By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
At about the time it was being announced last Thursday that a state appeals court had ruled that the trial of four white cops accused of murdering Amadou Diallo would be moved from the Bronx to Albany, the Civilian Complaint Review Board was faxing Jason Braunstein a letter. The letter was intended to reasure Braunstein that theagency was investigating his almost 10-month-old allegation that Street Crime Unit officers had wrongfully targeted a group of musicians he managed, invoking the circumstances surrounding the brutal shooting of Diallo to intimidate them.
The case has been assigned to CCRB investigator Jonathan Barbour, who over the weekend was expected to reinterview some members of Enemy Squad, a Detroit-based funk-rock-hip hop group still reeling from cop rage in the aftermath of the Diallo shooting. A police officer reportedly asked band member Dunimie DePoirres what was going through his mind when the cops confronted him in lower Manhattan on a wintry morning in March.
"What do I have to do to not to get shot?" DePoirres responded.
"Come on, you were thinking about 41 shots, weren't you?" the officer allegedly countered, an obvious reference to the Diallo tragedy.
Since Diallo's death in February, rogue cops sympathetic to their indicted colleagues allegedly have been reminding suspects and other innocent African Americans they illegally stop and frisk that they could wind up like Diallo if they resist arrest or mouth off. This tactic has evoked so much concern that it has spawned another "while black" acronym in the category that has become synonymous with police mistreatment of African Americans.
And so the fear of being "Dialloed While Black" (based on the phrase "Driving While Black") has become a hot-button topic at anti-police-brutality rallies and on black talk radio.
"There's a poison goin' on," one caller declared on WLIB-AM shortly after the November 31 release of a report by the state attorney general, who discovered that even in precincts that are 90 percent white, more than half the people stopped and searched are black or Latino. Some 175,000 stop-and-frisk forms were examined for the report. The forms are filled out by officers to explain the reason for a search, which is legally permitted if an officer has reasonable suspicion that someone is concealing a gun or drugs in his or her waistband. The report also found that the reasonable suspicion cited on the forms often was inadequate, meaning the officers had no justification for the stops.
A week later, Police Commisioner Howard Safir released the result of a poll commissioned by the NYPD that showed that 82 percent of residents questioned said they respected the NYPD and its officers. When broken down by ethnicity, 83 percent of whites, 75 percent of African Americans, and 83 percent of Latinos said they respected cops. When asked if the NYPD was working toward improving relations with minority communities, 59 percent of all respondents said yes. By ethnicity, 61 percent of whites, 51 percent of African Americans, and 58 percent of Latinos said yes. The poll's most glaring flaw is that it contained no questions on police brutality.
In the WLIB caller's reference to "poison," he invoked a phrase by the rap group Public Enemy to dramatize how widespread the "DWB" threat had become. Diallo, 22, was struck 19 times and killed when the four cops fired 41 shots as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx home. The cops were searching the neighborhood for a rape suspect. Diallo, a street merchant from West Africa, was unarmed. The slaying triggered protests over allegations of police brutality and renewed the debate about whether minorities are treated differently by the NYPD.
Public Enemy's summer release of "41:19," riddim warfare that targets the shooting, remains the most popular rap commentary about the notorious stop-and-frisks that occur primarily in poor black and Latino neighborhoods. "What you got?" asks Chuck D in the rap. "Ratatat-ta-tat!" comes the reply, mimicking the staccato of the 41 shots fired at Diallo. "Shot 41 only hit 19!" Flava Flav emphasizes. The rapper later conjures up the scenario of a routine stop-and-frisk: "[R]acist mutherfuckrs mad cause they ain't with it," he says of the unfortunate victim. "Da poliz get out da car, searchin' him for nuthin'. If you got sumthin' then they got you for sumthin'. That's fucked up, the way they play dirty! Lock him up in jail until he's past 30. They don't give a fuck about you; they don't give a fuck about me, I'm past 33."
In its 11-page decision, the appeals court found that the "incessant drumbeat of pretrial publicity" coupled with repeated "assertions that defendants were motivated by racial prejudice" had poisoned the local jury pool. The change-of-venue motion, filed in November by defense lawyers, argued that the intense media coverage and demonstrations sparked by the shooting made it impossible for the officers to get a fair trial. The publicity cited by the court included more than 1000 protester arrests, widespread demonstrations, an ACLU newspaper ad picturing 41 bullet holes, a New Yorker cartoon cover of a smiling cop in a shooting gallery with human-shaped targets, and a New York Post column that included a paragraph consisting of the word "Bang" repeated 41 times.
Moses Stewart, the director of Al Sharpton's Crisis Management Team at the National Action Network, scoffs at the claim by attorneys for the officers that their clients mistakenly believed Diallo was reaching for a gun and shot him. Stewart says that Sharpton, who organized weeks of angry protests after the shootingleading to hundreds of arrests for civil disobediencehas directed him to search the civil rights group's files for complaints from blacks who have been stopped by cops and threatened with a fate similar to Diallo's.