A Socialist Labor Party Statement—

The Death of Amadou Diallo

Forty-one shots and an innocent, inoffensive young African immigrant lay dead in the entryway to his apartment building in the Bronx. His name was Amadou Diallo and he was only 22 years old. He had come from Guinea in West Africa in hopes of bettering his life in the United States. He worked diligently as a street peddler every day, doing everything right and lawful, paying his bills and rent on time, and carefully saving what money he could.

This slight, quiet, pleasant young man was a threat to nobody, and yet he was gunned down on his own doorstep one night last year. What went wrong? Did he live in a high-crime neighborhood? Hardly. He lived in the Soundview section, a family neighborhood in the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City. Of the 41 shots fired by his assailants, 19 entered his body. The rest penetrated the walls and door of the apartment building. One shot entered the first-floor apartment of a sleeping tenant and passed just over his bed.

Amadou Diallo never had a chance. His assailants were four plainclothes white officers of New York City’s elite street crimes unit. Their motto is “The night belongs to us.” Driving by at night, they saw Diallo standing in the entryway of his building, allegedly looking up and down the street. That behavior looked suspicious to them. The driver backed up the car and stopped. The four got out and approached Diallo. What actually happened we shall never know because the corpse is not here to testify on his own behalf. The four officers, who testified at their trial in February of this year, said they identified themselves as police and asked to talk with him. An eyewitness said they gave no identification of themselves, but that one of their number called out “Gun!” and all officers began firing at the man in the doorway.

On the witness stand a year after the event, the four gave similar coordinated stories. Diallo looked as though he was up to something. He looked like a rapist they were after. One cop said he thought Diallo might be contemplating a robbery. If he got inside the door, they would have trouble chasing him inside. Dangerous for the officers! He had a wallet in his hand and it looked like a gun.

(Can’t tell a wallet from a gun? Well, you see, they said, the lighting in the entryway was dim. But he sure looked like the rapist they were after, despite the supposed dim light! After all, he was a black man with a mustache, just like the rapist; and all blacks look alike to white folks, anyhow.)

One officer said Diallo held out his wallet toward them and then went into a combat stance. Really? Did he think they were going to rob him, these four white men bearing down on him, and so he was handing them his wallet? Or was he searching for his identification? Or did he just happen to have the wallet in his hand? We’ll never know. Unfortunately, he could not testify from the grave. As for the “dim lighting,” one investigative officer who was later called to the scene of the tragedy said the lighting was good. Another investigative officer, however, fraternally backed up the four and said the lighting was dim. The caretaker of the building said the front entryway lighting that night was good. Take your pick.

The defense lawyers had gotten a change of venue for their four clients, and the place of the trial had been moved from the Bronx to Albany, even before the selection of a jury had begun. A black woman judge had been assigned to the trial in the Bronx and the cops and their defense team considered this an unfavorable development. A racially mixed jury in Albany acquitted the four officers of all charges on Feb. 25. The judge had charged the jury to put themselves in the shoes of the police officers. No, he was not a prejudiced judge. That is the way the law reads. If a policeman believes his life is in danger, or that a crime is about to be committed, he is permitted to use his weapon.

So if the officers advanced upon Diallo because they believed he had a robbery of someone somewhere (who knows where?) in mind, then they were in the process of making an arrest, and if he pulled a wallet on them, it was obviously a threatening move, because they thought that item was actually a gun. Or maybe he was looking for someone to rape. Anyway, he was suspicious because he was standing on his doorstep looking around and he was a black man, like the rapist. And who is there to counter this testimony or to prove that they made all these justifications up? Certainly not the corpse. And if the police in the line of “duty” shoot and kill an innocent person, they can always make it up to the victim and his family by saying, “Oops! So sorry!”

Richard D. Emery, a civil rights lawyer writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times (Feb. 26), analyzed the situation. How could four officers wearing protective body armor and carrying 9 mm automatic handguns fear for their lives and “overreact with 41 shots? How could they have misread the situation so tragically?” As Emery emphasized, they “were poorly prepared, poorly trained and poorly supervised. Put simply, they panicked in a situation that called for equanimity, tactical forethought, common sense and proper procedures.”

In 1997, present Police Commissioner Howard Safir decided to triple the street crimes unit to 380 officers, evidently to make his reputation as the champion crime crusher in the city and to accommodate his take-no-prisoners, macho crime-fighting boss, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose willing puppet Safir is.

There was no way to properly train every officer who was suddenly thrust into one of the most dangerous kinds of work around, notes Emery. “The police department must take tactical and safety training more seriously. It must rigorously supervise and discipline officers that ignore police procedures. It is not the number of officers out there that counts. It’s the quality of the officers.”

One of the factors in the Diallo case that has been generally slighted in the mainline press is the matter of race. To most white cops detailed to look for guns and drugs on the street, the minority community is considered fair game. Minority men, women and children are regularly stopped, searched, harassed and often bullied and brutally roughed up, even when no contraband is found. Some minority individuals have been stopped and frisked dozens of times, for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Was Amadou Diallo initially deemed a suspicious character because of his race? To the thousands who have demonstrated and protested after his death and since the acquittal of his killers, the answer is obvious. Do Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner Safir care, in their rush to lower the crime statistics, that they are loosing a Gestapo on the citizenry? Must ordinary human beings fear the police force as much or more than they do the criminal element?

Instances of this sort are of such frequent occurrence that such questions answer themselves. But there is more to it than that, and the protests and demonstrations make clear that those who have gotten that far in their thinking have not gotten to the heart of the question.

What are the police? What is their social function? Whose interests do they serve?

The idea that the police provide a service without which society might fall into chaos is only partially correct. The police are an armed wing of the political state. It does not matter what state or whether it is “democratic” or despotic. All political states—from America to Zambia—have and make use of police. The state is by definition despotic. It is an institution of class rule, of the domination of one social class over another. Its primary function is to maintain order. But what constitutes order is a reflection of the interests of those most concerned with maintaining it. The order in question is the social order, the status quo, the way things are, which are merely euphemisms for capitalist rule. The order that the capitalist ruling class wants maintained is the order that keeps them in power, and that implies the use of force and of maintaining the agencies and institutions needed to apply that force when the social order is threatened.

Amadou Diallo was no threat to the capitalist order of things. He was no threat to his neighbors, no rapist. He wasn’t even a threat to himself, a berserk, a potential suicide. But even if he were one or all of those things, as thousands are, no rational order of things would deal with those human afflictions by means of armed force. Antisocial behavior denotes emotional abnormalities or mental illness. These are not problems for armed squads of roaming police to contend with. They are problems the nature of which suggests that they can only be dealt with by workers trained in dealing with emotional or mental disorders and other manifestations of aberrant behavior that pose a threat to their victims or to those who come in contact with them.

Capitalism cannot deal with these problems. Indeed, capitalism is the source of many of them and can no more eliminate these social byproducts of its existence than a leopard can change its spots.

Amadou Diallo was no threat to order, to his neighbors or to himself, but the capitalist order of things is a constant threat to all of us. Demonstrations, calls for better training or closer supervision of police only provide politicians, police chiefs and other functionaries of the state an opportunity to deflect righteous indignation and anger until the next recurrence. That is no solution to the problem. The solution is to abolish the conditions that make such incidents possible and without which they would become impossible.


Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • www.slp.org • socialists@slp.org

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