The Phantom of Justice

An unexpected encounter between racial justice and fabulous Broadway

Photo by Smith for NY Daily News

One May in New York, I was leaving a doctor’s appointment in the fashion district early in the evening.

I had an hour before I was due in Times Square to see the musical Gypsy, with my stepmother Nancy. She is a connoisseur of musicals and a former voice trainer, and we had both wanted to see it for some time.

That left me much more than the twenty minutes it would take to walk uptown. What to do? Stop at a bar to wait out the downtime, of course. Where are there decent dive bars in the middle of Manhattan? By Madison Square Garden. So there I headed.

But before I turned on 32nd St. to go to the Blarney Stone or Kilian’s or whatever, I saw, in front of MSG, twenty or so black men and women standing vigil for Sean Bell, a black man who had been shot to death by the NYPD the night before his wedding day.

I won’t get into the details of the Sean Bell case here. At the time, I had been mulling it over in my mind, trying to figure something out.

I was trying to see the difference between different cases of reckless endangerment.

There were Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq, recklessly shooting anyone or anything mildly suspicious first, and asking questions — okay, not even bothering to ask questions — later.

There was John White on Long Island, who confronted a car full of teenage boys who came to his home chasing his son. Instead of calling the police, he brought a loaded gun out to make them go away. One drunk and aggressive boy swatted at the gun, and White shot him.

And there were these police officers in Queens whose first response to the unexpected was to start shooting. Who, even in the face of no return fire, reloaded and keep shooting dozens more bullets. Who put one in a nearby living room, and one in a nearby monorail station.

None of these people got up in the morning and said, “why not shoot someone innocent today?” I hope I never have to face the wrenching momentum of a violent, life-or-death situation, that all of them faced. But each was ready to use deadly force before employing a modicum of caution. None granted their victims any benefit of the doubt before putting them in harm’s way.

And yet, the only one in jail was White, who is black. (He was later pardoned by New York’s underrated governor, David Patterson. Four Blackwater guards were later sentenced to long terms.)

At the same time, I had my reservations. I can’t say confidently that I would act differently than those police did. How on earth could I know what I would do on a lonely Queens street in the middle of the night, if gunshots started to ring out? I hope I would act with caution, but what do I know about that level of violence, that place of tension and panic — except that I would be so afraid to do something wrong that I would be a daily danger to fellow police, and do little to protect the people?

While that’s not enough to absolve a private citizen who kills after being unnecessarily confrontative, it may be enough to absolve police. After all, we ask police to enter harm’s way and to perform a duty that our society needs fundamentally, but which few of us are willing to do. They are not seeking to engage danger and violence; we are seeking to engage danger and violence through the use of their bodies.

If, having been asked to be the ones who face bullets and dispense justice so that we don’t have to, these police prove irresponsible or negligent, how thoroughly can we blame them when a series of mistakes, biased assumptions, and impulsive misfires spirals out of control? My answer is: somewhat. Not completely, neither not at all. But somewhat.

A father who did nothing wrong, and was only celebrating.

That somewhat, on the great scale of so brutal and ceaseless and haphazard a failure, is large enough for me to join a protest. The protesters outside MSG asked passersby to join them. So I joined.

We each held a sign with a different number between one and fifty, representing the number of bullets the police fired at Sean Bell and friends. I noticed children and impeccably-dressed old timers. I noted that I was the only white person protesting.

After ten minutes more of silent protest, the organizers announced that we would be walking up Eighth Avenue. I didn’t realize until we turned up Eighth that this meant not the sidewalk but the street itself. So we walked uptown, a very loose five abreast, occupying one lane of traffic during rush hour, eliciting attention immediately from absolutely everyone.

Cars honked in frustration. People on the sidewalks stopped and stared, sometimes cheered (especially workers in the stores we passed), and occasionally joined us. Plainclothes police officers materialized from the crowd of onlookers and shouted in alarm into their walkie-talkies.

I didn’t have work the next day, so the thought crossed my mind that being arrested wouldn’t be so bad. Of course I realized that being arrested would mean I’d miss Gypsy. It was Tony Awards season, when all the good tickets go to Tony voters, so finding tickets to was was the hottest show on Broadway was like finding a Knicks fan who still believes in Phil Jackson.

But arrest was unlikely; I don’t think the police were interested in exacerbating the city-wide tension by arresting black protesters, and frankly, I didn’t want the only white guy in the march to duck out as soon as things got serious.

So, surprised to find myself in this situation, I marched up Eighth Avenue with the other protesters, blocking traffic, trying to stand between the passing buses and a woman with two small children who had stepped out from the crowd to join us.

