Hundreds of arts and cultural workers — including professors, prominent artists, and administrators — have signed a petition supporting the parole of Herman Bell, a former Black Panther Party member currently imprisoned for killing two police officers in 1971.
Bell was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the shootings of Joseph A. Piagentini and Waverly M. Jones. At the time, he was a member of the Black Liberation Army, which splintered off the Black Panther Party.
Bell, 70, was awarded parole this month and could be released in April. But many critics — including NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, influential police unions, and the editorial board of the New York Post — believe that Bell should stay in prison indefinitely.
It’s this backlash that has mobilized members of the arts community in New York City and beyond. Signers of the petition, created through Google Forms, “call on the authorities to ensure that Mr. Bell is allowed to leave prison, not only so that a respected elder who has served his time can go home, but also to ensure that the concept of parole remains legally valid.”
One signatory, Indu Vashist, told Hyperallergic in an email that she was “appalled by the backlash against the decision.” She said the petition reached her through an online art and social justice forum.
“I am so proud of the arts community’s support of Herman,” said Vashist, who is Executive Director of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre in Toronto. “The art world has always taken strong interest in political issues, it is heartening to me that so many of my colleagues are paying attention to what is happening to communities around us.”
“I feel that this not only about justice for one individual,” added Noah Fischer, an artist and activist, “but on a larger level to make the case for a justice system based on fairness and healing.”
Other signatories include Jamal Joseph, a film professor at Columbia University and former Black Panther Party member; Emily Apter, a Professor of French and Comparative Literature at New York University; the artist Sondra Perry; and Andrea Fraser, chair of the art department at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Keeping Herman Bell in prison would serve as nothing more than pointless punishment,” the petition reads. “We hope to live with a criminal justice system that favors compassion and reason over vengeance.”