 2010, he was sentenced to two years minus time served, and was released on parole in June 2011. Grant was 22 years old.
Trayvon Martin was killed on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. During halftime of the NBA All-Star game, he walked to a nearby store to get snacks for his younger brother. While returning home, he was spotted by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman. Zimmerman called the police, and while they advised him not to follow, he disregarded this and approached Martin. A scuffle ensued that ended with Zimmerman shooting Martin in the chest and killing him. All that was found on Martin’s person was a wallet, a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles. The police who arrived on the scene took Zimmerman in for questioning and later released him without charges, determining that under Florida’s “stand your ground” law Zimmerman had acted in self-defense. After forty-five days of national outrage and protest, Zimmerman was finally arrested. He has been charged with second-degree murder and his trial starts June 10. Martin was 17 years old.
The details of each are different, and fiercely disputed by everyone involved, but each story ends the same way—with a young black man dead. It’s an all too familiar story, and I could go on and on, adding to the list many more names, but I mention these three because they have been the most high profile in recent memory and because they have become defining moments in my early adulthood. And I hate that.