At about the time it was being announced last Thursday that a state appeals court had ruled that the trial of four white cops accused of murdering Amadou Diallo would be moved from the Bronx to Albany, the Civilian Complaint Review Board was faxing Jason Braunstein a letter. The letter was intended to reasure Braunstein that theagency was investigating his almost 10-month-old allegation that Street Crime Unit officers had wrongfully targeted a group of musicians he managed, invoking the circumstances surrounding the brutal shooting of Diallo to intimidate them.
The case has been assigned to CCRB investigator Jonathan Barbour, who over the weekend was expected to reinterview some members of Enemy Squad, a Detroit-based funk-rock-hip hop group still reeling from cop rage in the aftermath of the Diallo shooting. A police officer reportedly asked band member Dunimie DePoirres what was going through his mind when the cops confronted him in lower Manhattan on a wintry morning in March.
“What do I have to do to not to get shot?” DePoirres responded.
“Come on, you were thinking about 41 shots, weren’t you?” the officer allegedly countered, an obvious reference to the Diallo tragedy.
Since Diallo’s death in February, rogue cops sympathetic to their indicted colleagues allegedly have been reminding suspects and other innocent African Americans they illegally stop and frisk that they could wind up like Diallo if they resist arrest or mouth off. This tactic has evoked so much concern that it has spawned another “while black” acronym in the category that has become synonymous with police mistreatment of African Americans.
And so the fear of being “Dialloed While Black” (based on the phrase “Driving While Black”) has become a hot-button topic at anti-police-brutality rallies and on black talk radio.
“There’s a poison goin’ on,” one caller declared on WLIB-AM shortly after the November 31 release of a report by the state attorney general, who discovered that even in precincts that are 90 percent white, more than half the people stopped and searched are black or Latino. Some 175,000 stop-and-frisk forms were examined for the report. The forms are filled out by officers to explain the reason for a search, which is legally permitted if an officer has reasonable suspicion that someone is concealing a gun or drugs in his or her waistband. The report also found that the reasonable suspicion cited on the forms often was inadequate, meaning the officers had no justification for the stops.
A week later, Police Commisioner Howard Safir released the result of a poll commissioned by the NYPD that showed that 82 percent of residents questioned said they respected the NYPD and its officers. When broken down by ethnicity, 83 percent of whites, 75 percent of African Americans, and 83 percent of Latinos said they respected cops. When asked if the NYPD was working toward improving relations with minority communities, 59 percent of all respondents said yes. By ethnicity, 61 percent of whites, 51 percent of African Americans, and 58 percent of Latinos said yes. The poll’s most glaring flaw is that it contained no questions on police brutality.
In the WLIB caller’s reference to “poison,” he invoked a phrase by the rap group Public Enemy to dramatize how widespread the “DWB” threat had become. Diallo, 22, was struck 19 times and killed when the four cops fired 41 shots as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx home. The cops were searching the neighborhood for a rape suspect. Diallo, a street merchant from West Africa, was unarmed. The slaying triggered protests over allegations of police brutality and renewed the debate about whether minorities are treated differently by the NYPD.
Public Enemy’s summer release of “41:19,” riddim warfare that targets the shooting, remains the most popular rap commentary about the notorious stop-and-frisks that occur primarily in poor black and Latino neighborhoods. “What you got?” asks Chuck D in the rap. “Ratatat-ta-tat!” comes the reply, mimicking the staccato of the 41 shots fired at Diallo. “Shot 41 only hit 19!” Flava Flav emphasizes. The rapper later conjures up the scenario of a routine stop-and-frisk: “[R]acist mutherfuckrs mad cause they ain’t with it,” he says of the unfortunate victim. “Da poliz get out da car, searchin’ him for nuthin’. If you got sumthin’ then they got you for sumthin’. That’s fucked up, the way they play dirty! Lock him up in jail until he’s past 30. They don’t give a fuck about you; they don’t give a fuck about me, I’m past 33.”
In its 11-page decision, the appeals court found that the “incessant drumbeat of pretrial publicity” coupled with repeated “assertions that defendants were motivated by racial prejudice” had poisoned the local jury pool. The change-of-venue motion, filed in November by defense lawyers, argued that the intense media coverage and demonstrations sparked by the shooting made it impossible for the officers to get a fair trial. The publicity cited by the court included more than 1000 protester arrests, widespread demonstrations, an ACLU newspaper ad picturing 41 bullet holes, a New Yorker cartoon cover of a smiling cop in a shooting gallery with human-shaped targets, and a New York Post column that included a paragraph consisting of the word “Bang” repeated 41 times.
