The recent tragic police shooting of 23-year-old Sean Bell near a Queens strip club on the morning of his wedding gave New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg a golden opportunity to show off his race-relations skills. It also gave the Rev. Al Sharpton an opportunity to prove he could reach out across the aisle in hopes of defusing a potentially explosive situation.
Sharpton, a veteran of previous police-conduct incidents, rose to the occasion within hours of the tragedy, emerging as official point person for the Bell family.
With the help — and on the recommendation — of Sharpton, the mayor convened a summit of community leaders in an effort to quell possible tensions emerging between the New York City Police Department and the African American community, where the use of excessive force by police seems to occur more frequently, at least anecdotally, than in other communities.
Bloomberg won kudos for describing the shooting as "inexplicable," "unacceptable" and "excessive."
News of the Bell tragedy quickly opened up old wounds within the African American community and raised ghosts of previous shooting incidents in which unarmed Black men ended up on the wrong side of the law's gun. Sharpton and Bloomberg's spirit of cooperation and goodwill may have helped keep those tensions at bay so far, but the New York Police Department is doing little to help ensure this delicate balance. Recent police raids tied to the shooting are starting to test the patience of Black leaders who have been preaching calm to their constituents until a full investigation is completed.
"My role is to try to keep things at an even keel," said Bishop Erskine Williams to The New York Times recently. "But at some point they're going to say, 'Rev, what side are you on?' " he added, referring to residents who are angry about how the police investigation is unfolding. "On a scale of one to 10, the distrust was a seven. Now it's a 10 and a half."
Just days earlier, according to press reports, Williams' son, a friend of Bell's party, was picked up by police on a traffic summons. He was one of several people brought in for questioning who knew Bell.
The department is showing little sensitivity for the victims and their families and friends by hauling them in for questions on minor offenses in their zealous quest to find the elusive fourth man who allegedly fled the scene and owned the gun that prompted undercover officers to open fire.
In a recent column in the New York Daily News, Errol Louis took issue with Black leaders' advocacy of calm in light of recent actions by police: "... frightened, under-trained cops have been treating unarmed Black and Latino residents with deadly aggression for decades," he wrote.
I have to say I'm starting to agree. That is why the National Urban League has called upon the U.S. Justice Department to keep an eye out on the police's tactics in investigating this tragedy.
African Americans may have come to dinner at the mayor's office, but that doesn't mean they're obliged to stay until dessert — or even past appetizers.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.