In a move aimed at encouraging white celebrities to voice outrage over the police killing of her son, the mother of Amadou Diallo is seeking to arrange a meeting between her family and U.S. Senate hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The disclosure comes as African American leaders, led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, position themselves behind Mrs. Clinton, urging her to run for the U.S. Senate, possibly against Rudy Giuliani. Black political leaders say the mayor has inflamed tensions between cops and the African American community in the wake of the shooting.
Sharpton told the Voice he will consult with Mrs. Clinton’s top black Democratic supporters this week with an eye toward launching negotiations with Senator Chuck Schumer, who is among the First Lady’s closest political advisers and a Sharpton ally. If such a meeting were to occur, according to Sharpton, Kadiadou Diallo would implore Mrs. Clinton to issue a statement condemning the four white undercover cops who gunned down her unarmed son in a barrage of 41 bullets in the vestibule of his Bronx home last month.
Mrs. Diallo reportedly also would ask Mrs. Clinton to volunteer to be arrested in a nonviolent civil disobedience protest outside One Police Plaza. The reasoning is that Mrs. Clinton’s arrest would draw widespread attention to daily acts of civil disobedience, which Sharpton has organized to demand that the police officers who fired on Diallo be brought to justice.
Sharpton says that Mrs. Diallo’s objective is to stir the consciences of white celebrities, hoping they will in turn drum up support for allegations that the city’s predominantly white police force is insensitive to minorities, especially African Americans and Latinos.
In addition to Mrs. Clinton, other white celebrities being wooed are former president Jimmy Carter, his daughter Amy, Paul Simon, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Alec Baldwin, Gloria Steinem, and Pete Seeger. Sharpton said he plans to seek the involvement of prominent black celebrities as well, including Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, Stevie Wonder, Spike Lee, Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Malik Yoba, as well as celebrity athletes.
He says that the whites he has identified “show a sensitivity that I want to appeal to.” For example, Streisand, he asserts, might consider reading a letter from him about rampant police brutality in New York City.
The civil disobedience protests are seen as a throwback to the antiapartheid rallies of the 1980s, which attracted white celebrities. Members of Congress, top labor and Jewish leaders, and children of the late Robert F. Kennedy were among those arrested during the nonviolent, 1960s-style protests against the South African system, which denied political rights to the black majority.
Sharpton draws parallels between the former South African regime’s attempts to destabilize major African governments that tried to counter sanctions and an alleged campaign by the Giuliani administration to vilify leaders of the civil disobedience movement.
“This is what the New York Police Department is trying to do,” he charges. “They’re trying to destabilize the movement by meeting with little groups that don’t represent anybody and carrying out personal attacks on me. We need blacks, whites.”
The civil rights leader says that peaceful demonstrations would encourage whites in cities like New York, Seattle, Boston, Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles to jump on the arrest bandwagon and demand justice. “I predict that within two weeks people will be protesting in front of their police departments in other cities,” he says. “They need to come out, not just talking, but putting their bodies on the line. We must make the New York Police Department persona non grata until they prosecute these officers.”
Richard Kahn, the influential former head of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, who is white, vowed during a rally last week at Sharpton’s House of Justice in Harlem that he would go to jail over the issue of police brutality.
Since the February 4 shooting of Diallo, his alleged killers, all members of the controversial “Street Crimes Unit,” have refused to be questioned by NYPD internal affairs investigators, and remain on desk duty.
Last week, Sharpton launched the civil disobedience campaign during a lunchtime rally on Wall Street that drew thousands of angry blacks. He and 10 others, including the Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker— who helped Dr. Martin Luther King plan sit-ins and marches during the civil rights movement— were arrested for blocking traffic after they sat down at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street. Nineteen others were charged with disorderly conduct for staging a sit-in outside the offices of Merrill Lynch at the World Financial Center.
Al Sharpton’s appeal to whites is bound to raise eyebrows in black ultranationalist circles, where much more militant responses to the Diallo killing have been urged by the 1999 Million Youth March Black Power Organizing Committee, the New Black Panther Party, the December 12th Movement, and the Code Youth Organization.
“This is the time when Black men [with their] backs straight, eyes steely, no fear, legs strong, standing tall, God out front, guns in hand [should be saying], ‘You shoot one of ours 41 times, we shoot 41 of yours one time. One shot, one kill,’ ” the group, which calls itself the Black Power Coalition, declared in a statement that was read by its leader Khallid Abdul Muhammad at the February 12 homegoing service for Diallo.
