Behind the Death of Amadou Diallo

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

Elimisha K. Marubuci

NOW THAT PUBLIC outrage slowly diminishes regarding the Amadou Diallo case, this essay shares some of the immediate feeling and reaction that occurred at the time of the verdict. Furthermore, this essay tries to imagine salient possibilities for re-education in policing methods within communities of color.

“Justice is incidental to law and order.” –J. Edgar Hoover

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON — a rain dreary Friday afternoon — just after 5:00 pm. The verdict is in — NOT GUILTY. I am numb, but in truth not surprised. The television blares incessantly. Pontificating reporters, legal experts, and city officials all give a blurry of statements.

One reporter particularly focuses on the dignified and stoic demeanor of Kadiatou Diallo — Amadou Diallo’s mother. Counsel, for the defense and the prosecution, speak in legalize. Defense attorneys declare the verdict a victory for the legal justice system. The prosecution makes a public promise to seek redress in federal court.

Reporters besiege New York’s state courthouse, like hungry piranha. They ambush anyone associated with the case for an interview. Civic leaders and activists call for non-violent responses to the verdict . . .

Cut to New York City Hall. An official spokesperson from the mayor’s office gives a succinct public response. He says the killing of Amadou Diallo was a mistake. The officers had justification in their response, he says — forty-one bullets worth of response. Statements ensue from various sources (civic and private), political commentators, legal experts, politicians — the talk goes on and on — blah, blah, blah.

Cameras focus on the mayor as he prepares to speak. In his opinion, the officers are the victims. Cameras flash incessantly. “They were treated as non-citizens,” he comments. He continues speaking and extends condolences to the Diallo family but he expresses greater empathy for the acquitted officers. The verdict was “a bright day in the American justice system,” he says.

These remarks are curious, since it leads one to believe the murder of an innocent man is a benign act. The final conclusion — Amadou Diallo’s death was just a tragic mistake.

Local news coverage spills over into the national nightly news. I channel surf amongst the major network news broadcasts, ABC, NBC, and CBS. Endless commentary spews from the mouths of experts, laypersons, government officials and social activists. Everyone has an opinion, but no one focuses on the point.

The number one rated network, ABC, leads with a story concerning the stock market. This reinforces what I already know. Dollars — a value above human life. The wrongful death of a man of color (particularly the wrongful death of a Black man) neither warrants nor does it touch the radar of America’s psyche.

“I Was Not A Jew”

This is not to say that white America was completely numb to the realities of the Diallo case, because people did in fact recognize the ever-impending possibility that they too could become victims of acts of state violence. We need only to remember the bombing of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas by the FBI.

But when I say the Diallo case did not touch the radar of the American people it is in the sense of Pastor Martin Niemoller, an anti-Nazi activist: “First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

My point is that the dominant white community never imagines itself as “OTHER,” an individual on the receiving end of blatant injustice. It’s an attitude of — that’s just really terrible, but it really doesn’t affect me. Nonetheless, what we all must remember is that acts of injustice ultimately affect us all.

Yes — people were shocked and disturbed by the case; however, the media of which, “we the people entrust” as purveyors of information, missed as an opportunity to discuss the real cause of Mr. Diallo’s killing — RACISM. The point is this: There exists an ingrained, arrogant and paternal attitude of ownership (exercised by a dominant white power structure) over communities of color.

The underlying cause of this attitude lies in the reinforcement of racist thought. Sure, racism is a word easily bandied about and it can manifest in many forms, so let me further my discussion with a specific definition for the purpose of clarity. As Webster defines racism, it is “A belief or doctrine . . . usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others. [Racism is] a policy, system of government, etc., based upon fostering such a doctrine.”

This description is clear and it speaks to several things — particularly the part about having the right to rule others. But before I can articulate
on how societal systems reinforce racist thought, it is necessary to first look at what precipitated Mr. Diallo’s death.

Who Was “Suspicious”?

 First, the officers made a claim that Mr. Diallo appeared suspicious. Sean Carroll, the eldest of the four officers involved in the shooting, testified under oath that Mr. Diallo was observed “peering and leering down the block” several times. The thing to focus on here is what constitutes the appearance of suspicion.

