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Disobedience Training

Flex-cuffs, but no satisfactory answers from police at the Diallo protests
Michael Sofronski

Everything as expected: Protesters toting placards of Giuliani with Hitler mustache, carrying "Police State" posters, carrying old-fashioned wool banners with NAACP appliques. Anticipatory tingle in hours before main event. Weather making this a good day for civil disobedience. One Police Plaza same old hideous esplanade fronting unsightly brick headquarters. But jaunty note added by stiff late winter breeze smartly snapping flags of city, of NYPD, of U.S.A.

Today eighth consecutive one of civil disobedience, response to killing of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo. No dignified response yet from City Hall. No satisfactory answers from police. No indictment of four police officers involved in shooting of, for once, definitively unarmed black man (see under Suspicious Weapon Look-alikes: cell phones, radios, Discmans, beepers) in vestibule of Bronx building on night of February 4.

Solitary woman waiting on bench. Woman Carol Taylor, activist, author of the Little Black Book, self-styled "first black woman flight attendant" in U.S. (Mohawk Airlines), veteran of dozens of protests, from Central Park jogger rape trial to present, perennial voice at race-based protests, now calling out in solitary, rasping voice: "Forty-one bullets, 43 days of damn silence. P.U. I smell something blue. Could it be the racism and colorism of the police?"

Never underestimate symbolism in a culture of face. Police department elaborately organized around rituals of nondisclosure. Mayoralty organized around secrecy of nearly Vatican proportions. Nothing guarded more assiduously by current administration than personal authority. Big embarrassment having blue barricades and pens full of noisy protesters in central area of One Police Plaza. Police not accustomed to this type of mess in own front yard.

Police Commissioner Howard Safir exits building approximately 10:30 a.m., two attendants flanking. Strides past Taylor, past other early protester placing Arrest Giuliani placards on ground. "Good morning, Mr. Safir," man says. "Nice day in the police state." Safir hunches shoulders, gives wan smile.

Martin Luther King Jr., name inevitably invoked in current context, said once that "when you have found . . . a morally sound objective, you do not equivocate, you do not retreat— you struggle to win a victory." Same principle behind series of protests following Diallo killing.

Objective variable in this instance. Arrest of officers involved in shooting? Residency requirements for city police? Dismantling 48-hour rule? (Police currently shielded, by PBA regulation, from questioning for two days after possible criminal incidents.) Perhaps should change more punitive aspects of community-based policing? End random friskings apparently based on color or race? Stop blanket collars of farebeats in search of illegal handguns? Abandon, once and for all, delusionary pursuit of one middle-aged straight white man's notion of "quality of life"?

At news conference before Thursday protest and arrest of Kweisi Mfume, Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton, and dozens of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community, Giuliani resumes schoolyard bully strategy of public ridicule. Claims daily protests are "getting silly, actually. I think this is getting to be a really abusive situation in the sense of trying to use the police in ways that are highly inappropriate. I think they are over the top now. This is the piling-on time where everybody is hoping, 'Let me see if I can get on camera.' "

What of it? Bob Kohler, gay activist, former owner of the Loft on Christopher Street, Stonewall veteran, a founder of Gay Liberation Front, appears early Thursday. Insists will pledge self to protest in spite of fact that "I do not equate my oppression with the oppression of blacks and Latinos. You can't. It is not the same struggle, but it is one struggle. And, if my being here as a longtime gay activist can influence other people in the gay community, it's worth getting arrested. I'm an old man now. I don't look forward to spending 24 hours in a cell. But these arrests are giving some kind of message. I don't know what else you can do."

No one does. Before getting cuffed, Mfume, president of NAACP, tells reporter, "A human life was taken in a cold and callous way. The mayor calls this a publicity stunt. When you have members of Congress, former mayors, civic leaders, elected officials going to jail, I think it's contemptible of their struggle for the mayor to call this a publicity stunt. If we don't do this people will forget."

Large crowd forms near noon. Protesters both black and white. "You haven't seen that before," says Jon Weis, chairman of Gay Male S/M Activists. "Little old ladies with canes and people with pierced eyebrows and lips. The pendulum is swinging on 'quality of life.' " Chants begin. Countdown of shots, first using numbers, then recitations of 'Bang!'. Forty-one bangs. Group from Lower East Side Collective briefly separates from picket line to pose for group photo. Photographer, encouraging smiles, says, "Say 41."

"Silence is the voice of complicity," reads one placard. Many kinds of silence currently at work. One form probably the compliance of press, mainstream and so-called alternative, when police institute "press pens," impassable "frozen zones" at public events; when surveillance squad, the Tactical Affairs Reconnaissance Unit, photographs and videotapes demonstrators, often the same people, getting arrested time after time, for police department files.

"I really, really hate getting arrested," says Christine Quinn, city council member. This is Quinn's third arrest of week. "Giuliani keeps expecting it all to go away, but he's stuck now. He can't dismiss high-ranking officials, former mayors, union leaders, and a whole segment of the city as a bunch of left-wing wackos. Last night, I got a little upset and cried about being arrested. But you have to do what you have to do."

Scene plays out as expected: echoes of Birmingham, Soweto, ACT UP Washington/Albany. Crowd closes tight to watch two separate flanks of protesters form semicircle on pavement, blocking entrance to police headquarters. Very particular kind of embarassment for cops. Aged captains and lieutenants, rarely seen doing street work, deployed to keep younger officers from becoming cowboys under provocation. Sergeant barks arrest particulars through handheld megaphone. Sergeants prepare plastic Flex-Cuffs, manacle protesters, walk them through a packed gauntlet and down a flight of stairs to processing area. Images thus captured carried across country: old men Paterson and Sutton gingerly, Mfume with look of compromised dignity, young queers with defiance being arrested and walked away.

Serious damage to image of goon in City Hall. Approval ratings plummeted 20 points on day after former mayor David Dinkins and Representative Charles Rangel were put under arrest. Cops held out as long as possible, took 20 minutes until politicians forced hand by refusing to budge. As Ed Koch pointed out, fanatical micromanager Giuliani would have to have given okay to make arrests of top black elected officials. As Koch did not say, Giuliani cannot much longer have it both ways. Cannot claim credit for engineering lowered crime rates and retain Teflon status when his cops kill unarmed civilians using more bullets than required to fell a bull elephant.

Arrests continue. Press thins out. Crowd straggles. Man stands at edge of proceedings wearing leather jacket and bandanna, taking in scene. After last arrest, lets out long whistle. "Giuliani done started some shit," says man, who refers to self as King SkiBee of the Almighty Latin Kings. Understatement of the day.


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