There was an unexpected sting in the air on the November afternoon Nicole Paultre-Bell visited the VIBE offices. After a few days of comfortable 55, 60-degree weather, Old Man Winter peeked his head in the form of gray clouds and a few scattered snowflakes to inform us all that he’s on his way. Nicole didn’t mind; she’d been running around Manhattan all day conducting interviews in support of the 10-year anniversary of her then fiancé, Sean Bell’s murder at the hands of the NYPD.
During the wee hours of Nov. 25, 2006, Sean Bell and two friends were leaving a Queens strip club. The men were celebrating Bell’s last night as a bachelor before he was to wed his high school sweetheart, Nicole. As reported, three plainclothes detectives fired into his vehicle 50 times, killing Bell and injuring the others. Bell, along with Joseph Guzman, who was shot 16 times, and Trent Benefield who was wounded four times, were not armed. Yet, all the officers involved in the horrific shooting were acquitted. Judge Arthur Cooperman, who was 72 years old at the time of the case, spoke with the New York Daily News a week before the anniversary and said he didn’t regret handing down his verdict. “The decision was the decision,” Cooperman said. “It was in writing. It said all that had to be said.”
Despite the acquittal, Bell’s family was awarded a $7 million settlement and then slowly a sense of normality crept back into the city, except for Nicole. At just 22 she was now left to parent two young girls, Jada, who was three years old, and Jordyn who was just a few months, by herself. Life wasn’t easy for the single mom, but Nicole made due and made a way, and 10 years later she’s more than just strong. She’s also happy.
With skin the color of maple syrup and almond shaped eyes, if someone doesn’t know who Nicole is, she blends into the fold of everyone else simply trying to make it to Friday. Her aura doesn’t reek of loss, trauma or hurt. Nicole smiles…often. She gives off homegirl vibes within moments of meeting her and that of a woman who knows herself. She doesn’t shy away from difficult questions and while her eyes became misty while speaking about him, she pushes through for herself, for Sean and for the awareness she deems important.
For 30 minutes, Nicole Paultre-Bell talked about Sean and all that she lost the night he was killed. But Nicole also talked about Nicole. She made it clear she’s not solely defined by one horrific night of her life, and wants the world to know neither is Sean.
VIBE: How are you feeling?
Nicole Paultre-Bell: Holidays are always my favorite time of year because it brings family together. I’m big on family. It’s just the way that I was brought up. November though, you know…
…is a rough month.
Yeah. It has been. Over the years, I’ve been able to learn how to move forward, learn how to just be thankful and grateful for life, for my daughters. But November is a rough time.
What kind of person was Sean? What were some of his goals?
Sean was an athlete. He was great in almost every sport, but baseball was his thing. He was a very shy guy but you would never know. I mean, from what the public has learned of Sean, it’s the tragic way his life ended. There was so much more to him. He loved baseball. He loved to be with the family. On Sundays, that was our day, family day. Every Sunday. He was a momma’s boy, and extremely handsome, but ‘don’t call me a pretty boy.’ That type of guy.
I interviewed Sybrina Fulton prior to what would have been Trayvon‘s 21st birthday and she said when she’s having a rough day she keeps quiet and keeps to herself. She doesn’t want to show that. Losing a son is different from losing a fiancé, and Trayvon was killed in 2012 and Sean was killed in 2006. Four years is a lot different from 10 years. How do you cope and get through the day when you’re thinking about Sean and it’s just too emotional?
There’s a saying [that] “time heals all wounds” and for me, these past years, the more recent years have been a lot easier than as you said in the beginning. I mean, four years after Sean passed, we were still fighting for justice. We were still going through the legal matters. You don’t get a chance to think to yourself. So for me, what really helped me overcome was remaining active, being at those rallies, being at those marches, being in the media, being able to share who Sean was to me, and showing the public that through me, this is who he was. So four years into it, it was a very dark time for me. I’ve met Sybrina, and she’s a great woman. And you know, we’ve been able to share a similar bond. No, I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, and she doesn’t know what it’s like to lose a fiancé and have children be left behind with no father. But it’s a similar tragedy – gone too soon. Taking that time out for yourself to really heal and figure things out, learn who you are because a part of me died when Sean died.
You publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton and, unfortunately, Donald Trump is our president-elect. How has your strategy around bringing awareness to police brutality and gun violence changed or shifted in the wake of Trump?
I publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton because she was there for me and my family during that time. I think it was the day of Sean’s funeral, I got a call on my home phone and it was from, at the time, Sec. Hillary Clinton. There weren’t too many things that impressed me at that time because I was too focused on getting justice. It didn’t matter who I spoke to on the phone; it didn’t change a thing. What mattered to us was the people who killed Sean going to jail and being held accountable, criminally. Right now, we have president-elect Trump and we just have to work 10 times harder to make sure that everything that we have fought for is not thrown out the window just by a stroke of a pen, and I’m up for the cause. I’ve been here for 10 years fighting, at times when I didn’t think that I could pick myself up, or at times when I didn’t think I could smile again. I’m still here.
There’s a lot of talk in the black community around self care, especially because with camera phones, we can now see the deaths of Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Philando Castile. Had there been footage of Sean’s murder, do you think it would have changed the outcome?
No. I think that the judge who made his decision had his mind made up in the beginning. We live in a country where police officers are not held accountable when they kill innocent people. When I was growing up as a little girl, we’re made to say this pledge everyday in school that there’s justice for all, and it’s not. It’s not justice for all. There is a certain group of folks who can shoot and not be held accountable, and it’s not right and for myself and for Mrs. Bell, Sean’s mother and Sean’s father, and his siblings and my family, everyone who loved him, it just didn’t make sense. Sean had the right to leave that bachelor party and make it home and get married the next day. Trayvon [Martin] had the right to walk around his father’s complex without being harassed by some psycho. Eric Garner had the right to stand there and proclaim, “Listen, not today. No more, you can’t harass me anymore.” without being killed.
I still have my rings and one day, maybe I’ll pass them to my daughters. —Nicole Paultre-Bell
Had there been footage, do you think you would have watched it and do you think it would have prolonged your healing?
I wouldn’t have watched it if there were footage. I’ve had a chance to talk with Sean’s friends who were there. Joe Guzman, who was shot 16 times in the car with Sean, Trent Bentfield, who was shot four times as he tried to run out the back door and run for his life. They gave me their description of what happened and that was too much. That night, I had a nervous breakdown in my house, and it took almost everything that my family could do to try and bring me back to some sort of calm and normalcy. Again, I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.
Have you forgiven the officers involved in the shooting?
No. I’m going to be honest with you. I’m not going to sit here and sugar coat anything. I haven’t and I feel that..
…do you feel like you should?
I feel like if it’s necessary, it will happen and right now, we still see people losing their lives. We see no one accepting the fact that they’ve done wrong and the justice system will not convict these officers each and every time there’s an officer who walks away from killing an innocent person or doing some kind of wrong doings to an innocent person. It affects each and every one of us who have been through this.
You’re married now and from what I’ve read, your husband Jay is a real funny guy. The night before your wedding to Jay, were you nervous?
Purposefully, I didn’t want to plan anything. We actually went to the Justice of The Peace and we didn’t have a big wedding, we just got married. I didn’t want the big wedding. I wanted to just be with the person that I loved. It didn’t matter about the glitz and the glamour.
What did you do with your wedding dress that you were going to wear?
I still have it. I have it in storage. I still have my rings and one day, maybe I’ll pass it to my daughters. Even if they don’t use the dress because it’s old, maybe they’ll use a part of it. Maybe it will be tailored, or maybe the ring that their father gave me they can use the diamonds and put it towards their ring. My daughter is in her first year of high school so I’ve already expressed to her, that I hope one day, if she ever does meet anyone, that they come to me first, and I’m able to share these things and pass it on.
Were you—feel free not to answer this question if you don’t want to—were you afraid that what happened to Sean might happen to Jay?
