When Cops Are Killers
"Justice for Amadou Diallo!" has been the rallying cry throughout New York since four police officers gunned down the unarmed, 22-year-old West African immigrant as he stood outside his Bronx apartment on February 4. Members of an elite street crimes unit, the officers were reportedly in search of a rape suspect whose profile Diallo resembled in the most generic sense: eyes, ears, a nose, a mouth, male, black, young. What prompted the officers to leave their cars and close in on Diallo with guns drawn remains a mystery, because they have yet to tell their story. What is known is that the officers fired forty-one shots--more than two-thirds the number unloaded by the entire street-crimes unit in 1998--and hit Diallo nineteen times.
Forty-one rounds to kill a devout Muslim who worked twelve-hour days selling CDs, tapes and videos to earn money to finish a bachelor's degree is made-for-TV news. But this is not a singular atrocity. Police brutality in New York is routine. From July 1993 to June 1997, complaints against the police rose 45 percent and monetary settlements by the city increased 38 percent. In 1996 Amnesty International investigated more than ninety allegations of NYPD misconduct dating from the late eighties to early 1996. Its report found that the root of the problem was not "rogue" cops but the police culture--with its aggressive tactics that disproportionately target racial minorities, its unaccountability and its code of silence.
In the two weeks following Diallo's killing, 1,000 people rallied outside his apartment; 1,200 rallied outside Manhattan's federal courthouse; and a five-car-wide, six-block-deep motorcade escorted Diallo's bullet-riddled body to Newark Airport for the return flight to Guinea--all actions organized by Al Sharpton's National Action Network. The day of Amadou's funeral, the group staged another demonstration outside the Bronx courthouse where a grand jury has begun hearing evidence against the officers of criminal wrongdoing. Calvin Butts 3d, head pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, held an interfaith memorial service for Diallo that attracted 2,000. Butts is also participating in the ad hoc Citywide Coalition for Justice called together by writer Jill Nelson; it named February 22 a Day of Outrage and Mass Action, culminating at City Hall. And "hip hop minister" Conrad Muhammad, head of a Movement for CHHANGE, is planning a mass youth protest in March that he hopes will attract 41,000 young people to symbolize the forty-one shots that brought down their peer.
Once this first flush of outrage cools, however, the TV cameras will disappear, reporters will chase other controversies and city officials will ease into business as usual if activists don't persist in the unglamorous work of keeping the pressure on and the case high profile. "The first two or three [mass demonstrations] tend to be big," says Van Jones, executive director of the San Francisco-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a k a the Bay Area PoliceWatch. This "symbology of outrage," as he calls it, can be an Achilles' heel for activists, generating "a thousand headlines and no victory." "Symbology is great," he says. "It raises consciousness. But it doesn't affect the outcome if people are not allowed to bring their power to bear on the individual who can get them what they want." He counsels New York activists that a serious, organized campaign could take two years to achieve their quest for justice.
In 1997 Jones and his organization completed a successful two-year campaign to get rid of Marc Andaya, an officer in the San Francisco Police Department with a long record of brutalizing Bay Area citizens, including fatally shooting an unarmed black man and beating and pepper-spraying another to death. As in the Diallo case, PoliceWatch issued a blanket call for "justice" but then made the demand more concrete: Fire Marc Andaya. This allowed them to specify targets--Mayor Willie Brown and his Police Commission--and to bring ordinary citizens into the organizing, at whatever level they felt most comfortable. The mayor's "got a name, and a house, and a car, and an office, and a fax number, and a phone number, and e-mail," says Jones. The success in the Andaya case laid the foundation for a grassroots movement, with PoliceWatch not only launching more campaigns in individual cases but also targeting policy issues, such as the SFPD's use of pepper spray.
In New York there have already been demands for Bronx DA Robert Johnson to prosecute the officers who killed Amadou Diallo. But the four are part of a larger street-crimes unit whose motto is "We Own the Night." Police Commissioner Howard Safir has announced that the entire 400-member squad will now receive "retraining." No real change is possible, though, without addressing systemic questions: the fact that police officers are not required to live in the neighborhoods they patrol, the we-own-the-night attitude of the street-crimes unit, the police commissioner under whose watch it operates, the toothless civilian review board and the mayor's "zero tolerance" policy, which translates into zero accountability for the nation's largest police force.
Currently there is a fear that activists will break into camps--Sharpton, Butts, Muhammad--with an ensuing media game of warring egos and supporters used as pawns. "The coalition that takes the lead is the coalition that has the confidence of the family," notes Jones. At the moment, that seems to be the National Action Network. Diallo's parents spoke at Sharpton's weekly Saturday rally and live radio broadcast, and Sharpton joined them in escorting Amadou's body back to Guinea.
All the various groups have pledged to support one another, but organizing meetings and direct actions have been scheduled at conflicting times, splitting support and confusing reporters who cover the protests. Yet lack of a united front does not have to mean paralysis. "It may seem counterintuitive," says Jones, "but sometimes it's better to have more than one coalition. If justice is not served, it won't be because there are too many coalitions but because there were too few. Some people can't work together, but they need to work.