A man stands on the steps of his apartment building in the night, casting fearful glances at a car full of men who emerge and pursue him into the alcove of his building with guns. He tries to get in and cannot; he reaches for his wallet, possibly to surrender it to them, and they fire forty-one shots at him.
If you are not from New York City, you have probably always heard it is dangerous to live here and I say, yes, that is still true. In New York, you can legally be slain on your own front steps, by the cops. You will not know they are cops; they will be wearing plain clothes, driving an unmarked car, and they may not identify themselves. But when you react as you probably would to a group of armed men chasing you, they will have the right to shoot you, without consequences.
The Amadou Diallo case is about race, dirty politics, and Rudy Giuliani's police state.
As a white man living in Brooklyn Heights, despite the apparent new legality of police execution of unarmed, law abiding citizens, I seriously doubt that what happened to Amadou Diallo could happen to me. I am tempted to try the experiment: I will stand on my front steps, darting my head suspiciously whenever a police car passes by and withdrawing into my doorway, and I doubt anyone will stop. Because I am a white man in a middle class neighborhood and do not fit the deeply racist profile that Amadou Diallo did. Every cop will assume, correctly, that I belong there, while the cops who shot Diallo testified that it never occurred to them that he might be a resident of his own building.
A proof of this proposition is that the police in New York City do not shoot people like me by accident, while they make headlines once or twice a year for the highly questionable shooting of a young black male (though at least once it was an elderly black woman, Eleanor Bumpurs.) In most of these cases, the circumstances are somewhat foggy: the cops are in uniform, the victim has a criminal record or is fighting them. And a lot of people who imagine themselves good citizens have a complacent reaction: "He had it coming. Even if he didn't quite deserve to be executed simply for wrestling, I'm not going to mourn over it."
But Amadou Diallo did absolutely nothing wrong. He worked for a living, had no criminal record, was standing quietly on his own front stoop, offered no violence, and simply tried to retreat safely to the protection of his own home, a very natural reaction when pursued by four armed men he did not know to be cops.
In New York City under Rudy Giuliani, we have seen the terrible resurgence of oficially condoned police racism. Not long ago, a black cast member of a Broadway play was arrested and held overnight, missing his performance. Like Diallo, his only "crime" was that of being a black man in his own building at a time when it came under police attention. Ask any young black man in New York City, neatly dressed teenager or even a computer consultant wearing a suit, how many times he has been stopped and harassed by the police.
In New York City we have a terrible double standard, because if the cops had executed my white next door neighbor under identical circumstances, there would have been consequences.
I believe that transferring the trial to Albany was the result of dirty politics. The implication that the cops could not receive a fair trial in the Bronx was insulting to the residents of that borough, and very much predicated on who the defendants were. After all, the John Gotti trial did not get moved from Brooklyn, and the defendant was far more notorious than the cops who slew Amadou Diallo. The jury selection process is predicated on the premise that by adroit questioning and careful consideration it is possible to find jurors who will render a fair verdict. It would undoubtedly have been possible to find people in the Bronx who had never heard of Diallo, just as it was possible to find a few in Brooklyn who did not think much, one way or the other, about John Gotti.
The real reason the trial was moved was because of the comparative political environments of the two venues. The people of the Bronx, because of long experience, not prejudice, have a skeptical view of cops. The people of Albany do not; the judge who transferred the case there carefully picked a jurisdiction where cops are almost always acquitted of any kind of criminal charge. A Bronx jury would have looked at the defendants through the eye of their own experience of police harassment and violence, and would have evaluated the testimony in the light of this experience. An Albany jury would also see the case through its own quite different lens, of regarding the police as the "thin blue line" between homeowners and chaos (including chaos riding the Greyhound bus from New York City). The transfer was not accomplished to find people who could be "neutral" or "impartial"; it was to substitute one set of attitudes, of experiences, for another.
Yes, there were four black women on the jury, and the vote was unanimous to acquit. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say. The defense attorneys tried to have them all excused because of their race (as defense attorneys in these types of cases always have.) But this time the judge did not permit it (as judges in the past usually did.) Nevertheless, though reassuring, it would still be a form of oversimplification and reverse racism to say the trial was fair because there were black people on the jury. An Albany jury of whatever racial composition could still have assigned lesser value to Diallo's life because he was Senegalese, an immigrant, did not speak English as a first language-- or because he lived in New York City.
Cops who work in the Bronx should be tried by the people of the Bronx, just as criminals who prey on the people of the Bronx should be tried by them. There is no difference in the two situations, unless you presuppose the result. The real reason for transferring the trial was "lets save these heroes," not "lets find a fair and neutral venue."
