The Road From Rodney King

In 1992, four Los Angeles police officers were captured on videotape assaulting and beating a black man by the name of Rodney King. Those officers were later acquitted of all charges, and the resulting riots that ravaged downtown L.A. destroyed millions of dollars in property and illustrated the frustration burning just below the surface in the American city.

Nearly a decade later, another case of police violence captures national attention. Although the facts are similar--a city with a history of law enforcement abuse against minorities, a black victim and multiple white aggressors--this case is not at all the same. The Rodney King case led to an explosion of urban anger. The Diallo acquittal has stimulated nationwide protest, but the estimated 2,500 people who marched up and down Fifth Ave. last Saturday were largely peaceable, ordered, and multi-racial. In the King case, it was easy to blame the police officers; in the Diallo case the enemy is less clear.

The immediate reaction is to blame the jurors, who were selected from an 85-percent-white district in Albany rather than the mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood where the crime occurred. But the jury that tried the N.Y. case contained four blacks out of twelve jurors. Although the district attorney would certainly have prosecuted successfully in the Bronx, a conviction in Albany was not out of reach.


But many feel that even if the jurors cannot be held accountable, the New York Police Department (NYPD) should be. The NYPD, with its "stop and frisk" tactics, is infamous for its abuses against minorities, the most famous being the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was sodomized with a toilet plunger while being "interrogated" by the police.

Indeed, a case could be (and has been) made condemning the attitudes of all law enforcement officials. New York is not the only city whose police officers infringe on the rights of minority citizens. Racial profiling is practiced in Maryland and New Jersey. The extent of the corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department is still being brought to light.

However, from another point of view, blacks should be honoring the NYPD. As Mayor Rudy Giuliani has frequently pointed out, if homicide rates had stayed at 1990 levels (when Mayor David Dinkins, who happens to be black, was in office), thousands more black and Hispanic New Yorkers would be dead. The tactics of squads like the Street Crimes Unit, to which the four officers who shot Diallo belong, have dramatically reduced crime and helped make New York the safest large city in the United States. The greatest tragedy of the Amadou Diallo case is that it has further alienated the black community from the officers who are meant to protect it at a time when statistics indicate that police/inner-city community relationships should be at their best.

But somehow, this argument does not ring true. While the numbers point to better minority/police relations, the evidence tells otherwise. We want to believe that the Diallo killing was a tragic exception, but the shooting of innocent black men has too often been deemed a "justifiable homicide," and the 41 bullets fired at Amadou Diallo are too reminiscent of the gratuitous physical violence of America's past. While few believe that the officers (one of whom broke down in tears on the stand) had malicious intent, our innate sense of fairness demands that they be held accountable for their actions. Although the case is closed, the verdict provided no sense of closure. Nor have public figures been able to offer an adequate explanation. The Diallo case has left America with a question mark--if the police officers are not to blame, then who is?

As people search for the answer to this question, I congratulate those who have already begun to address the "disturbing" Diallo verdict in a peaceful and ordered fashion. The black community has responded to a senseless act of violence in the right way. The protestors who could have degenerated into an angry mob marched calmly, practicing as well as preaching an end to violence between civilians and police. On campus, organizations sponsoring forum discussions instead of finger-pointing. Many public officials have called for better police training, and the former New York police commissioner has admitted that police brutality is a problem. Previously, administrators tried to curb police violence by educating inner-city students on the proper way to respond to an officer--hands in plain sight, make no sudden moves--but finally, reformers are focusing less on the inner city and setting their sights on the precincts.


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