avatar
Why Diallo Had To Die


Manning Marable

For

more than one year, the controversy surrounding the New York murder of Amadou

Diallo has made headlines throughout the world. Most people have heard by now

about the unarmed African immigrant who was fired on 41 times as he stood in the

vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. The police officers, all white and

wearing plainclothes, fired on Diallo, striking him 19 times. Weeks ago, when

black New Yorkers heard that the policemen were acquitted on all charges for

Diallo’s death, thousands returned to the streets in protest.

People

were outraged not only because the policemen’s use of deadly force was not

justified, but because every stage of the handling of the Diallo case was

compromised and undercut by racism. The fact that Diallo had no criminal record

– and was committing no crime — was found to be irrelevant. The accused cops

took full advantage of New York City’s 48-hour gag rule, giving officers

involved in shootings two full days to coordinate their stories for the district

attorneys’ office. The Diallo trial was moved from New York City to Albany, to

ensure that potential jurors would be more sympathetic with the police. In

short, "justice" was thrown out the window, and the killer cops remain

at large.

As

disturbing as the Diallo case was, an equally serious example of police

brutality has received much less publicity, despite its possibly greater

political significance. Less than one year ago in Louisville, Kentucky, an

18-year-old black man, Desmond Rudolph, was confronted by two white police

officers, Chris Horn and Paul Kinkade, as he was reportedly stealing a

sport-utility vehicle. The officers fired twenty-two times. Ten bullets pierced

Rudolph’s body, with six shots exploding in his head. Several months later, a

criminal investigation cleared the policemen.

Rudolph’s

killing, however, fit a longtime pattern of racial harassment and intimidation

experienced by the black community in Louisville for decades. According to State

Representative Paul Bather, who represents much of Louisville’s black community,

there have been nearly 60 misconduct claims filed against Louisville’s police

department since 1986, amounting to $3.3 million in total damages.

When

Louisville Mayor Dave Armstrong was informed that Officers Horn and Kinkade were

among a group of officers to be given honours for valour at an annual police

award banquet, he demanded answers from Chief of Police Eugene Sherrard.

Armstrong subsequently fired Sherrard, announcing publicly that a

"culture" inside the department urgently needed to be changed.

"This culture only adds to the hostility of minorities, who feel they are

treated by the police as second-class citizens, without respect," Armstrong

stated.

The

incredible response by the Louisville police was reminiscent of the behaviour of

police in Chile, back in 1973, who actively conspired to overthrow civilian

authority. Within minutes of Sherrard’s dismissal, hundreds of policemen dropped

everything, and drove to Louisville’s police headquarters. In protest, nine

police commanders promptly resigned their commands. Hundreds of police and their

supporters held a mass demonstration at Jefferson Square in central Louisville

on 17 March demanding that the mayor resign instead.

Longtime

Louisville social-justice activist Anne Braden characterised these events as a

sort of "military coup." Braden denounced the response, saying that

"If the president fires the chief of staff of the Army, the Army does not

march on the White House," USA Today reported.

Maybe

not, in ordinary times. But we no longer live in ordinary times. The

construction of a vast prison-industrial complex and the enlargement of private

security forces throughout the US have created the preconditions for a

politically active, ideologically-motivated national police apparatus. Thousands

of cops no longer believe that they can leave "justice" to the courts

and thousands more doubt the capacity or will of most elected officials to curb

street crimes. Thus the executions of Diallo, and hundreds of other black, brown

and poor people represent a kind of political statement about how the oppressed

should be governed within a capitalist society.

Consider

the fact that there are now roughly 600,000 police officers, 350,000 prison

guards and 1.5 million private security guards. There are about 30,000 heavily

armed, paramilitary "SWAT" (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams

currently operating in the US. The police who killed Diallo were members of New

York’s Street Crimes Unit, which carries out thousands of stop-and-frisk

operations throughout the city. Only two months ago, the New York Police

Department initiated a new $24 million effort called "Operation

Condor," assigning 500 extra plainclothes and uniformed officers to various

sting and surveillance operations, especially in poor and minority

neighbourhoods. It was one of these "undercover" plainclothes police

teams that confronted, shot and killed yet another unarmed black man, Patrick

Dorismond, on 16 March in New York City.

It

is also illuminating — and disturbing — to recognise that these widespread

examples of deadly police force and the disregard for citizens’ constitutional

rights is not opposed by a significant number of white Americans. For example,

in the wake of Dorismond’s killing, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, currently

campaigning for a US Senate seat, made callous remarks about the dead man.

Giuliani illegally disclosed Dorismond’s sealed juvenile records and refused to

extend condolences to the deceased’s family. All blacks, Latinos and even most

whites living in New York City were appalled by Giuliani’s racist behaviour, yet

according to polls, only 28 per cent of upstate New Yorkers and 34 per cent of

suburban voters disagreed with Giuliani’s handling of this situation. Two-thirds

of upstate New Yorkers even said that Giuliani should not have to express

remorse to Dorismond’s family.

In

effect, millions of white middle- and upper-class people have made the cold

calculation that a certain level of unjustified killings of blacks, Latinos and

poor people is necessary to maintain public order. Yet inevitably this same

silent majority will discover, much to its regret, that when police and security

forces are given a license to kill, they will not stop at the boundaries of the

black community.

  

The

writer is a professor of history and political science and the director of the

Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University