The transfer incidentally sends the message that it is wrong, hysterical, overwrought and dangerous to speak out against police violence, because the result will be that your entire jurisdiction will be deemed too unstable to carry out a fair trial of a violent policeman. Why then do we not apply the same rules to Mafia trials? Why is it fair to try a Mafioso in a jurisdiction where there has been a significant, ongoing, negative spotlight on Mafia violence and frequent strongly phrased denouncements by police and prosecutors? Why doesn't the "perp walk"--the ritual of the cops thrusting a newly arrested defendant against his will right into the cameras and microphones of reporters--ever result in a judge holding that the defendant can now not receive a fair trail in that jurisdiction?
The question is rhetorical and the answer obvious. The government can heap all the invective it wants on a criminal defendant but when the speech is that of private citizens opposing government power, the rules suddenly change. Dirty politics, as I said.
Rudy Giuliani's police state
Giuliani's first Mayoral campaign began in a police riot, which no-one today remembers. The cops were demonstrating in front of City Hall, then inhabited by a black mayor, David Dinkins. Giuliani stood on the steps and delivered a speech so incendiary that the cops, many of them already drunk, began beating journalists and blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. It is heavily ironic that Giuliani no longer permits demonstrations on the steps of City Hall.
As a former prosecutor, the mayor relies on the police as his power base. They are not simply one of the city agencies under his management, nor does he regard them as a group which needs to be carefully supervised, as prone to suicide, alcoholism and violence. Because the mayor draws his power from the police, he can never be in a position of criticizing anything they do. Instead, he will always be an apologist for their violence.
The kind of mayor I want for my city would be deeply agitated by the killing of Amadou Diallo and would ask why he had such poorly trained, highly strung "heroes" patrolling in plainclothes. Giuliani, on television, merely seemed pained, as he always does. Undoubtedly he wishes it had not happened, but only because it is a nuisance to deal with and (had it gotten out of control, for example if the trial had been permitted to happen in the Bronx) a potential threat to his senatorial campaign.
Another lesson from the Diallo case is that we live in an era of more subtle evil than before. Forty years ago in the South, the cops would have been swaggering and boasting and the white jurors winking (if any indictment was brought at all.) Twenty-five years ago in New York City, an untraceable gun would have emerged from a police locker to be placed by the body and the cops would have claimed that Diallo brandished it at them. Today, in the era of "compassionate conservatism", everyone has learned that quite extreme behavior can be hidden behind reasonable sounding words. Thus by acknowledging that killing Diallo was a "mistake" (as they would not have twenty-five or more years ago) the cop defendants expected, and obtained, complete absolution for their acts.
But in the law school where I obtained my training, a "mistake" means "negligence" and "criminal negligence" was one of the counts on which the jury acquitted all defendants. What exactly is the significance of a "mistake", or the acknowledgment that a "mistake" was made, if there are no consequences whatsoever?
In the 1970's, when police violence was endemic, we nevertheless had the interesting spectacle of the police department firing cops who had been acquitted of criminal charges, as unfit to do their jobs. I do not believe that will happen here, in Giuliani world; it would give the lie to the rest of the careful cover-up of the power structure on which this city is run. I am not certain exactly why the deeply racist and violent police department behaved with a modicum of fairness thirty years ago, but it was probably because of the political oversight of mayors very different from Giuliani.
Instead, the "mistake" of killing Amadou Diallo will be a "freebie"; the cops will get to go on with their careers. (Federal charges are also possible; these prevailed despite the criminal racism of an all white state jury in the Rodney King beating--where the original state trial had also been moved to a conservative community. But in that case the federal jury had a video-tape to watch. In the Diallo case, lacking a shouted epithet or a racist background of one of the officers, a federal civil rights violation-- though I strongly believe one existed--may not be proveable.) Do the cops involved then get to make the same "mistake" a second time, a third or a tenth? At what point do we deem it a "mistake" we need to do something about?
Rudy Giuliani is a dictator in waiting. He is self righteous, absolute, has no sense of humor, and will go to any lengths to punish his enemies. He is temperamentally completely unsuited to be senator, as it is a job requiring negotiation, collegiality, and charm. I believe he is interested in the job for one reason only: as a stepping stone to the Presidency. If so, he would be the most dangerous president since Richard Nixon. In fact, I think he would be more dangerous: Nixon doubted himself and sometimes hesitated at the opportune moment; Giuliani feels no doubt and will not hesitate.