Second, the officers testified that Mr. Diallo appeared to resemble a wanted rapist. Third, the officers testified that Mr. Diallo appeared to wear a bulletproof vest. This last assumption is most curious because I don’t know how many rapists walk around wearing bulletproof vest, but that’s an aside.

All appearances and assumptions concerning Mr. Diallo’s character proved wrong. He was not carrying a weapon; he was not wearing a bulletproof vest; he held no physical resemblance to the wanted rapist, nor did Mr. Diallo possess a past criminal record.

 Mr. Diallo was an immigrant street vendor of African descent. But what is more important to focus on are the crass assumptions the police harbored concerning Mr. Diallo, a man with black skin. Unfortunately, these assumptions conflate with a peculiar form of systemic racism.

More often than not we know that when individuals, such as the four acquitted officers, are not familiar with a particular culture or the individuals they are charged to “protect,” unfounded assumptions play an insidious role in forming biased behavior. This behavior often includes unwarranted shakedowns of innocent citizens and other violations of personal liberty.

Perhaps this was the dynamic present that precipitated Mr. Diallo’s forty-one bullet shooting death. The trial testimony of one of the acquitted officers, Sean Carroll, stated that he thought Mr. Diallo appeared suspicious. “It appeared he was looking up and down the block … Diallo was slinking around and peering,” Carroll testified.

If “peering and slinking” arouses heightened suspicion which in turn warrants escalated physical force by police, then any one of us could conceivably be deemed suspicious through such an act.

Hidden Assumptions/Inferential Racism

This point leads me back to the definition of racism and how racist thinking is often clothed under the cover of assumption. British cultural critic Stuart Hall distinguishes racism into two distinct types, overt and inferential.

Overt racism is explicit and is readily noticeable as in calling someone a racial epithet. Inferential racism is a much more complex form of racism as it is largely invisible. Inferential racism is often the reason why many whites will sincerely and adamantly declare, “I’m not a racist.”

Clearly, the aroused suspicion of the police officers speaks to the deep seeded, insidious and passive nature of inferential racist thinking that lends to negative assumptions surrounding race and economic status. John Kenneth Galbraith specifically speaks to the issue of assumption when he says, “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”

Quite often, assumption is the conventional view regarding people of color. Racist thinking is a particular mode of thought that fosters mental laziness and eschews the “job of thinking” of which Galbraith speaks. It is a particular mindset that persists in an unwillingness to do the socially conscious work that bridges understanding amongst communities.

Assumption in most instances relies not on logic but on stereotypical belief systems. Assumptionist thinking reduces specific groups and races of people to mere caricatures. When this dynamic occurs (the result of illogical and lazy thinking) tragic results ensue.

The assumptions of the four acquitted officers seem grounded in the conventional thought that people of color (more specifically young Black men) are automatically dangerous. Within the bounds of such assumptive thinking, the inhabitants of Soundview (a predominantly minority community) certainly cannot be viewed as law-abiding citizens. They instead become desperate and dangerous persons.

It is true that Mr. Diallo’s South Bronx neighborhood is economically ravaged, and plagued by a known criminal element. Some corners of the community give the appearance of the aftermath of the South Viet Nam Tet Offensive or World War II Germany. Nevertheless, environmental appearance and a limited criminal element within a community should not lead to the assumption that all the neighborhood’s inhabitants are criminals.

The overwhelming majority of persons living in Mr. Diallo’s South Bronx community are hard working residents who send their children to school, attend churches, and participate in community programs — many of the same mundane day-to-day activities in which their white middle-class suburban counterparts engage.

Assumption by the police officers raises serious questions for us to ponder: If Mr. Diallo had been a white male and Soundview was a suburban enclave would the ordinary act of “peering and slinking” been cause for suspicion? If a white male exhibited the same actions as Mr. Diallo, would the officers have assumed he presented a threat?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, as none of us can ever know the mind set of the officers. One fact, however, is certain: The officers were not mem<->bers of the community they were charged to protect.

