By MARILYN VOGT-DOWNEY
NEW YORK-A Bronx grand jury indicted four New York City police officers on charges of second-degree murder in the Feb. 4, 1999, death of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo. This is a great step in the battle for justice but a long way from conviction.
Diallo was gunned down by Edward McMellon, Sean Carroll, Kenneth Boss, and Richard Murphy-members of the Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit-in the entryway to his Bronx home in a hail of 41 bullets, 19 of which riddled his body.
The police claimed that the cops had mistaken Diallo for a rape suspect because, like Diallo, the rape suspect was dark-skinned with a moustache. The four cops are white.
Diallo’s murder has brought unprecedented public attention to the racism and brutality of the New York Police Department (NYPD). Anger because the four officers had not been arrested prompted major protests that have transformed politics in the city.
Mass protests, were organized in the immediate aftermath of the murder and continued daily throughout the month of February. They developed a particular dynamism with the March 3 demonstration on Wall Street attended by several thousands.
During that rally, 30 people, headed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, engaged in civil disobedience to get arrested, initiating a daily campaign without recent precedent in New York City.
After March 3, the protests moved to the NYPD headquarters in downtown Manhattan. By March 26-the day after word that the cops had been indicted for murder leaked out-more than 1000 persons had been arrested. Among them were labor, community, and religious leaders, as well as politicians, and show business celebrities.
They included the highest-ranking Black elected official, New York State Comptroller Carl McCall; Essence magazine publisher Edward Lewis; NAACP national president Kweisi Mfume; past Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton; former New York City mayor David Dinkins; Dick Gregory; Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon; the presidents of the largest trade unions in New York City Dennis Rivera of 1199 National Health and Human Service Employees Union; and Lee Saunders, Acting Chief of District Council 37 of AFSCME.
Those arrested even included Chloe Breyer, daughter of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, along with dozens of clergy from a wide array of denominations, Jewish rabbis, rabbinical students, and senior citizens-including an 85-year-old woman in a wheel chair.
The civil disobedience was accompanied by rallies, whose numbers have grown from hundreds in early March to over one thousand each day by March 26.
The key organizer of these protests was the Rev. Sharpton and his National Action Network. However, it soon became the project of a broad coalition, which vowed to continue the civil disobedience until the killer cops were arrested.
Polls show widespread disapproval of the police; nearly 90 percent of Black residents believe cops are brutal with Blacks, and only 22 percent of all residents surveyed feel the cops treat the races equally.
Public officials scramble for positions
- New York State Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, The New York City Council, two U.S. Attorney’s offices in Brooklyn and Manhattan and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission have all announced plans to conduct inquiries into police practices in New York City.
- “Tough-on-crime” and workfare fanatic New York Gov. George Pataki even felt compelled by late March to accuse Giuliani of being insensitive to the feelings of the Black communities.
- Mayor Giuliani-who had been ridiculing the protests as “silly” and for five years has refused to meet at all with elected Black officials-finally agreed to meet some of them.
- Even President Clinton, in a radio address in early March, said the problem of police brutality “deeply disturbed” him.
But the cops had yet to be arrested.
The National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights filed a suit asking a federal judge to shut down the Street Crimes Unit because it stopped and searched tens of thousands of people simply because they were members of minority groups.
According to police data, the unit’s cops reported they stopped and searched 45,000 people in 1997 and 1998, resulting in 9500 arrests. Around 50 percent of its gun arrests are eventually thrown out of court.
However, New York State Attorney Spitzer believes that the unit actually stopped hundreds of thousands of people for no reason at all. Cops tell him that they only report 10-20 percent of the actual people they stop and frisk.
Meanwhile, other NYPD dirty tricks have also come to light. Peter J. Neufeld, a member of the legal team representing Amadou’s family, revealed that in the hours after the police shot Amadou, an NYPD unit illegally entered his apartment. One of Amadou’s roommates, Abdou Diallo, stated that he never gave the police permission to enter the apartment: “I tried to close the door but they came in,” he said.
The police took the roommates to the police precinct and questioned them for six hours, never mentioning that it was the police who killed Amadou. In the meantime, the police were ransacking the apartment.
Commissioner Safir denies that the cops were looking for some way to smear Amadou and justify murdering him. Safir claims that the cops had permission to enter the apartment and were only looking to verify Amadou’s identification.
But that is a lie: Amadou was carrying his wallet with his identification when the cops killed him.
Where and where not to seek help
Many protesters, including 1199 President Dennis Rivera and Jesse Jackson, who was among those arrested on March 26, are calling for federal intervention. However, the federal government won’t help much.
Human Rights Watch reported in 1998 that “federal prosecutors brought excessive force charges against police officers in less than one percent of the cases investigated by the FBI involving allegations of abuse.”
Nor does it matter whether the national administration is headed by a Republican or a Democrat: “The group also found that there was almost no difference in the skimpy number of police misconduct cases prosecuted by the Justice Department under moderate Democrat Clinton than there were under conservative Republican President George Bush” (The Daily Challenge, March 22, 1999).
There were 12,000 complaints of police brutality in 1996, almost as many as there were during the 1984-1990 period and complaints continue to grow. But the Clinton administration has not pledged to more aggressively prosecute brutal cops, and it won’t.
It is true that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission (CRC) voted to investigate charges of brutality by the NYPD. However, this will not help matters: The CRC also investigated the LAPD after the beating of Rodney King in 1991 but its report is not expected until April of this year-eight years later!
Former Mayor Edward Koch-who was the candidate of the Democrats, Republicans, and Liberals when he ran-had intended to get arrested on March 21, but was unexpectedly hospitalized hours before the protest was scheduled to begin. While Koch was mayor, he callously protected killer cops who murdered Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, and Arthur Miller-among others.
A longtime supporter of the Democratic Party, the Rev. Herbert Daughtery-among the first 30 arrested on March 3-unwittingly exposed the foolishness of expecting help from the capitalist politicians when he recalled:
“Charles Rangel was a member of a delegation that I had organized to meet with Giuliani, who was U.S. Attorney General at that time. Ed Koch was mayor. So we would go to Giuliani to attempt to obtain violations of civil rights charges against officers. … Giuliani was friendly, accessible and in some ways, helpful. Now Giuliani is mayor, and his whole attitude and demeanor have changed, and it is Ed Koch who is counseling the present mayor to … be more accessible (The Daily Challenge, March 19).
Rallies in N.Y. and Washington
A national mobilization against police brutality called by a broad coalition headed by the Center For Constitutional Rights, will take place in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, April 3. Another rally-called by a coalition of religious, labor, and community groups-is scheduled for Thursday, April 15, in New York City. .
Such mass mobilizations are important in the ongoing struggle to get justice for Amadou Diallo and other victims of police brutality. The trial of the four cops who killed Diallo will probably not take place for months. Cops usually opt to be tried before a single judge instead of a jury, a process that usually leads to acquittal.
Civil disobedience actions, like the ones during the past few weeks, can be useful in this struggle but are difficult to sustain over a long period.
In the meantime, police brutality continues as usual. The capitalist class needs police forces to protect capitalist property relations and to keep the working class under control and terrorized when necessary.
Heightened consciousness must lead to the organization and mobilization of working people into institutions that can take control of the policing of their own neighborhoods. This alone will protect us from the brutality by the ruling class’s army in blue that occupies our communities.
These mobilizations must go hand in hand with independent political action and support for the Labor Party, breaking with not only the Republican Party but with the Democratic Party too.
No matter how militant Democratic Party politicians may sound when they are out of power, they-like the Republicans-are bought and paid for by the ruling rich and can never bring an end to police abuse.