Black Blood Is Cheap

The Anti-Police-Brutality Movement Has Been Shot Down in the Highest-Profile Cases

Six months ago, on the day a Bronx grand jury refused to file felony charges against a white police officer for shooting her unarmed 16-year-old son, Dante, Sharon Johnson sat in the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson wringing her hands. She was listening in disbelief as the bumbling prosecutor added another of his shameful contributions to one of the saddest chapters in the history of New York's modern civil rights movement. Johnson was telling the mother what she'd already learned from news leaks: The grand jury had looked at the facts, listened to the witnesses, and determined that the May 26, 1999 shooting of Dante was not intentional.

The meaningful facts surrounding such controversial shootings all too often seem lost on the stolid Johnson, who, tethered to the reins of his own political survival, apparently brushes aside the impact a cop's bullet wields on a once promising future. In this case, the "criminal negligence" of Officer Mark Conway painted an indelible portrait of a victim's helplessness.

"He is feeling pain and he wants answers, and I can't give him any. I thought that if he sees the cop being indicted, that would bring some closure and help with the nightmares and everything."

"Dante's got a scar from the top part of his chest all the way down past his navel," Sharon Johnson says of her son, who was shot once in the left side of his lower abdomen. "He has scars all over his neck. He can't take off any kind of clothing for anybody to see this—you would be in shock, you'd want to turn your face away. His legs are totally messed up. I'm not just talking about scars from stitches. They had to cut pieces of the muscles because they had decayed. Muscles don't grow back, so chunks of his legs are missing—both legs, inside and outside. I am trying to talk to him about positive things and [he is concerned about the fact that] he can't play ball. I said, 'Maybe you can coach ball.' And he is a skinny person. He said, 'Look at my arms; my arms are bigger than my legs.' He cannot lift up his foot to walk like you and I do."

Dante, she adds, "stays angry" about the outcome of the investigation into the shooting. "Sometimes he even gets angry with me," she cries. "[In the past] if anything was wrong I was able to fix it or help him. [Now] here I am, completely helpless. Either he can't wear shorts in the summer or the braces are too tight rubbing into his foot if he walks a little distance. He is feeling pain and he wants answers, and I can't give him any. I thought that if he sees the cop being indicted, that would bring some closure and help with the nightmares and everything. But that is not so."

Last week, as Dante Johnson battled his nightmares, Mayor Rudy Giuliani reignited bad feelings. In a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and federal prosecutors from Brooklyn at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., Giuliani tried to drive another nail in the coffin of the anti-police-brutality movement—hoping to bury charges that the cop who shot and critically injured Johnson, the cop who blew Patrick Dorismond away at close range, and the cops who gunned down Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets had targeted the victims because of their race. (All of the officers involved in those questionable shootings were acquitted or cleared of more serious charges by juries.) The disgraced Republican mayor has been blocking a civil rights lawsuit accusing the city of failing to discipline brutal cops. Reno sat through irksome exhibits of Giuliani's dubious charts and statistics, which he uses to defend the New York Police Department against charges of racial profiling.

Some black militants argue that if Reno had the guts some of her defenders insist she has, she would have the FBI arrest Giuliani for inciting the police shootings, beatings, and criminalizing of his African American constituents. Reno's patience with Giuliani's stalling tactics, they assert, should have run out by now. Recalling the lightning predawn raid to free Elián González, some black activists began to imagine the FBI breaking and entering No. 7 World Trade Center (where they envision Giuliani would hide out to run his outlaw mayoralty in the event Reno appoints a federal monitor over the rogue NYPD) and snatching the "law and order" mayor from his high-tech bunker. But such fantasies about charging Giuliani with "war crimes" have been shattered by the unnerving reality that his political influence may extend further than they thought. Indeed, the "very attentive and very conscientious" Janet Reno, as Giuliani described her after the meeting, is in no rush to embarrass the mayor.

The activists and other civil libertarians charge that the political pressure exerted on Giuliani would be different had the victims of police misbehavior been mostly whites or Jews. Black blood is cheap, they contend, and if African Americans ever needed Reno it is now. Under Giuliani, the activists point out, the anti-police-brutality movement has been on the losing end in the highest-profile cases. They claim that since wresting the mayoralty from David Dinkins in 1992, Giuliani—who is fighting to salvage his tarnished legacy—consistently has encouraged police abuse of people of color.

Next Page »