Looking around this courtroom, two and a half hours and a $39 Amtrak fare north of New York City, where four white cops are being tried for shooting a black man to death, one thing is clear: Even the black people here don’t give a shit about Amadou Diallo.
Every trial’s spectators are divided by affections for prosecution or defense, but this is all about race. You don’t need a program to tell these affiliations apart; pigment sorts the crowd. The smaller number of whites are either pro-cop or media or presumed to be both. African Americans, their identities affirmed by buttons and Muslim caps, fill most of the seats in a county courthouse straight out of a Perry Mason set. Those who arrive late watch the proceedings on a pair of 30-inch NEC flat-screens in the overflow room next door. Those who can’t fit and/or keep quiet hold their placards on a blocked-off street outside.
It’s a cartoonish scene far removed from the outside world, where whites and blacks lead similar lives and (mostly) feel the same mix of horror and confusion at the death (murder?) of an innocent man. In this pomo crucible, black spectators suck in every defense fuckup like a touchdown or a home run and take every prosecutorial setback like a 19th shot to the back. It’s the same for the whites, with opposite stimulus-response.
On Wednesday just before lunch, the defense team pulls a boner that may end up sending their broad-shouldered, fresh-faced clients for long stretches in that disproportionately black neighborhood called prison. They call Schrrie Elliott, a/k/a Scherie Elliot, a/k/a Denise Williams, Rikers Class of ’94 (major: pharmaceutical science), as a hostile witness. Elliott told TV cameras a year ago that (a) someone had shouted “gun” just before the cops opened fire and (b) she couldn’t believe how long Diallo, 22 years old and now gone forever, stayed standing after all those taxpayer-funded bullets began blasting holes through his vital organs.
The snotty white lawyers think they can outsmart this black ex-con (“past dealings with the law,” as she puts it); they want her to say that the cops were justified in shooting Diallo because someone shouted “gun” (keep this in mind the next time you see a cop) and that they shot him so many times because the fucker just wouldn’t die, like the killer in Scream 3. Schrrie Elliott breaks into tears and never lets up. She was directly across the street from Diallo’s house, walking home from the subway on Westchester Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx, when she saw four plainclothesmen pull up in a red car. Supposedly on the lookout for a serial rapist, they got out and surrounded Diallo as he was about to go into his building. No “excuse me, sir, we’d like to ask you some questions.” No “hey, nigger.” No nothing. Just “gun,” then mayhem, death, and for Ms. Elliott, a few minutes on the evening news (two networks).
The trouble is, Elliott maintains that one of the cops said “gun.” She would know; she saw the whole thing. I believe her. The jury believes her too. You can tell.
Even the cops’ discount lawyers know that this is bad. They try, but fail, to get Elliott’s televised statements about Diallo staying up as the bullets hit him aired as evidence. She now says that Diallo went down right away, just as the coroner’s report says must have happened, and that the lion’s share of the 19 bullets that killed him hit him on the ground. (Another 22, fired at point-blank range, missed.) Everyone but the cops, who look dumb even for cops, understands what has just happened.
“They murdered him!” a middle-aged man wearing a kente-cloth cap bursts out. He’s smiling fiercely. “Shut the fuck up or I’ll throw you out of here,” a pasty-faced court officer warns, one hand on his gun. His eyes slant downward, sullen and disgusted that his team is taking a beating. It’s like that all around me. The blacks in the courtroom elbow each other, exchanging knowing grins. “Yeah!” an impossibly tall guy next to me whisper-shouts. I catch him slipping a Mini-Me high-five to his buddy on his other side. I expect someone to start the Wave any second. The whites (i.e., cop friends and cop relatives) slump into their oak benches, elegantly trimmed with 1920s bronze, and weigh whether it’s worth missing the bottom of the ninth to avoid the crush to the Thruway toll plaza.
All I can think about is what catching 19 bullets from behind while trying to work the lock of your building’s front door must feel like.
That’s what relations between white and unwhite have finally come down to, 224 years after Jefferson forgot to write abolition into the Declaration of Independence: spectator sports. Amadou Diallo, No. 22 from Guinea, West Africa, permanently taken out of the game by four linebackers with impossibly wide torsos and full clips of 9mm ammunition. Enter Sharpton et al.—the home team goes wild! They move the stadium upstate . . . fuck! So much for the home-field advantage. Thank God the cops’ defensive line is full of morons.
It seems to happen here, and everywhere else in America, every few months. Another black guy, innocent or not so innocent, gets offed by another white cop, by the book or after a look. It’s not hard to see why: White cops and young urban blacks (or, to use the press euphemism, “youths”) play the game of life by different, perfectly conflicting rules.
I first diagnosed this urban racial disparity in the Rodney King video. Sure, those L.A. cops were thugs. But as a white guy, the first thing I noticed was King moving around a lot, yelling, waving his arms, obviously talking shit. What was this guy thinking? Everyone knows cops carry a license to kill. And why didn’t he just pull over when he saw the flashers in his rearview mirror? Of course the cops are pissed, and they set on him like jackals taking down a gazelle. It’s not right, but it sure isn’t surprising.
You can’t live in New York without witnessing clashes between young black male civilians and only-slightly-less-young white cops, every one of them a possible tragedy from the start. City cops, who too often live in the ‘burbs, underpaid and undertrained and nervous as hell, demand submissive respect—a commodity that helps reassure them that they’re not about to get jacked. The black kids they deal with on the streets of the most urbanized territory in the nation, underemployed and cocky as hell, trade in the macho currency of aggressive refusal to recognize an authority they never chose. For fear of losing face, they can’t afford not to swagger and talk trash to cops who just can’t let it go. That’s clearly what happened to Abner Louima, Rodney King, and the unarmed, homeless loudmouth I watched cops pound in the 103rd Street station a few years ago for jumping the turnstile.
Which brings us back to former street vendor of possibly pirated videos Amadou Diallo (or as the medical examiner’s report lists him, Ahmed Diallo), occupation now irrelevant. If Schrrie Elliott or whoever she is this week told the truth last Wednesday, Diallo never had the chance to provoke a foursome of dumbass cops carrying excessive firepower. He was murdered, like the (black—or does it matter?) guy said. Wherever Diallo is now, he doesn’t have to worry about federal copyright law, getting laid, or sending money back to Mom. Coming to America didn’t make him rich, but it sure got him famous.
Somebody should feel bad about what happened to Amadou, and maybe somebody does. Though they can’t talk about it now, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the events of 2-4-99 12:44 AM EST entering the cops’ dreams now and then. Amadou’s mom must miss him terribly, though she looks oddly calm (smug?) on Sharpton’s arm these days. But the fans of both teams—the whites and the blacks—certainly don’t care about a shy Muslim guy who nobody would say deserved to die. To one side the shooting is an inconvenience, to the other an opportunity to bench four of the other team’s star players.
Now everything’s up to the ref—State Supreme Court judge Joseph Teresi—and his jury. Will this white guy rule for his own gene pool on a technicality? Or will he throw the game?
Research assistance: Josh Lefkowitz
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