Finally we reached the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street. If you don’t know this intersection, imagine a coming together of the world’s most mercenary and impatient drivers, all of whom wish they were anywhere but there, all of whom know that the only way to get a car through a crowd of pedestrians is to be so aggressive that they fear for their lives just a bit.

The organizers at the head of the march turned. Were we going to walk west down 42nd Street? No — we were stopping, and being formed into a big circle and — good god — we were blocking 42nd Street and Eighth. Blocking a Great Wall of apoplectic cabs and busses. This was something I had hardly thought possible.

I stood in the way of New York’s Port Authority, listening to the maddest cabbies I’ve ever heard lean on a horn. My only solace was that no public buses were trying to get through; civil disobedience in New York City always sucks the worst for people on the buses.

After standing and listening to the increasingly hard-edged chatter coming out of the police walkie-talkies for a several minutes, we suddenly picked up and resumed our march northward on Eighth Avenue, and I finally exhaled. The bullhorns and warnings died down.

After a few blocks we started to turn east. I was on 45th St. before I realized what it meant that I was on 45th St.: I had come to the very block I’d been heading for in the first place, the block where Gypsy was playing. This being prime Broadway real estate, the show right across from Gypsy was The Phantom of the Opera, and in fact the organizers stopped right between Gypsy and Phantom, blocking one of the street’s two lanes, and called for all of us to face Phantom’s theater.

Face the theater showing Phantom? I looked around at the others, wondering, what on Earth for?

Already crowded on either side of the block were upwards of 500 tourists, foreign and domestic, and what seemed like a few dozen New Yorkers. They were lined up, waiting for the shows to open, with nothing at all to do. So all of them — all of them — fixed their eyes on us and gaped.

This, it would turn out, was precisely what the organizers had anticipated.

The lead organizer, a preacher, took the bullhorn and began a prepared address. A very unlikely prepared address: not only an address to the tourists.

An address to the Phantom.

“Oh great Phantom of the Opera,” he began. I felt a twinge of disbelief that this was happening. “You who call so many to travel far to visit our city, tonight you give us the gift of your famous entertainment.”

At this point I glanced around, to see if anyone else felt this had been an extraordinary opening, but the mouths didn’t seem to be gaping any differently than before.

“But I ask you,” he continued, “before you begin your amazing show, please give your theatergoers a moment to learn about a grave injustice, about a young man who was shot and killed by the police on his wedding day.”

He paused. “Yes, on his wedding day.”

I caught my breath, starting to understand where he was going, and feeling suddenly deeply moved.

“All you who have a great treat in store for you tonight at this great Phantom of the Opera, when you go home to your loved ones, and tell them about this wonderful Phantom of the Opera, about the Phantom’s song and dance… tell them also that before the show began, you had a moment of conscience, a moment when you said, ‘I learned that a man was killed, and I learned that that man could have been me. And I want to know, who was this man, Sean Bell?’”

I looked at the faces on the sidewalk. Nobody else was talking anywhere that I could see or hear. All eyes were on him.

“Because it isn’t just about race. This young man, Sean Bell, could have been any of us — white or black, rich or poor. So look up his story on the internet. Read about Sean Bell. Now Phantom, let your people enjoy your Phantom of the Opera show, but don’t let them forget that an innocent young man is dead and that when there’s no justice there’s no peace. Thank you.”

He put down the bullhorn. We formed a quick prayer circle and prayed silently. Then, with bullhorns getting loud and sharp again, the leaders of the march commanded: “Activists… disperse!” I exchanged contact information with one leader, and then everyone else from the protest was gone, and I was standing alone in the street, a line of honking cars in front of me and several hundred pairs of eyes looking at where the activists had been standing. Looking at me.

And I suddenly realized that it was time to meet my stepmother. Right there. I would be stepping into line behind people who had all been staring at me for fifteen minutes.

That’s exactly what I did. I couldn’t stifle a nervous, falsely nonchalant whistle. I could see a hundred necks turn to follow me as I walked twenty feet and took my place outside the entrance of Gypsy, as I nodded to the confused people standing on either side of me, and as I waited for my stepmother to arrive with the tickets.

I had walked precisely the route I would have walked anyways. I had found a very unexpected way to make it last just long enough. And I think Gypsy Rose Lee got the same message that the Phantom did, because I went home and told my friends, and I will always feel especially connected to Sean Bell, my heartbreak and anger especially crystallized by his killing.

And New York’s disparate pieces, that had always seemed at a disconnect, will forever feel to me to be woven together intimately.


Ben Wheeler is a computer programmer and teacher in Brooklyn and the founder of Ada & Leo (adaandleo.com), a kids’ tech program.