The Fire This Time


I was editing copy when an editor—white—came into my office and asked if I had heard the verdict in The Trial. His somber demeanor said it all—the four cops had been acquitted. I remember thinking how fucked-up that was. I was confused, dazed, numb. A few minutes later stomach pains kicked in. Racist shit is hurtful, insulting, and intolerable. I was uncomfortable with white colleagues. Resentful. I couldn’t talk about the verdict.

The first person I sought out was a black female coworker. I found her sitting behind her desk, looking stunned. Before I uttered a single word, she knew why I had come: for consoling. I sobbed softly, arms hugging my body.

We went to the small, smelly smoking room, where we often talk—usually fervently—about events: Puffy’s arrest, Big Pun’s death, the Diallo trial. She hissed, “What are we going to do? This shit has been happening since slavery and nothing is ever done. We need to get it together!” Her eyes were red-rimmed, reflecting both sadness and defiance.

A white writer sitting in the room labeled the verdict “political bullshit.” I did not share his assessment. To me, it was personal! I was crying but I was mad. I felt like kicking someone’s ass. I had seen it all before—cop shoots black person, public outcry, political divisions, the victim subtly (or not-so-subtly) maligned, cop vindicated. The Diallo shooting is the latest, very public case, but I guarantee you it won’t be the last.

I had watched defense summations on Court TV and was intrigued by the fervor of the attorneys as they pled for their clients. I wondered if that passion was genuine. Probably. Lives and livelihoods were at stake, even the balance of power between cops and communities. The strategy worked: Paint the Soundview neighborhood as dark and dangerous—just like the victim. Project the defendants as hapless but earnest officers doing a thankless job. The white knights of the Bronx.

That image doesn’t wash with those of us who live in places like Bed-Stuy, East Harlem, or South Jamaica. We resent white police. We don’t trust white police. We fear white police. It’s easy to imagine someone we love, especially if he’s black and male, mistakenly identified as a perp or suspect on some late night in the future. Black lives aren’t worth much in this city.

In the end, the 22-year-old African immigrant had become merely a human outline on a white board with letters to mark his wounds. The Albany proceedings were about justice for the cops, not the victim. The mantra: Why did you make us do this? Why did you act so suspiciously? When a defense lawyer called the shooting a “tragedy,” I believe he meant it for the officers, not Diallo.

Among family and friends that I spoke with over the weekend, there was disgust and anger. They were in shock, bewildered by what they see as intractable racism in the NYPD. Marches and rallies gave some expression to that outrage, but it won’t be satisfied easily.

The shooting was so egregious that it drew widespread condemnation. But if racism doesn’t produce bullets to the body, our wounds are harder to see. White Americans really believe that their anger over the acquittal matters to us. They think that because we don’t challenge their racism that it doesn’t exist. Can anyone who doesn’t experience petty racial slights every day truly understand why the outcome of the trial mattered so much? Many blacks expected the officers to walk. Yet, there was the dimmest hope that this time justice might be served.

What I hope doesn’t get lost in the furor—on both sides of this horrific incident—is the bitterness that the verdict leaves in its wake. The name “Diallo” is now added to the litany of victims of police violence: Clifford Glover, Eleanor Bumpurs, Anthony Baez, Gidone Busch, and Abner Louima.

There are no winners in this case. The NYPD should not feel self-satisfied or elated over this verdict. Animosity and fear in the black community only make a cop’s job more difficult and dangerous. Animosity and fear in cops makes them dangerous.

Recently, a young black journalist asked, “How do you handle white people?” I could only tell him not to trade his racial, cultural, or political reality for white validation. The price—loss of self—is too high. Puzzling over how to stay sane in places where we’re often not welcome isn’t uncommon. Deciding how to confront racist attitudes—as opposed to overtly racist acts—poses yet another dilemma. It is against this backdrop that I received the verdict.

The gulf between the city’s communities of color and police has widened because of the verdict. We can no longer tolerate mercenaries in blue patrolling our neighborhoods, gung ho about targeting, beating, or killing blacks or Latinos because they fit the profile. In the post-Diallo NYPD, the likelihood of other “mistakes” is too frightening.

In the larger scheme of things, “racial profiling” is as American as WWF wrestling. It’s a sport anyone can play—store clerk, real estate agent, cabbie, judge, employer, editor, doctor, lawyer, or teacher. But the problem becomes deadly when it’s backed by the power of the state—and the gun.