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Cultural Figures Call for Release of Former Black Liberation Army Member Herman Bell

Artists, curators, and scholars are rallying behind the New York State Board of Parole’s controversial decision to release former Black Liberation Army member Herman Bell. After spending nearly five decades in the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York, for fatally shooting two New York City police officers, Bell has been granted parole. The ruling, which was announced earlier this month, has been both widely criticized and applauded.

Many activists claim that Bell’s release is a “positive step forward” for a criminal justice system that needs to be reformed. Among those who are against giving Bell parole are the families of the slain policemen, law enforcement officials, and a number of politicians, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who are urging the board to reverse its decision.

A petition that was signed by more than eight hundred people—including artists Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Hannah Black, Kamal Boullata, Juliana Huxtable, Glenn Ligon, Jonas Staal, and Martine Syms—reads: “The parole of seventy-year-old Herman Bell after over forty-five years of incarceration is the correct decision on moral and practical grounds and must be upheld. After a lengthy and careful assessment, the Parole Board recognized that Mr. Bell does not pose any danger to the public, and that his case meets all the legal criteria to be granted parole.”

In 1971, Bell was arrested after he and two other members of the Black Liberation Army—a nationalist militant group that operated between the years of 1970 and 1981—killed police officers Joseph A. Piagentini and Waverly M. Jones after luring them to a housing project in Harlem. At their trial, the defendants—Bell, Anthony Bottom, and Albert Washington—claimed that they were part of a political war against the United States. They were sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison.

Bell had unsuccessfully tried for parole seven times before a three-member panel ultimately decided to grant him his freedom. A letter the parole board sent to him cited an unnamed letter—which may have been from officer Jones’s son, who has publically called for the state to follow through with granting him parole—as well as the “regret and remorse” that Bell finally expressed for his crimes as reasons for their decision. “In these times of increased hate, we need more compassion and forgiveness,” Waverly Jones Jr. said in a statement.

For the signatories of the petition, revoking Bell’s parole would “roll back a decade’s worth of efforts aimed at modernizing New York State’s parole system.” Bell could be released as early as April 17.