When I first met Jay, as I felt myself falling in love, I remember having a conversation with my oldest sister, and I said, ‘If something happens to him…’ I just felt like something might happen. I did feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, he may lose his life. Oh my God, if something happens, I’m not going to the funeral. I’m not doing it this time.’ I actually said that to myself and I had to realize this is not something that happens all of the time. It’s traumatic and very hard to overcome and I can’t say that I have overcome the loss. No, on days that are significant—my daughter’s graduation, my daughter’s prom, birthdays, anniversaries, the holidays—certain significant days are bittersweet. It brings back those feelings. I’ve met other women and widows, people who have lost husbands 20 years ago, and I realized that I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t wrong to feel this way because I had survivor’s remorse. I felt guilty at 22 years old, being able to pick up and move on. Of course, you deserve to live your life, but I was guilty. I didn’t know if it was the right thing. It took for me to get counseling, to speak to mentors, to reach out to pastors, to speak to my elders, the seniors of my family, women who have lived their lives and lived their lives through God. I then realized that it’s okay to be happy. It’s not a bad thing. We weren’t put on this Earth to mourn forever. Mourning is a phase that we all go through and what was important to me is that I don’t just pick up and move on and forget. Always embrace your past, but you have to live for now.
Talk a little about your organization…
I started WIRIF, When It’s Real, It’s Forever, after Sean passed in 2007 and through the organization, we’ve done great things. We were able to start a little league. He loved to play baseball, so we started a baseball league and also basketball. We had an after school program that went on for some time in Rockaway, Queens. We hold the annual “Sean Bell Family Day” and a annual know your rights forum that takes place at different locations. This year, it took place at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. Last year, or the year before that, it was in Staten Island with the family of Eric Garner. Over time, the organization has lost momentum because people move on. However, I’ve been able to continue on what I’m doing through public speaking, speaking at different schools, conferences, functions, speaking to media outlets and continuing to do positive things. But when the person isn’t in the media so much, people forget. I’m just thankful that we’re able to really keep it together this long. Even the families, we were torn apart years ago.
What do you mean torn apart?
When someone loses their life, it’s like everyone looks for something or for someone to blame, or for someone to be held accountable, and no one is held accountable. Everyone’s all over the place.
Right now, we have president-elect Trump and we just have to work ten times harder to make sure that everything we have fought for is not thrown out the window just by a stroke of a pen. –Nicole Paultre-Bell
Fingers are pointing?
Fingers are pointing. We were torn a part. Just from being thrust into the public, I realized speaking to other families who were affected through this, it’s a common thing that happens. If there’s someone who is put into the media more than others, it may look as if it’s for self-gain or something. Once you can get all of that and see through all of the negativity and realize that we are all fighting for the same cause, and that’s just for justice, everything will be okay.
There’s so much more to you than just what happened to you. So who’s Nicole?
Let me tell you, I love family. I love music. I love rap. Like, I’m that girl from Queens who can put on a church dress or even a blazer and just have the rap blasting in the car. That’s me. I love music. [Laughs]
Who are some women you look up to?
The Mothers of the Movement, those are my girls. Those are my sisters. Like Ms. Carr, Gwen Carr [Eric Garner’s mother]. She’s so glittery and glitzy. Then you have Sybrina Fulton who is the funniest person. If you ever get a chance to sit down and talk to her outside of the bad stuff that has happened to her and losing her son, she’s a very funny woman. I’ve met Sandra Bland’s mother Geneva Reed-Veal, and she is very intelligent. The things that she tells me that happened to her daughter, that are never told in the media… meeting these women, you automatically feel connected to them as if we are one family.
How are you not upset, or not visibly angry even after all these years?
You know, if I sit here and curse everybody out and just walk through here a bitter person, it’s like having cancer; it eats away at you. So in order for us to be happy, to live our lives and not really slowly die, you have to be positive. This pain is greater than what anyone could have ever imagined. It really is and in order to be sane and have peace of mind, you have to learn to accept.