It’s an odd sort of memorial we arrive at today: Looking back on a 10-year-old police execution of an unarmed black man. It feels terribly incongruent with the political high we’re now on, more like a bad memory than a resonant reminder of the challenges we face as a nation. But here we are.
It was a decade ago today, in 1999, that a purportedly elite group of New York City cops fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, hitting him with 19. They had knocked on his door in search of a rape suspect; when he reached for his wallet, they assumed he was going for a gun. Nobody went to jail for the killing.
What’s perhaps most depressing about the decade since Diallo’s death is how commonplace similar reports have become—and how little these recurring atrocities have done to prompt a meaningful re-think of the way in which black neighborhoods are policed.
Oakland, for instance, marks Diallo’s macabre anniversary with Oscar Grant’s murder. Early on New Year’s Day, a gang of cops pulled Grant and a group of young black men aside in a Bay Area Rapid Transit station to investigate a fight. Cell phone videos captured the action: cops punching Grant, who was unarmed and doesn’t appear to be resisting arrest; them wrestling him to the ground, where he lay face down; and Johannes Mehserle shooting him in the back, killing the 22-year-old.
At least Mehserle has been arrested and charged with murder, though his accomplices remain on the streets. New York City marks Diallo’s murder with painful memories of the killing of Sean Bell, who yet another gang of supposedly elite cops gunned down at his bachelor party in late 2006. Last summer, they were all cleared of wrongdoing.
High-profile cop-killings like these hark back to Diallo and, in so doing, generate public demands for accountability in policing. That’s a good thing. But in their celebrity, these incidents also obscure a deeper, more troubling reality: They cannot be honestly called accidents or exceptions. Rather, they are the predictable, if extreme result of policing black neighborhoods as combat zones.
The less-publicized incidents are myriad and troubling. Take Michael Mineo. In October, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, a group of cops chased Mineo into a subway station, pursuing him for marijuana possession. Once they caught him, Officer Richard Kern wrestled him to the ground and sodomized him with a police baton. He’s been indicted for the attack, and two of his fellow officers have stepped forward as witnesses.
Then there’s the epidemic of stun-gun assaults now sweeping the country. As we’ve reported here on The Root, cops have killed hundreds of people with stun guns, which have become popular as supposedly non-lethal weapons. Ironically, their rapidly increasing use is in large part a response to outcry over killings like Diallo’s.
None of this gets at the root of the matter, however. It starts smaller, with the every day, routine antagonism too many cops stir up between themselves and young men in the neighborhoods they are supposed to be serving. There are the stop-and-frisks, of course: A January study found that blacks and Latinos represent 80 percent of NYPD’s stop-and-frisk targets. But there are also more subtle things, like the way in which teenage antics are treated as criminal acts when you’re black and male.
A kid like L.A. Burrell offers an example. I met the 17-year-old at a Brooklyn community center this time last year, while reporting a story on gun crime. He was one of the good kids, doing well in school and spending all his spare time volunteering and playing ball at the center. While I talked with him, hoping he’d provide a positive story from the area, he casually mentioned he had two charges on his record already.
“First time I got locked up I was 16,” he explained. I asked him what happened. He pushed his cap back from his fresh face and cocked his head as he tried to recall the details. “For fighting. Actually, I got arrested for”—he paused, till the actual charge came to him—“a riot! With four people? I don’t understand. But the charge was ‘riot.’ ”
The way L.A. tells the story, he was walking along a subway platform with friends when one guy in their group threw something at another kid passing by. It was a provocative but characteristic taunt for a group of teenage boys, and things escalated into a fistfight. Cops rounded up the whole lot of them. His second arrest came in a similar situation—one of his friends got into a beef on a subway stairwell, ending in the whole group getting busted.
In another neighborhood, it’s unlikely that teenage fistfights and shoving matches would lead to arrests, let alone to charges of “riot” and criminal records. But in L.A.’s hood, a fistfight is seen as the first step toward a gang shootout. Everybody’s a criminal in the making.
Thus, cops search housing-project stairwells with guns drawn. Thus, laws stack the deck to make prosecution easy and defense costly. Thus, small-scale crimes draw large-scale prison sentences. And, of course, every now and then a guy answering a knock at his door or leaving his bachelor party or riding public transit gets gunned down, gangland-style, by the people who are supposed to be protecting and serving him.
Ten years after Diallo, none of this has changed a whit. Until it does, law enforcement will continue to be as much a part of the problem as it is the solution in poor black neighborhoods.
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.