Speaking at the opening forum of Harvard Law School's Black Law Students Association's (HBLSA) 17th annual spring conference Friday, New York City civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton urged students to commit to the national fight against police brutality and racial profiling.
The forum, entitled "Discussion of Justice in Our Streets," was the first event in the three-day HBLSA conference.
Relatives of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean man who was shot 41 times by plainclothes police officers last February, were scheduled to participate in the forum. But, second-year law student and forum organizer Alexis M. Coppedge said, the Diallo family contacted the forum's organizers early last week to cancel their appearance, without giving any specific reason.
Instead, Sharpton took center stage as he discussed his personal experiences with the Diallo case, as well as other cases of police brutality in New York City, including the 1997 Abner Louima case and last month's shooting of Patrick Dorismond.
"We are in a very strange way at a critical juncture in terms of policing in New York City and nationwide," Sharpton said.
Sharpton talked about the action his organization, the National Action Network, has taken in response to the incidents, including recent rallies protesting the Diallo case verdict and upcoming plans for civil disobedience. He detailed specific items on his agenda: police training and testing, police accountability, residency requirements for police officers and a national mechanism for policing the police.
"We have buried four young men in 14 months who had no weapons but were killed by police. This is absolute insanity," he said, referring to the deaths of Diallo, Richard Watson, Malcolm Ferguson and Patrick Dorismond--all unarmed black men who have been killed by New York City police since last February.
Sharpton emphasized that change must come from the federal government, and that the Justice Department should take the lead in investigating and persecuting police brutality cases and in creating national guidelines for police accountability.
"It is very difficult to expect local prosecutors to successfully persecute police because relationships between prosecutors and police are so close," he said. "Federal authorities are a layer away from that, and it is much more difficult for the police...to pressure the federal authorities."
Sharpton said he learned from his work with the Louima and Diallo cases that federal courts are much more effective in dealing with cases of alleged police brutality.
He claimed that the Diallo case was severely handicapped because it was tried in state court, and he added that he encouraged the family to ask for a federal trial and appealed to the federal government to take the case.
For one thing, Sharpton noted, a defendant in the state courts of New York has the option to pick a bench trial, decided by a judge, over a jury trial, whereas in federal cases both prosecution and defense have to agree to waive the jury trial.
In bench trials, judges are more likely to rule in favor of police officers, Sharpton said.
He spoke with particular vehemence about the Diallo case, where he said the case was hurt by a change in venue from the Bronx, where Diallo was shot, to Albany. An appellate court of New York thought media coverage of the case may have swayed a jury, according to Sharpton.
"It was the most unprecedented thing I had ever seen, because the defense had already indicated that they wanted a bench trial," Sharpton said.
Since the acquittal of the four police officers, Sharpton noted, two unarmed black men have been shot to death in New York City, using what Sharpton termed the "Diallo defense."
"Any policeman can shoot 41 shots in[to] a man in the vestibule of his own home and the defense is 'I thought he had a gun'--no evidence, just 'I thought'," he said.
"Justice Department must set guidelines nationally, and legislation must come from Congress," he added, to let police officers know that a "superior power will back them up or punish them if they don't do their job. The Justice Department must enforce accountability."
Training on how to understand the diverse communities in which they serve, and the requirement of residency in those communities, are necessary steps towards a more effective, just police force, Sharpton said.
He also encouraged everyone in the audience to attend a march on Washington to protest police misconduct that is scheduled for August 28 on the 37th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington.
Sharpton is currently planning several acts of civil disobedience--including a sit-in at Federal Plaza in New York City on April 17 and a boycott of Easter goods in the city--to draw attention to the issue. He stressed that mass participation was key to capturing the attention of national political figures.
"When they see thousands of us, they can't assume that all of us are having mass hallucinations," he said.
When a member of the audience asked him about the upcoming New York Senate race--which pits current New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani against First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton--he said he was disappointed with Clinton's relative inactivity.
"She's not gone nearly as far as I would like to go," he said of Clinton, who met with him in January at a celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr., "She has benefited more from [Giuliani] messing up. Giuliani is her campaign manager; he's driving her more than she's driving herself."
Sharpton's visit was not without controversy on the law school campus, however, as several students gathered outside of Langdell North where he was speaking and handed out packets citing reasons for their outrage that Sharpton had been given a forum at the law school.
"We thought it was inappropriate for Sharpton to be invited given his record of demagogic bigotry," said second-year law student Aharon J. Friedman.
Friedman said HBLSA offered to pass out the packets at the forum, and they were available to all who attended.
The HBLSA spring conference also featured career fairs, panels and the Thurgood Marshall Marching Towards Justice Exhibit dedication.