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Our cynical response

Web Extra | Few New Yorkers feel moved to protest acquittal of police officers after death of unarmed black man

On Friday, a New York judge acquitted three detectives who killed an unarmed black man with a volley of 50 bullets. On Saturday, Rev. Al Sharpton mobilized protesters and now Rep. John Conyers has promised a rigorous federal investigation. Barack Obama called the shooting a "tragedy" but urged people to "respect the verdict that came down." The response from black New Yorkers has been not riotous outrage but feeble apathy.

Seventeen months ago, undercover detectives saw Sean Bell coming out of a nightclub after his bachelor party, just hours before his wedding. Accounts of what happened next conflicted, but the judge sided with the detectives, who said they heard the men were going to their car to retrieve a gun. They opened fire after Bell crashed his car into a detective and the police minivan. The shooting lasted just seconds, leaving Bell bullet-riddled and lifeless and two of his friends wounded.

New York's response was listless from the beginning, especially compared to the response in 1999 when officers killed another unarmed black man, Amadou Diallo, on his doorstep as he reached for his wallet. Then, daily protests lasted a month and police arrested over 1,200 people. After the acquittal of the officers involved, thousands of indignant protesters took to the streets again.

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Sharpton led several thousand people in a peaceful protest after the Bell shooting, but this time, only 150 people gathered in Harlem to protest the acquittal. The New York Times called the response "muted" and in a Harlem news conference, Sharpton said, "We can be angry without being mad."

But apparently not many are angry. William Devlin, national president of Redeem the Vote and founder of Urban Family Council, spoke at a church in Harlem last Sunday and called the response to the acquittal "blasé," despite the fact that "with 50 rounds being fired, there's no question that excessive force was used."

The Associated Press noted that the detectives' race-two of the three shooters were black-may have made the reaction less visceral. On NPR's News and Notes, Huffington Post's Trey Ellis hit on another problem-cynicism: "The disposability of black male life, unfortunately, has become common."

Devlin agrees that since the fruitless protesting for Diallo, apathy has grown: "People in communities of color said basically, things didn't change, so therefore me getting out on the street and protesting isn't going to change anything." He said it may also be a trend in the culture at large: "When it comes to these issues of injustice, Americans are getting more and more cynical, more and more apathetic."

Devlin also said it's a sign of the "continued cheapening of human life in urban communities." People are used to violence on TV, in the home, on the streets and even in the womb. When it comes to the disposability of black life, Devlin says black leaders like Sharpton have misplaced priorities. In the last eight years, seven people have died as a result of police brutality. "Yet during the same time," Devlin said, "in the community of color there have been tens of thousands of unborn African-American children who have had their lives taken. There have been countless cases of HIV/AIDS in the same community and there have been a legion of children born without fathers. … Where are the leaders in the community of color when it comes to some of these other items?"

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