Blood Sport

Race Teams Face Off At the Diallo Trial

Looking around this courtroom, two and a half hours and a $39 Amtrak fare north of New York City, where four white cops are being tried for shooting a black man to death, one thing is clear: Even the black people here don't give a shit about Amadou Diallo.

Every trial's spectators are divided by affections for prosecution or defense, but this is all about race. You don't need a program to tell these affiliations apart; pigment sorts the crowd. The smaller number of whites are either pro-cop or media or presumed to be both. African Americans, their identities affirmed by buttons and Muslim caps, fill most of the seats in a county courthouse straight out of a Perry Mason set. Those who arrive late watch the proceedings on a pair of 30-inch NEC flat-screens in the overflow room next door. Those who can't fit and/or keep quiet hold their placards on a blocked-off street outside.

It's a cartoonish scene far removed from the outside world, where whites and blacks lead similar lives and (mostly) feel the same mix of horror and confusion at the death (murder?) of an innocent man. In this pomo crucible, black spectators suck in every defense fuckup like a touchdown or a home run and take every prosecutorial setback like a 19th shot to the back. It's the same for the whites, with opposite stimulus-response.

illustration by ted rall

On Wednesday just before lunch, the defense team pulls a boner that may end up sending their broad-shouldered, fresh-faced clients for long stretches in that disproportionately black neighborhood called prison. They call Schrrie Elliott, a/k/a Scherie Elliot, a/k/a Denise Williams, Rikers Class of '94 (major: pharmaceutical science), as a hostile witness. Elliott told TV cameras a year ago that (a) someone had shouted "gun" just before the cops opened fire and (b) she couldn't believe how long Diallo, 22 years old and now gone forever, stayed standing after all those taxpayer-funded bullets began blasting holes through his vital organs.

The snotty white lawyers think they can outsmart this black ex-con ("past dealings with the law," as she puts it); they want her to say that the cops were justified in shooting Diallo because someone shouted "gun" (keep this in mind the next time you see a cop) and that they shot him so many times because the fucker just wouldn't die, like the killer in Scream 3. Schrrie Elliott breaks into tears and never lets up. She was directly across the street from Diallo's house, walking home from the subway on Westchester Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx, when she saw four plainclothesmen pull up in a red car. Supposedly on the lookout for a serial rapist, they got out and surrounded Diallo as he was about to go into his building. No "excuse me, sir, we'd like to ask you some questions." No "hey, nigger." No nothing. Just "gun," then mayhem, death, and for Ms. Elliott, a few minutes on the evening news (two networks).

The trouble is, Elliott maintains that one of the cops said "gun." She would know; she saw the whole thing. I believe her. The jury believes her too. You can tell.

Even the cops' discount lawyers know that this is bad. They try, but fail, to get Elliott's televised statements about Diallo staying up as the bullets hit him aired as evidence. She now says that Diallo went down right away, just as the coroner's report says must have happened, and that the lion's share of the 19 bullets that killed him hit him on the ground. (Another 22, fired at point-blank range, missed.) Everyone but the cops, who look dumb even for cops, understands what has just happened.

"They murdered him!" a middle-aged man wearing a kente-cloth cap bursts out. He's smiling fiercely. "Shut the fuck up or I'll throw you out of here," a pasty-faced court officer warns, one hand on his gun. His eyes slant downward, sullen and disgusted that his team is taking a beating. It's like that all around me. The blacks in the courtroom elbow each other, exchanging knowing grins. "Yeah!" an impossibly tall guy next to me whisper-shouts. I catch him slipping a Mini-Me high-five to his buddy on his other side. I expect someone to start the Wave any second. The whites (i.e., cop friends and cop relatives) slump into their oak benches, elegantly trimmed with 1920s bronze, and weigh whether it's worth missing the bottom of the ninth to avoid the crush to the Thruway toll plaza.

All I can think about is what catching 19 bullets from behind while trying to work the lock of your building's front door must feel like.

That's what relations between white and unwhite have finally come down to, 224 years after Jefferson forgot to write abolition into the Declaration of Independence: spectator sports. Amadou Diallo, No. 22 from Guinea, West Africa, permanently taken out of the game by four linebackers with impossibly wide torsos and full clips of 9mm ammunition. Enter Sharpton et al.—the home team goes wild! They move the stadium upstate . . . fuck! So much for the home-field advantage. Thank God the cops' defensive line is full of morons.

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