Recently, I was waiting with a camera crew at Columbia University’s Faculty Club for the indefatigable activist Marie Runyon, who was there to celebrate her 85th birthday. It was an ironic setting-ironic because it had been the University’s efforts to tear down her apartment building decades ago that set her on a path of activism which has made her a legend on New York’s streets.
I was filming Ms. Runyon for a documentary when she showed up for her party, she had a remarkable story, as she often does. This one had to do with her buttons. A white lady who grew up in the South but has spent the last half-century in Harlem, fighting slumlords and working for every underdog imaginable, Ms. Runyon is known for her buttons. She’s got a wall full of them-tracing America’s great progressive causes-in the entryway to her apartment. And when she has something to say and can’t find the right button, she makes up her own and hands them out. She’s been on television a lot recently, at homeless-rights demonstrations, for example, handing out one of her own creations: a button that displays Mayor Giuliani’s picture with a disapproving red slash across his face.
Lately, she’s been wearing another of her buttons-a green and white one she had made-pinned to her purse. It reads “Amadou Lives,” in memory of the young Guinean felled in his Bronx foyer by 19 of the 41 bullets fired by undercover police who mistook his wallet for a gun. It was this button that led to the sort of encounter with a cab driver that could only happen to a New York activist.
She and a friend had just paid for a cab and were walking away when they heard the horn toot. Her first thought was that she had forgotten to get her change. But the driver had a surprise. Moved by what she had been saying to her friend about the buttons, he wanted to show her something. He held up his Taxi and Limousine Commission permit. His name was Amadou Diallo. Ms. Runyon was so flabbergasted that there was more than one person in the city with this unforgettable name that she forgot to get the driver’s address before he drove off.
On Ms. Runyon’s behalf, I decided to reach out to Mr. Diallo. But that proved more difficult than I had imagined, and taught me something surprising about ethnicity in New York. Before the shooting, I had never heard either the name Amadou or the surname Diallo; all I knew was that he had come from the republic of Guinea in West Africa, one which few New Yorkers could identify on a map.
Nevertheless, when I searched New York City telephone information, I found not one Amadou Diallo but 19. I thought I would narrow my search by concentrating only on cabbies. Yet a call to Allan Fromberg at the T.L.C. yielded an even more remarkable statistic: There are no less than 106 Amadou Diallos driving yellow taxis and livery cabs in New York City. That seemed doubly impossible-how could there be five times as many Amadou Diallos driving cabs as living in the city? Mr. Fromberg speculated that many of the drivers may live outside the five boroughs or not have their own telephone listings.
My amazement and curiosity led me to the Permanent Mission of Ghana to the United Nations, where a gentleman taking my call explained that the surname Diallo is quite common in the Fulani ethnic group in West Africa, and that Amadou (with minor variations) is a common first name. “In fact,” the Guinean diplomat added, “my name is Mamadou Diallo.”
Reached by telephone, Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of the late Amadou Diallo, estimated that in her hometown, some 80 percent of the people are named Diallo. So, although she was none too surprised about all the drivers with the same name, she was quite moved by Marie Runyon’s effort to keep her son’s name alive. Told of Marie Runyon’s curbside encounter, she exclaimed, “This is beautiful. Oh, my God, this old woman who is very caring.”
Mrs. Diallo asked for Ms. Runyon’s number, and called her. Ms. Runyon invited Mrs. Diallo for Saturday evening dinner to her Morningside Drive apartment, jammed with mementos of her involvement in the civil rights, antiwar, housing rights and other movements.
Expected visitors are instructed in a secret series of doorbell rings before they are buzzed into the building. That night, May 13, each time the appropriate code came through, Ms. Runyon raced excitedly to the elevator, only to discover with some disappointment that it was friends she had also invited. She began to get nervous. Maybe Mrs. Diallo wasn’t going to show after all.
Finally, on the sixth trip to the elevator, she was rewarded. Out stepped Mrs. Diallo, a strikingly youthful and elegant woman clad in a West African wrap, deep blue with red flowers, and a matching headdress. With her were two brothers and a very pregnant sister-in-law, who have been staying with Mrs. Diallo as she seeks justice. Ms. Runyon dispensed hugs, kisses and handshakes, struggled with names and marched the group into her apartment.
Perhaps not sure of what to make of this white lady with posters of Martin Luther King, Alvin Ailey and Malcolm X on her walls, to say nothing of the poster “Uppity Women Unite” and the antique “Beware of Loose Women and Pickpockets” notice, the Diallo clan was polite but reserved. Everyone remarked on how youthful, lovely and poised Mrs. Diallo was.
At the table, Ms. Runyon, a regular churchgoer, said grace, and the Diallos bowed their heads as some of Ms. Runyon’s friends watched. Ms. Runyon gave thanks to God for bringing them together and for the food, then she broke down and shed a few tears as she asked that Amadou’s soul be allowed to rest in peace.
Then Ms. Runyon, a vegetarian since she was 75, served her guests a broccoli casserole and another with tuna and a large salad, polished off with chocolate-vanilla and butter pecan ice cream. Some of the assembled drank wine; the Diallos, who are Muslims, had apple juice.
Ms. Runyon had seated Mrs. Diallo next to a particularly voluble Harlem activist, and the Southerner in her looked a little chagrined as the woman monopolized Mrs. Diallo and delivered a predictable screed about police brutality and injustice. Not that Ms. Runyon disagreed, but she likes a little more decorum. Mrs. Diallo nodded, and made polite conversation. Her brothers and sister-in-law, scattered amongst the guests, did their best in this pit of old-left nostalgia. And, slowly, the Diallos warmed to their companions, sharing stories about their family, their lives back home and their struggle to maintain a balance between their personal needs and the greater obligation to establish a larger purpose for Amadou’s death.
At one point, Mrs. Diallo remarked on how Amadou was such a people person and would have enjoyed the gathering. The family stayed longer, perhaps, than they had planned, finally saying their goodbyes after several hours and venturing out into a downpour to a waiting livery cab.
But not before some exchanging of numbers, and Mrs. Diallo’s happy acquiescence to speak to the students at nearby Public School 43, where Ms. Runyon is involved. Then Ms. Runyon asked if Amadou’s family would like a few “Amadou Lives” buttons. They said they would. She handed them a sack. Must have been a thousand in there.