Malcolm F’s Struggle

Did a Paroled Drug Dealer’s Outrage Over the Diallo Verdict Cost Him His Life?

Asked to imagine a reputed heroin pusher getting high on black rage, friends of Malcolm Ferguson will conjure up the image of him going berserk after the acquittal of the four white cops who shot and killed Amadou Diallo.

Can’t imagine that? Picture Mayor Rudy Giuliani—the ‘‘Butcher of Soundview,’’ as protesters are now calling him—standing before a bouquet of microphones, declaring in his trademark sneer that the 23-year-old Ferguson was no Diallo and that police officer Louis Rivera, who pumped a fatal bullet into the back of the unarmed man’s head during a struggle allegedly witnessed by two people, is the true hero. Ferguson’s eulogists predict that an eerie twist of fate—that he was unarmed and slain just blocks from where the unarmed Diallo was gunned down—will catapult him from ex-con to martyr of the civil rights movement. Such rhetoric worries the mayor’s backers, who assert that the drug dealer some now call ‘‘Malcolm F’’ did not have a political bone in his body.

But others who commemorate Malcolm Ferguson say they are not trying to clean up his image. How he died, and whether his alleged 11th-hour political awakening means anything, should be of concern to all New Yorkers. Ferguson’s mother, Juanita Young, said that her son had problems but was moving forward with his life. ‘‘We were straightening him out. He was not a bad kid,’’ Young told WCBS-TV. ‘‘What they say about him is a lie, it’s a stone, barefaced lie. They abused him and they killed him.’’

If an allegedly brutal encounter with a cop last year did not convince him to join Al Sharpton’s protest movement, the Diallo killing, friends insist, was bound to have a profound impact on Ferguson. Friends weren’t surprised that the five-foot-six "playa" with the disheveled Afro and goatee found himself on the front lines protesting the outcome of the trial. Why not? they ask. If a jury has accepted the incredible explanation that Diallo's wallet morphed into a gun—causing cops to fire 41 shots at the street merchant, striking him 19 times—then anyone, they argued, even a "hardened criminal" like Malcolm Ferguson, could be politicized by an unjust verdict.

In the wake of the Diallo verdict last month, a multiracial crowd swooped down on Wheeler Avenue, the South Bronx neighborhood where Amadou Diallo lived and died. Among the throng of demonstrators who taunted and badgered a phalanx of cops in riot gear was Malcolm Ferguson, who had every reason to be wary of police. He was one month shy of completing his parole for a heroin-selling conviction, and his attorney was about to file a $5 million brutality suit against the city, accusing police of breaking his hand when they handcuffed him during a March 9, 1999, drug arrest.

As the protest began to wane, Ferguson and others tried to board a bus, according to a friend named Libby. "The bus driver just told him to get off," Libby recalls. That's when cops grabbed Ferguson. A Fox 5 TV camera captured the arrest and showed Ferguson grimacing, his face pressed against the roadway, as he was being handcuffed behind his back. Ferguson, whose jacket was unzipped and who wore baggy jeans that sagged to expose plaid boxer shorts, was then hoisted and escorted hurriedly by plainclothes cops to a police van. He was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

"We were just speaking our minds like everybody else and we were just grabbed because they wanted to break the protest up," charges Josh S., a 17-year-old member of the pressure group Refuse & Resist. "It was a strategy that the cops had set up. Actually, my arresting officer told me he was going to charge me with resisting arrest [but] he was going to be nice and not do this. I told him he wasn't supposed to arrest me in the first place. He said he knew that, but that's just the way it works."

Josh S. spent a night in the cell with Ferguson. "When we were there we were angry," he recalls. "We spent more time in jail than the cops who shot Diallo. They didn't even spend any time in jail, so you can imagine how we were feeling." Ferguson participated in the jailhouse discussion about eroding civil rights under the Giuliani administration. "Everybody in the cell was sharing the same sentiment of anger and rage [over] this whole situation," says Josh S.

