No More Legalisms, Rudy: It’s Time for Leadership

Amadou Diallo rests in the soil of his native Guinea but this young man who was killed by New York City police officers is not buried. Far from it. Not only in this city but in Africa and in Washington, D.C., people want to know the hows and whys of his death. Was it murder or what?

The days go by and we are told nothing. All we know is that four white police officers gunned down the black Amadou Diallo in the lobby of the Bronx apartment building where he lived. No fewer than 41 bullets were fired at the 22-year-old man, who was armed with his wallet, his beeper and nothing else. We know that Amadou Diallo had no criminal record, that he made his living as a street merchant, that he is described as a serious, even studious person. We know that he was apparently sober at the time of his death, that he was alone, not making a scene, not involved in an argument. None of which comes close to explaining why he met his death at the hands of four police officers in what the tabloids like to call a fusillade of bullets. What in God’s name is going on here?

If there is some reasonable explanation of why Diallo was killed, or even a reasonable hypothesis, somebody in an official capacity should have gotten it out before now. Otherwise New York runs the risk of repeating the mistakes committed by Los Angeles officialdom in the Rodney King business. For days after Mr. King was videotaped being subdued by, dare we say, a fusillade of L.A.P.D. nightsticks, the public saw only the snippet of horrifying videotape played over and over again. Unplayed was the portion of the tape that might have exonerated the police officers involved in a melee that would ultimately lead to a goodly portion of Los Angeles being burned to the ground.

That, of course, happened after a jury that saw the whole tape found the police not guilty, but by the time of the trial, the edited tape depicting what appeared to be an unforgivable assault on a defenseless man was burned into the memories of Los Angelenos, not to mention everyone else. The damning snippet has been played countless thousands of times with no alternate explanation ever offered, so that to this day anyone who suggests that the Rodney King case was not straight, simple police brutality motivated by race hatred will be suspected of harboring the same opinions.

Something similar is happening here. As the days go by and no other theory of the case is offered, the idea becomes set in people’s mind that these four police officers are murderers. In their silence, the higher-ups take on the aspect of white men who aren’t especially concerned about how Amadou Diallo died.

The Mayor has done the proper things. He canceled a trip to Texas where he and Gov. George W. Bush were intending to sing some kind of duet, he has gone to memorial services and he offered his sympathies to the bereaved. But it’s not enough. He has such a tough-guy reputation that he must do more than others to convince the skeptical that he’s not just going through the motions. His police are thought by many to be, if not trigger-happy, then at least trigger-prone. “The use of force by the department, the use of weapons is down, over the last four or five years, dramatically,” he has said, but that’s beside the point. He has to tell us if he believes the crime of murder was committed here, or, if he thinks that it was some kind of hideous accident, it falls on him to explain how that could be. He’s going to make a royal mess of things if he keeps on saying, as he has been, that “it doesn’t make sense for me to comment on it every day because I’m not conducting the investigation.”

He has got to make a big deal out of this. Everybody else is, as they should be, because it is a big deal for us morally and for Rudolph Giuliani politically. He has got to step in, shape public perceptions, take hold of it before it takes hold of him.

If he were a Democrat or if he weren’t Rudy Giuliani, the toughest mayor east of the Pecos, he might be in the position of having to risk defending the police, but this man of all prominent public officials need not concern himself about being seen as soft on crime. His problem, and ours, too, is being seen as too hard on people.

He’s in a helluva box. He’s gained national renown and the gratitude of more than a few New Yorkers, even if they’re too much the yaller dog liberal to say it out loud, for banishing fear and crime from the now not-so-mean streets. New York is cleaner, safer and better in no small measure because of him, but that was then and this is after Abner Louima and now this most recent attack on a black-skinned man by members of his Police Department. It ain’t easy, but his job is to continue to keep the streets safe for everybody and from everybody, including robbers and malevolent police officers.

Mr. Giuliani is keeping his own counsel about what he intends to say to George Bush when he reschedules his Texas trip. But it is at least possible that he might be feeling Mr. Bush out on the idea of running as the Governor’s Vice Presidential candidate next year. Everybody in politics knows the best way to be President is to be Vice President first, but that will be out of the question for Mr. Giuliani if he is seen as someone who failed to act in the face of a series of racial atrocities committed by his Police Department.

Whether or not he can claw or scheme his way onto the national ticket, this newest killing reinforces the conviction which millions of African-Americans have, that the Republican Party doesn’t give a flying suck about them. Whatever the truth may be, the circumstantial evidence in this case is appalling, namely that four white police officers at close range, in an apartment house vestibule, discharged 19 bullets into the body of a young, unarmed, upstanding black man. Hey, Mayor, for yourself and your party, if not for more elevated reasons, you’ve got to be a mensch on this one.

Hey, do it for justice, do it for your country. Amadou Diallo was an educated African who came here to start a business. He exactly fits the description of the kind of person we need as immigrants. He trusted America and obviously didn’t believe we are a racist society where he would have no place or he wouldn’t have come, and look what happened to him in your city and on your watch. What are you going to do about that?

Please, Mayor, don’t go into your lawyer act about having to stay mum while the case is being investigated, sub judice and the rest of that parsley. Lawyers talk their bloody heads off when it suits them. And, Mayor, please don’t tell us that your hands are tied and you can’t do anything. Such might be the case if you were the mayor of Los Angeles or some other municipality in which the mayor is hardly more than the official greeter. No, no, no, you’re the Mayor of New York and you have enormous power. You have more power over the municipal government than the President has over the Federal Government. Use it. Use it for Amadou Diallo, use it yourself, use it for righteousness, use it, man, for all of us.

No More Legalisms, Rudy: It’s Time for Leadership