Certainly, I am not advocating that any officer when placed in a life-threatening situation not exercise self-defense. What is at issue here is outrageous excessive force by police who have formed easy assumptions about the communities they were entrusted to protect. There remains the immediate need for police agencies to dismantle the ingrained assumptive thought and racial profiling policies grounded in stereotype and racist thinking before citizens of color are truly safe from such excessive police force.

Guilt and Re-education

Because there was not a program of cultural re-education in place, let me further suggest that a lack of knowledge was the major contributing factor in Mr. Diallo’s death.

Most of us harbor some form of cultural assumption about groups or races other than our own. However, tragic results occur when police (individuals charged with protecting the citizenry) act on racist cultural assumptions, as we know that systemic racist notions formed about people of color pervade within the dominant culture and the legal justice system.

Furthermore, let us not assume that the simple fact that the jury ruled not guilty means there is an absence of guilt. There remains the presence of moral guilt left unaddressed. There is the moral guilt of complicity within a system that allows racist assumption and beliefs to permeate throughout its every layer. There exists moral guilt whenever the prevailing system of power sanctions and reinforces racism within its societal structures and particularly within its law enforcement establishment.

Acts of racist anger inflicted upon anyone should not go without moral repentance as in the case of the officers who fired upon Amadou Diallo. Take note that I purposely avoid using the word “punishment” as it applies to the acquitted officers: As I am not an advocate of the penal system, I am careful to avoid advocating penal punishment since this does not engage constructive methods for deprogramming racist thought.

Education, however, is far more productive, and the four white officers acquitted of killing Amadou Diallo could well have used some ongoing cultural education.

I advocate a form of education, which calls for mandated ties to the community wherever officers work (for some amount of time — at least). For most police officers, like those involved in the Diallo case, living amongst the people of marginalized communities offers a far greater educational experience than any period of incarceration.

Just imagine for a moment if the four white officers had a mandate to live a different cultural experience outside their own. Just imagine if the four white officer’s wives and children lived day-to-day under the same urban stresses as the inhabitants of Mr. Diallo’s community. Just imagine if the children of the officers attended the same schools within the communities in which their fathers served.

Just imagine the level of education gained through understanding the dynamics of a community if one takes the time to understand its people. Just imagine how the white officers could have benefitted from really knowing the community they served — how they might have worked from a basis of knowledge and not stereotype and assumption.

We can only imagine that if the officers had taken the time, or had there been a structure in place that supports law enforcement’s understanding of the communities they serve, then the tragedy of Amadou Diallo might never have happened.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine any white officer living in a community akin to Mr. Diallo’s. We might safely say that most officers would rather resign if living in marginalized communities were a man<->dated part of the job.

But unfortunately, neither the legal justice system nor any of the sanctioned establishments of dominant power offer any form of repentance that involves active cultural re-education. The present justice system simply offers punitive judg<->ment based on destructive racist notions. Consequently, in many instances prevailing assumptions regarding people of color backed by power works to reinforce acts such as those perpetrated upon Mr. Diallo.

Communities For Themselves

So what does this say about the pro-active policing methods needed within policing communities? The current state of affairs calls for a need for self-policing within communities of color. Only we can do it for ourselves, and this philosophy is the heart of Emersonian “self-reliance” and American revolutionary thought.

People of color, marginalized communities, the poor or any community that does not fit into the mainstream must speak for themselves — to include self-policing and protection. This calls for the hard work of organizing community coalitions that demand the law enforcement establishment make cultural education an integral part of police training. The work that must be done calls for citizens organizing community policing efforts to “take back the night” and the day from both the criminal element and insidious police brutality.

The words of J. Edgar Hoover provide an eerie reminder regarding the growth of a singularly dictated fascist police state, inasmuch as his statement illuminates how racist thinking presents daily risks to the inalienable rights of people of color, the poor and other marginalized communities.

POSTSCRIPT: Within less than a week of the acquittal verdict, there was another police shooting death of an unarmed young Black male in the Soundview area of the Bronx. This shooting occurred just three blocks from where Mr. Diallo died.

ATC 86, May-June 2000