Four Words That Killed Amadou Diallo

by Byron Williams

I must confess that I was not shocked when the jury acquitted the four white police officers who killed Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, in a 41-bullet barrage. In fact, I expected as much.

I did not expect the decision simply because the scene was so reminiscent to the first Rodney King verdict. The Simi Valley jury telling us that we did not see what we all so clearly saw still lingers in my psyche. Though we did not see the officers actually shoot at Mr. Diallo 41 times, hitting him 19, the mere thought should cause any rational human being to shudder uncontrollably.

This is not to question the decision rendered by the jury. Unlike those who disagreed with the verdict in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, I am not going to question the I.Q. of the jurors, nor will I complain that there were no African-American men serving on this latest case of injustice. I am also willing to concede that the jury was far more engaged in the nuances of this case than the vast majority of pundits.

I am not going to question the change in venue that led to the trial being held in upstate Albany, rather than the Bronx where the crime occurred. With all the media attention, I understand the decision to hold the trial in Albany was to insure fairness. However, outside of a few citizens from Madagascar away on a country holiday, were there many individuals who were unfamiliar with this case?

Moreover, I was not surprised when I heard politicians such as New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Vice President Al Gore critique what we already knew to be painfully obvious.

Yet, presidential hopeful and former Senator Bill Bradley did say something that resonated with my reality. According to Bradley the Diallo verdict demonstrates how embedded racial profiling is in our society. Bradley went on to say that, "A wallet in the hands of a white man looks like a wallet, while a wallet in the hands of a black man looks like a gun."

The innocent verdict reached by the Albany jury reflects the collective fear of so many black and Latino men.

Because a racially diverse jury found the four police officers not guilty of committing any crime while shooting at an unarmed, innocent man 41 times is not comforting to those who understand the ease with which this type of mistake can happen.

Many black and Latino men can relate to Amadou Diallo's fate because of four words: "He fit the description."

Those four words were the reason for the police officers stopping Mr. Diallo. The history of those four words are among the reasons why urban communities of color do not view police officers as a sworn body to protect and serve them. Just ask Earl Graves II, Vice President of Black Enterprise magazine and son of the magazine's founder.

Mr. Graves while on his way to work made the unfortunate mistake of taking the New York subway on a day when a crime had been committed. Though appropriately dressed in traditional Manhattan business attire, Mr. Graves was stopped and handcuffed during the early morning commute hours because he "fit the description." It seems that New York's finest reached that conclusion simply because he and the alleged assailant had short hair.

Recently, Los Angeles police officer Rafael Perez received a five-year sentence for stealing eight pounds of cocaine. In exchange for a lighter sentence, Perez cooperated with investigators and alleged widespread corruption in the station's anti-gang unit.

Because of Perez's testimony, 20 officers have been removed from duty and 40 convictions, mostly black and Latino men, have been overturned.

In addition, the Diallo decision came hard on the heels of the Abner Louima case also in New York. It was less than one year ago, when several police officers, breaking their sacred "code of silence" testified that fellow officer Justin Volpe violated Mr. Louima's civil rights. According to the officers, Volpe, in a sadistic rage, rammed a stick into the rectum of a handcuffed Mr. Louima.

Because of these cases and countless others, black and Latino men walk around with a peculiar paranoia that is foreign to the dominant culture. It is a paranoia that demands even while enjoying the simple pleasantries of an evening stroll a man must retrace his every step.

Who did I talk to, and at what time? Do I have an alibi? If I was home alone watching television, what was the program and what was the topic?

This paranoia transcends the gated enclaves of suburban living. It ignores the achievements of hard work and playing by the rules. It thumbs its nose at what we understand to be right and wrong.

This paranoia reminds black and Latino men that such violations are not afflicted upon their white counterparts. And if so, such occurrences are rare to say the least. In order to make sense of such violations, black and Latino men must go the depths of absurdity in order to feel we have some type of understanding.

So we are left with the reality that Amadou Diallo was the cause of his own death. Mr. Diallo had the unmitigated gall to demonstrate fear of those whose sworn duty is to protect and serve the community.

Because Mr. Diallo fit the description was no reason for him to demonstrate fear. It was not as though the officers were going to unleash a 41-bullet barrage without just cause, unless of course he pulled out a gun, or wallet. What is the difference, you ask? Depends on one's hue.

Byron Williams writes for weekly for

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