NEW YORK (AP) – Thousands of protesters, counting in unison from one to 50 to mark the number of shots fired by police in the death of an unarmed Queens man last month, clogged Fifth Avenue on Saturday in a “Shopping for Justice” protest three weeks after the slaying and one week before the Christmas weekend.

“We’re overwhelmed with the success of the march,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who with community leaders organized the racially mixed protest that at its peak filled the center of Fifth Avenue for more than a dozen blocks. Trent Benefield, 23, one of the survivors of the Nov. 25 shooting that killed Sean Bell, led the marchers from his wheelchair as they headed south through midtown Manhattan.

He was encircled by bodyguards, and followed by a group of clergy and elected officials on one of the busiest shopping days of the year just nine days before Christmas.

“This is not just a New York City problem,” said U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, who was near the front of the march. “This march gives people a chance to speak out.”

Bell’s fiancee, Nicole Paultre, was also among the marchers, as were U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, city transit union president Roger Toussaint, human rights activist Bianca Jagger and entertainer Harry Belafonte.

The marchers started at 59th Street and finished their protest more than an hour later outside Macy’s on 34th Street.

The demonstration expressed the protesters’ outrage at the slaying of Bell, killed in Queens just hours before his scheduled wedding. Five officers fired 50 shots at the 23-year-old Bell’s car, killing him and wounding Benefield and another companion outside a strip club.

“It’s important that the police understand that they’re here to protect the people,” said Larry Dais, a Columbia University administrator and father of a 21-year-old son.

Among those marching was James Canley, whose 25-year-old son Adrian was shot and killed last month by a sheriff’s department detective in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He compared his son’s death with the Bell shooting.

“11-14-06, Ventura County,” read a sign held by Canley – the date of his son’s slaying.

Other demonstrators waved signs and chanted as they marched. “Stop NYPD Racist Terror,” read one sign. “Jail the Cops,” said another.

The victims of the shooting were all black; the officers were white, Hispanic and black.

The march was intended to contrast the slaying of Bell with the holiday spending spree along Manhattan’s most famous shopping district. Sharpton pushed Benefield’s wheelchair for awhile, and held hands with Paultre.

It was the latest in a series of demonstrations since the Bell shooting.

But not everyone was behind Sharpton’s cause. Steven Pagones, a former prosecutor who won a $345,000 defamation case against Sharpton and two other men in 1998, showed up at the march to remind people of the civil rights activist’s inaccurate charges against him in the Tawana Brawley case.

Sharpton made the unsubstantiated allegation that Pagones was one of a group of white men who abducted and raped Brawley.

“Al Sharpton is capable of making outrageous and reckless charges,” Pagones said. “I know, because I was on the receiving end in the Tawana Brawley case, which we know is a hoax. Al Sharpton is an opportunist. My primary purpose is to remind people to be careful when they listen to Al Sharpton.”

Police have said that undercover officers were conducting a vice operation at the strip club before the shooting, and they believed the victims were going to retrieve a gun – although no weapons were found. Police have also said Bell’s car struck an officer and crashed into an unmarked police van.

But Sharpton and others say police used excessive force.

Responding to Pagones’ comment, Sharpton said: “Have we made any charges yet here? We’re just calling for an investigation. And he’s just showboating.”

Sharpton said that while the Bell shooting was not strictly a racial issue, “clearly this seems to only happen in communities of color. On the other hand, there are some police officers involved who were black and Latino. Even black officers behave certain ways in black and Latino communities.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.