Immigrant Killed by Police Mourned
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A3
NEW YORK, Feb. 12Amadou Diallo spoke five languages, all with a shy stutter. The devout Muslim immigrant from Guinea sold videotapes on a Manhattan street during the day and studied math and computer science in his tiny Bronx apartment at night. He loved learning almost as much as he loved Allah, and he learned to love America too.
But Amadou Diallo the 22-year-old man is already fading from memory around here, replaced by Amadou Diallo the symbol, by Amadou Diallo the rallying cry. On Feb. 4, he was gunned down by four New York City police officers in front of his apartment building, killed in a hail of 41 bullets. Diallo was black. The officers were white. Diallo was unarmed. Now the explosive issue of race and the police is stirring up headlines again in New York.
About 2,000 mourners gathered today inside and outside an East Harlem mosque to honor Diallo, whose bullet-riddled body was carried into the house of worship in an austere pine box. This was supposed to be a purely religious service. But it had unmistakable political overtones. The Rev. Al Sharpton delivered a fiery call for swift justice, while Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) was booed outside the mosque when he arrived near the end of the ceremony.
None of the four officers has been charged with a crime or fired from his job and Giuliani has refused to criticize them during the investigation. Meanwhile, the black community's anger with the police has risen to its highest levels since several white officers were accused of abusing a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima with a toilet plunger in 1997.
"We promised this community of faith that we will not turn this into a political event," said Sharpton, who sat up front with former mayor David N. Dinkins (D), boxing promoter Don King and members of the Diallo family. "So we'll do God's will by fighting for justice. We're going to make sure the name of Amadou Diallo rings out for justice for years to come."
There has been no official explanation of the incident so far; a grand jury is expected to convene next week, and federal prosecutors have said they will keep a close eye on the investigation. Police Commissioner Howard Safir said his department has interviewed more than 200 people, but has not found anyone who saw the shooting.
An attorney for the officers has said they fired because they thought Diallo was reaching for a weapon, but investigators found nothing but a beeper and a wallet in his pocket. He had no criminal record.
Giuliani is a prickly politician to begin with, but he gets especially defensive about his police department. New York's plummeting crime numbers are his proudest achievement, and he trotted out statistics Thursday to show that police shootings are down even though arrests are up under his zero-tolerance policies.
But civilian complaints against the police have risen significantly under Giuliani, as have civil payments by the city in misconduct cases. A 1996 report by Amnesty International warned of a police brutality epidemic in New York. Giuliani appointed a special task force to investigate the Louima case, but later said its critical 150-page report had "no value."
Giuliani declined an invitation to speak at the service today, but he has said he is not prejudging the case, just withholding judgment until the grand jury has spoken. He met Thursday with representatives of the city's African immigrant community, and Safir met with the City Council's black and Hispanic caucus to discuss improving police-community relations.
However, their neutral stance on the Diallo case is not playing well in black neighborhoods, not in a situation with 41 bullets and an unarmed victim with no criminal record. Two of the officers emptied all 16 bullets in their 9mm Glock semiautomatic pistols, which can be done in less time than it takes to read this sentence, but had never been done to a white victim as far as anyone in the crowd could remember.
"The mayor keeps saying: 'Wait and see.' Well, we've seen!" said Cleveland Christmas, 63, a retired fire department lieutenant from Englewood, N.J., which he described as one of the most racist towns in America. "This was a lynching! He's condoning a slaughter!"
Outside the mosque, a furious crowd jeered Giuliani, and cheered Khalid Muhammed, a former aide to Nation of Islam leader Louis W. Farrakhan who led last summer's controversial Million Youth March in Harlem.
"You will be having funeral processions in the white community," shouted Muhammed, who was surrounded by bodyguards in ski masks. "They shoot one of ours 41 times, we'll shoot 41 of theirs, one time."
Inside the mosque, though, the emphasis was on love. Diallo, the speakers all said, would have wanted it that way. The mourners pressed their faces to the floor in prayer. The imam chanted prayers in Arabic: "After every moment of difficulty, there is ease." There was no shouting except for "Allah Akbar," or "God is great," no disorder except during the entrance of Diallo's coffin.
Diallo's mother, Kadiadou, sat upstairs in the women's balcony, shrouded in white, head held high. His father, Saikou, resplendent in a green gown, told the mourners he felt no hatred for the officers who felled his son: "May Allah have mercy on their souls."
Saturday, the Diallos will take their son's body home to Guinea.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company