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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
writer is a professor of history and political science and the director of the
Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University