On March 1, five days after Ferguson was arrested, he wound up on Boynton Avenue, three blocks from where Diallo was shot. Chief of patrol John Scanlon claimed that shortly before 6:30 p.m., five undercover housing cops on narcotics patrol saw someone lurking inside a building at 1045 Boynton Avenue. They entered the four-story building and confronted Ferguson and two other men in the lobby. They put the suspects up against a wall, but Ferguson suddenly bolted up a flight of stairs, and Officer Rivera gave chase with his 16-shot, 9-mm Smith & Wesson automatic drawn, Scanlon said.

"At some point, on the second-floor landing, there was a struggle," he added. "[The officer's] firearm discharged, and the individual succumbed." It wasn't immediately clear if Rivera fired intentionally or if the gun went off by accident, but Scanlon volunteered that Ferguson was shot at close range because blood was found on Rivera's gun. He added that six cellophane-wrapped packets of heroin were discovered rolled into the waistband of sweatpants Ferguson wore under his jeans. He was declared dead at the scene.

Josh S. learned about Ferguson's death while attending a benefit concert organized by Refuse & Resist. "I was paralyzed; I didn't know what to say," he recalls. "[T]hey just informed me that the same person I was in the cell with for 20 hours was shot in the back of the head. How do you respond to something like that?"

Within a couple of hours, scores of people had gathered behind police tape on the street, some carrying protest signs. One placard portrayed Mayor Giuliani as "The Butcher of Soundview," whose trigger-happy enforcers had shot another unarmed man. "Who Shot Rudy?" one protester shouted, his question a stark reference to a controversial rap similarly titled. Released last year by a group called Screwball, the rap imagines Giuliani being gunned down at City Hall to the delight of the minority community: "Nobody cried—it was real like some Jews celebrating when the Pharaoh got killed." The lyrics can be traced to the mayor's troubled relationship with the city's young blacks and Latinos, many of whom have been unlawfully stopped and frisked, brutalized, or killed by white cops.

Giuliani said the violent lyrics of "Who Shot Rudy?" are troubling, particularly if children hear the song. Kyron Jones, 24, who wrote the rap, said it came from his own troubles with the law, including a stint in jail. He added that he had a friend who was shot twice by police although he was not arrested. As for the mayor, Jones said: "I don't want anybody to go out and shoot him. I'm just voicing the thoughts of my people."

The morning after the Ferguson shooting, Giuliani fired back at those who were comparing Ferguson to Diallo. Giuliani called the killing of Ferguson a completely different situation. He described Ferguson as a "career criminal" who had a long record of robbery, burglary, heroin trafficking, gun possession, and resisting-arrest charges, while Diallo had no rap sheet. "He'd been arrested several times while on parole, but somehow was never put back in prison, which is where people who violate parole should go," the mayor scoffed.

"He was just a human being," says Josh S. "They didn't know he was an ex-con when they killed him." The night after Ferguson was killed, Josh S. went back to Soundview, protesting. "Everybody was obviously very angry," he says. "We were all feeling the same, fearing [for] our own safety from the people who are supposed to protect us and serve us. . . . "

Of course, no one expects Rudy Giuliani to embrace Malcolm Ferguson's grieving mother. Juanita Young's drug-dealing son—the scum of Soundview, the mayor all but concluded—had it coming. But supporters urge Ms. Young to take heart. Life, they note, is full of ironies. One such irony can be found in Gerry Boyle's Cover Story, a recently released thriller about a fictional crime-fighting mayor of New York City. Boyle's whodunit picks up with a news bulletin from anchorman Dan Rather—and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Intones Rather:

"CBS News has learned of new developments in the murder of Johnny Fiore, the beloved mayor of New York, who single-handedly, his supporters say, took this city from the criminal elements that had plagued it, and handed it back to the law-abiding residents. As he so often put it, 'the real New Yorkers.' "

The crowd was silent. The woman in front of me shook her head and listened.

"As you probably know by now, Mayor Fiore, in one of history's more astounding ironies, has become a crime victim himself."

Rather turned and held his arm out toward the facade of the Algonquin. The camera zoomed in on a somber cop, then back to Rather.

"To cap this historic and tragic and so very discouraging story, the mayor of New York City was killed here sometime around midnight last night, stabbed to death in the restroom of this famous New York landmark, authorities say. One man is in custody. . . . "

Additional reporting: Dennis Bernstein, host-producer of KPFA/Pacifica Radio'sFlashpoints, Danielle Douglass, and AP

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