Moses Stewart, the director of Al Sharpton’s Crisis Management Team at the National Action Network, scoffs at the claim by attorneys for the officers that their clients mistakenly believed Diallo was reaching for a gun and shot him. Stewart says that Sharpton, who organized weeks of angry protests after the shooting—leading to hundreds of arrests for civil disobedience—has directed him to search the civil rights group’s files for complaints from blacks who have been stopped by cops and threatened with a fate similar to Diallo’s.
“Before we even knew that people were so upset by this campaign of intimidation, misusing our brother’s name to frighten us, we received about seven letters from parents who say the cops have told their children, ‘We will kill you like we killed that Diallo guy!’ or ‘If you run away from us, we’ll put 41 bullets in your backside!’ ” Stewart told the Voice.
For members of Enemy Squad DWB was a frightening reality. It was shortly before noon on March 3 in a city on edge following the killing of Amadou Diallo. While hundreds of African Americans were descending on Wall Street demanding the arrest of the four cocky white undercover cops, two weary members of Enemy Squad dozed in a van parked outside of an apartment building in lower Manhattan.
It had been a longstanding practice of the band to assign at least two of its members to sleep in the vehicle while on road trips to guard their expensive musical instruments. That day, the responsibility fell to Dunimie DePoirres, Dan Harris, and Chuck Haber, their then road manager, who is white. Haber left DePoirres and Harris—who had driven all night from Northampton, Massachusetts, to New York for a scheduled gig later that evening—to run an errand.
According to the band members, at about 10:45 a.m., two NYPD squad cars, accompanied by four unmarked vehicles, swooped down on the van. The raiding party included 11 white undercover cops from the notorious Street Crime Unit. “Get your hands up!” both DePoirres and Harris remember one of the officers demanding as the cops brandished an arsenal of weapons. The musicians dropped two slices of pizza they had been eating and threw up their hands.
“Don’t move or I’ll break your fucking nose!” another officer shouted.
“Where is it?” one officer asked.
The cops allegedly dragged DePoirres and Harris from the van, slammed them against a wall of the apartment building, and rummaged through the vehicle, tossing equipment out onto the street. The suspects promptly explained that they were musicians, not criminals, and that other members of the band were staying at an apartment in the building. Haber returned to the scene as six officers were about to escort DePoirres into the building.
The cops, according to Haber, said that they had received reports that people were dealing drugs from the van and a nearby apartment building. Haber denied the band members dealt drugs, adding that some of them had been holed up in an apartment owned by their manager, Jason Braunstein. Haber offered proof that he and band member Gabe Gonzalez had rented the van and that the club where they were scheduled to play had taken out an ad in The Village Voice touting the New York City leg of their tour.
After reviewing the documents, the cops, “forcibly, at gunpoint,” demanded that DePoirres lead them to the apartment where Gonzalez, Kerry Clarke, and Ron Smith were staying, Braunstein charged in a statement he would later file with the Civilian Complaint Review Board. “Mr. Clarke, believing that it was one of his bandmates, opened the door and had a gun pointed in his face,” Braunstein wrote. “He was pulled out of the apartment and the plainclothes officers entered my home with their guns drawn, never producing a warrant or identifying themselves as police. One of the officers then went to my closed bedroom door, where Mr. Gonzalez was sleeping, banged it open and yelled, “Are you Gabe Gonzalez? Put your hands up and get out of bed!”
Gonzalez complied with the cops’ demands, explaining once again with other band members that they were just a group of musicians. “At this point, the police admitted that they had made a mistake and one of the officers inappropriately joked to Mr. Gonzalez that perhaps this would bring the band good luck,” Braunstein wrote. It was upon leaving the apartment—”still reeling and shaking from the experience of having guns [pointed] in their faces”—that the cop allegedly brought up the Diallo incident. DePoirres protested, telling the cop that by invoking the Diallo case he was making a mockery of a tragic event. The members of the Street Crime Unit left without offering an apology.
