On Thursday, April 15th tens of thousands of New Yorkers will march in yet
another expression of outrage at the conduct of the New York City Police Department. (If
you live in or near NYC, I encourage you to make every effort to participate in what
promises to be one of those demonstrations you kick yourself for missing. (Details are at
the end of this commentary.)
On February 4th Amadou Diallo was murdered by four NYC police officers. The
plainclothes officers discharged a total of 41 bullets in a matter of seconds. Nineteen of
them hit their target: a 22 year old immigrant from Guinea. Amadou Diallo had no gun or
other weapon, had committed no crime, was not being sought for any past crime and was
doing nothing dangerous, harmful or even out of the ordinary.
As part of the Street Crimes Unit (whose motto is "The streets are
ours"), the police were working the streets in the Soundview section of the Bronx in
search of a rapist. As best I can tell, the only thing Diallo had in common with the
suspected rapist was the color of his skin. This elite unit of the police is often
credited with the much heralded reduction of crime in this city. But aside from the very
few people who really understand how the NYPD works, most New Yorkers had not even heard
of the Street Crimes Unit before this shooting.
But all of that, and much more, has changed in this town. The criticisms of the
police department now come from the full spectrum of New Yorkers: community activists,
former mayors, religious and union leaders, students, even people who work in law
enforcement. In fact, in the last two and a half months a movement has come to life.
Three days after Diallo was shot, over 1,000 people gathered in front of his
apartment on Wheeler Ave. in the Bronx. I could barely hear any of the speakers, but it
was already clear that people around the city were not going to let this incident be a
quick blip on the 6 p.m. news broadcasts. For years, communities of color have experienced
harassment, intimidation, trampling of civil liberties and murder by police officers. In
fact, over two years ago Amnesty International issued a report condemning the NYPD for
police abuse. The situation has gotten worse during the Giuliani administration, a reality
that has often been lost in the discussion of dropping crime rates. (Aside from the cops
on the streets, lots of people do in fact feel safer these days.)
The bullets that struck Amadou Diallo served as a lighting rod, igniting this
wave of activism. For decades a few, brave activists have battled police brutality. Many
of the families of people killed by the police came to political activism and have been on
the front line of this fight. In addition, for five years Giuliani has ruled the city with
an iron hand, trying in every way possible to implement his right wing agenda. From
community gardeners to people on welfare, from hospital workers to CUNY students, from
taxi drivers to people with AIDS…poor and working people in NYC have been targeted by
this mayor, and hardest hit have been communities of color.
Each constituent group has staged their protests, and at times people have even
briefly worked together. But it took the senseless murder of Amadou Diallo to bring us all
together in a new way. And it took a commitment to public protest that gave it all shape.
Rev. Al Sharpton, a long time activist and sometime electoral candidate, took the lead in
crafting an ongoing, militant, in-the-streets campaign that people could relate to. (Of
course, Sharpton’s leadership did not mean others weren’t also taking initiative.)
There’s not enough space here to share a detailed history of all that has
happened since Feb. 4th: there have been rallies (ranging in size from 1,000 to 5,000
people), vigils by women in front of police precincts in every borough, daily vigils at
the Bronx County Court House, community forums and legislative hearings, and unprecedented
media coverage and scrutiny of the police. Perhaps most dramatically, for fifteen days
groups of people participated in civil disobedience and submitted to arrest. at police
headquarters. When it was all over, 1,167 people had been arrested.
It wasn’t just the numbers of arrested that was so impressive. More importantly,
it was the diversity of the groups and individuals involved. I was there three of those
days. On the day I was arrested as part of an informal group of lesbians and gay men,
Kwasi Mfume of the NAACP and many people active in local NAACP chapters around NYC were
also arrested. The next time I was there, a contingent 120 strong organized by Jews for
Racial and Economic Justice (including 15 rabbis) were arrested along with the heads and
members of DC 37 AFSCME, Local 1199, SEIU and several other unions. The third time, over
50 CUNY faculty were arrested along with a delegation organized by the Urban Justice
Center and the War Resisters League, as well as Jesse Jackson.
And now, coming out of this activism, is the call for a massive march and rally
on tax day. For the past several weeks I’ve been working as one of the coordinators of
this demonstration. I have no doubt that tens of thousands of people will march across the
Brooklyn Bridge, past City Hall and on to a rally in front of the Federal Office Building.
I have no doubt that this demonstration will allow even more New Yorkers to express their
demand for changes in the police department. I have no doubt that the march and rally will
be multi-racial, multi-constituency and include a wide range of New Yorkers.
What I do have questions and doubts about is how this movement will unfold in the
coming weeks and months. More specifically, I worry that the host of elected officials,
union leaders and other prominent people who have come on board – and it’s great that they
all have – will be unable to open their ranks to include the community organizers and
families of those murdered who have been out front on the fight against police brutality
for years. I worry, as had happened all too often in the past, that those with money and
other resources will act is if they don’t need to work in partnership with people in the
neighborhoods. To put it all another way, I worry that those with more power will act in
ways that undermine the opportunity to build a real movement for change in New York City.
I raise these concerns not to throw a wet blanket on what is an extremely dynamic
moment but rather as a call to action. Yes, for sure I hope those of you who live close to
NYC will be with us on Thursday. Beyond that, I hope that people committed to building
from the community as well as creating democratic structures for broad participation will
fight for those principles inside this movement. The struggle to end police brutality and
to change policing polices and practices is too important to not!
Here are the details for this Thursday, April 15th: – 3 p.m. assemble in Cadman
Plaza Park in Brooklyn (Jay St./Borough Hall on the A or C trains, Borough Hall on the
2,3,4 & 5 trains, or Court St. on the N, R & M trains) – March over the Brooklyn
Bridge – 5 p.m. Rally in front of the Federal Building at Worth and Broadway.
For more information, call 212-631-4644. See you on Thursday!!