“This is no time to forgive!” added Muhammad, who was flanked by followers disguised with black ski masks. “This is no time to beg for fairness! This is no time for the murderers of our brother to come and sit in our midst, mocking us.”
Grandstanding or not, the coalition’s inflammatory rhetoric typifies the frustration many African Americans feel about the police. “The New York Police Department’s ‘Street Crimes Unit’ is in fact organized death squads roaming the community under the motto ‘We own the night,’ ” Muhammad charged. The man who urged thousands of participants at his Million Youth March last summer to grab the guns and nightsticks from cops if they were attacked argued that nonviolent civil obedience is not the answer at a time when, as he put it:
“Black men are being shot, six, seven, eight times, some 24, some 11, some 39 and 41 times, nine millimeter clips emptied.
“Black men are being doused in gasoline, set on fire, and burned alive.
“There are known cop codes for killing ‘a nigger.’ ”
Muhammad contended that African Americans who prefer a nonviolent approach to civil rights should remember other past victims of alleged police brutality as well as former L.A. cop Mark Fuhrman’s declaration that the policeman is God.
“We remember Clifford Glover, Randy Evans, Eleanor Bumpurs, Phillip Parnell, Aswon Keshawn Watson, Kevin Cedeno, and Anthony Baez,” he said.
“We remember [racial profiling on] the New Jersey Turnpike, the sodomy, the shame, the mop stick, the cops, Brother Abner Louima.” Muhammad insisted that the time has come for blacks in New York to “rise up in self-defense!
“This is the time for the Black Liberation Army!” he argued. “This is the time to speak the language of those whose language is killing, bombing, maiming, lynching, and genocide. This is the time for insurrection.”
Muhammad’s message to brutal cops was even more direct.
“This is the time for you to come to realize that your violence will bring even more violence on you!” he said. “[This] is the time for you to know that black people are saying that you’ll be burying caskets in your white communities. You’ll be having funeral processions in your white communities. When black fathers [and] black mothers cry out for the fruit of their womb, their children, this is the time for you to know that your white mothers will shed tears— will cry too.”
At Sharpton’s rally last Saturday, the minister alluded to “other tactics” being advocated by various groups that have sprung up around the Diallo case. “I’m doing our tactics,” he maintained. “I’m not arguing with nobody who says, ‘Well, I don’t believe in marching.’ Whatever you believe in do that. You don’t see me running outside stopping people . . . so don’t get in my way. . . . You don’t have to announce it, you don’t have to argue about it.”
Sharpton’s veiled message, however, could strike a discordant tone in Muhammad’s camp. Some of Muhammad’s allies, who have chided the former Muslim minister for his close ties to Sharpton, have been critical of Sharpton’s pacifist approach to racial injustice. “Do what you believe in,” Sharpton urged his detractors. “But if you only talking you must not believe in it; you’re trying to convince yourself,” he said. “You’re foaming up your mouth and frowning and looking mean and ain’t scaring nobody.”
Sharpton addressed the potential for violence during the civil disobedience protests, but said he was worried about retaliation from rogue cops— not Muhammad and his followers. “The New York Police Department is on the verge of buckling under in terms of this latest fight around Amadou Diallo— and this is the time when rogue cops would be desperate like never before,” Sharpton claims. “I absolutely fear that some rogue cops who feel that this is it for them may try something dangerous. There is no way they could get around a movement this big without trying to make an example out of someone. My feeling is that a rogue cop would feel that the one to make an example of is me.”
At his rally, parts of Sharpton’s speech sounded like his mentor, Dr. King, the night before he was gunned down by a sniper’s bullet. He said that after he was booked at Manhattan’s 7th Precinct and released, a woman walked up to him and pledged her support for what he was doing, but in the same breath she urged him to be careful “because we are fighting people that will do dangerous things.”
Sharpton paused. He told the crowd that he lives in a neighborhood that is patrolled by cops from the 70th Precinct— the same precinct in which cops allegedly took Abner Louima to their station house and jammed a toilet plunger up his rectum. He said he often wondered whether he would have the courage to call on officers from that precinct if his family were in danger.
“This is no joke to me,” he said. “This is no publicity to me. I know that we can be harmed or even killed.”
Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 9, 1999