African Americans in fear of DWB have long been divided over the issue of how to respond to their law-enforcement oppressors. Khallid Abdul Muhammad, the former Nation of Islam minister and organizer of the Million Youth March, repeatedly has called for armed struggle against the police. “You shoot one of ours 41 times, we shoot 41 of yours one time—one shot, one kill,” Muhammad advocates. Some blacks have ignored Muhammad and jumped on Al Sharpton’s nonviolent civil disobedience bandwagon. Others, like Louis Clayton Jones, an attorney who represented police brutality victims in New York during the early ’80s, have analyzed the violent impact of police culture on the lives of the city’s African Americans.
“I have spent the last 35 years observing the rise of fascism in . . . New York,” Jones said at a legal forum in Brooklyn 20 days after the shooting of Amadou Diallo. “During that period, I observed a steady increase in the intensity and scope of the atrocities committed against people of color. I have yet to observe the African policeman either singly, in a mob, or as a member of an avowed death squad to whom the night belongs execute a single white in cold blood.”
Jones was disheartened by the silence of some in the Jewish community, comparing the initial response to the police attacks on blacks to the Nazi campaign of extinction in the 1930s. “I am also reminded that just as the Africans of New York, in the face of death-squad activities sanctioned and encouraged by a fascist government, continue to depend upon the judicial system for justice, even when history clearly provides no evidence in support thereof, the Jewish middle class in Germany tended to look the other way when the Germans came for Gypsies, the feebleminded, the lame, and the less affluent Jews,” he argued.
“Just as the bourgeois Jew of the 1930s saw the decimation of the poor Jew as an aberration in a system, which was fundamentally rational, so does the Negro trusty in the New York of the 1990s view the execution of a young African by a death squad of the New York City Police Department as an aberration having nothing to do with the life or lifestyle of the trusty class.”
Jones is no Khallid Muhammad, but he complained that “the tepid, if not timid, response to terror by the Africans of New York [sent] the desired signal to all the fascist forces of America [that] Negroes have lost the will to resist.” In a direct attack on Sharpton’s tactics, Jones declared, “This is hardly the time for prayer vigils and symbolic rallies, organized and led by would-be politicians and ambulance chasers.” This approach, he charged, is “calculated solely to divert the attention of the black masses from the reality of life and death. . . .
“The current tactics are the direct result of a failure of intellect on the part of those who follow the leaders of these so-called protests,” Jones contended. “It is a failure to understand the distinction between a march to City Hall and a march on City Hall. It is a failure to understand the difference between cause and effect and to develop a strategy designed to eliminate the cause of the death of the young African who was gunned down for no reason other than the color of his skin by a death squad consisting of a group of Mafia rejects acting under the aegis of a fascist state. It is failure to understand the difference between the concept of civil rights and that of human rights. It is a failure to understand the difference [between] a simple act of murder and a war crime.”
The CCRB will determine whether a crime was committed by cops in the case of Enemy Squad. What is striking, however, is the length some defenders of Diallo’s accused killers will go to portray the NYPD as an army of efficient lawmen unaffected by persistent accusations of brutality. “I don’t hear lots of complaints about police misconduct,” Commissioner Safir said at a City Council hearing last week. “What I do hear about is they want more cops. They want more cops doing what they’ve been doing.”
But critics of the NYPD charge that Safir has turned a deaf ear to complaints that cops are frequently abusive of those they encounter, especially minorities. For members of Enemy Squad, Safir’s NYPD had made the city a scary place to visit. Following the incident, “the band performed that night, and wanted to get on the road directly after the show as they were frightened to stay in the city,” Braunstein recalled in his complaint. “I convinced them to return to my apartment to sleep. Mr. Haber spent the night in the van.”
The next morning, at about 9:30, two of the officers allegedly involved in the raid accosted Haber, who was listening to the Howard Stern show on the radio. “The head officer,” according to Braunstein, “asked Mr. Haber what was going on [because] he had heard there was going to be an investigation and demanded to know why we were looking into it. Mr. Haber took this as an overt act of intimidation and explained that their manager and the band members felt that their rights had been deeply violated, that they had no cause to harass them, [or to] enter and search the apartment without a warrant or identification. The officer then identified himself [his name is being withheld by the Voice] and suggested that Mr. Haber have his manager call him directly.”
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas and wire services