As New York City braces itself for the trials of two sets of police officers accused in the injury of Abner Louima and the death of Amadou Diallo, perhaps it’s time to cull a list of things we have learned from the last decade of sensationally racialized “trials of the century.”
(1) It is important to keep the facts and faces straight. Remember how the media kept embarrassing themselves by mixing up Yusuf Hawkins, the victim in the Bensonhurst beating, with Yusef Salaam, one of the defendants convicted in the Central Park jogger case? So let us not forget: Abner Louima is the Haitian immigrant who was tortured with a plunger. Amadou Diallo is the Guinean immigrant who was shot at forty-one times. Similarly, Patricia Anne Williams, a black woman, is the judge in the Diallo case. Patricia J. Williams, a black woman, is the mad law professor.
(2) Let us keep our collective eye on the constitutional ball. The Fourth Amendment is a guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures; it is not Letitia Baldrige’s guide to good manners. We should have learned that after the deaths of Eleanor Bumpurs and Anthony Baez or after the round of police “incivilities” in Washington Heights that led to the Mollen Commission report documenting far too many instances of deadly police excess. One of the most visible official responses at that time was to paint police cars with the inscription “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.” In the wake of the Diallo shooting, Mayor Giuliani’s most aggressive “reform” thus far has been to issue little palm-sized cards to officers, reminding them to say “please,” “sir” and “thank you.” Police Commissioner Howard Safir defended the gesture, saying that most complaints “are not of officers being brutal but of officers being brusque.” I have nothing against such social niceties. But I am reminded of what Lewis Carroll’s Walrus had to say–“It was so kind of you to come! And you are very nice!”–as, armed with knife, fork, vinegar and pepper, he tucked into the “dear” oysters.
(3) In a closely related vein, let us not confuse a police state with police power. The judicious exercise of police power is a good thing. The no-holds-barred, capitulation-or-else mentality of a police state is a bad thing. Sometimes the wolf of the latter tries to pass itself off in the sheep’s clothing of the former. But even the most agreeable deflections by an amiable citizenry to gentlemanly gendarmes cannot make up for a basic lack of probable cause. Commissioner Safir got caught in such an ellipsis in his description of a recent meeting with a group of high school students in the South Bronx: “Most of the students reported having been stopped by the police for questioning. Many said that the experience had not been any more than an inconvenience.” But the issue is not the emotional thermometer of individual citizens–as in the film Little Shop of Horrors, you can always find someone who outright enjoys a root canal with a rusty drill. The issue is the proper exercise and limit of state power. And Safir’s description leaves unanswered the question of whether the police had probable cause to stop “most” of those students. An illegal detention is an illegal detention no matter how gracefully executed.