Reporter's Notebook: Life in Occupied New York

Coming to America: The Cold Truth

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1000, March 28, 1999

After the police murder of Amadou Diallo, the New York RW bureau organized a multinational team, including a French translator, to go out to different neighborhoods and talk to the people. This is the fourth article in a series based on that work.

Immigrants in New York have come out in large numbers to protest the police execution of Amadou Diallo. A horrible crime has brought into being a beautiful sight--sisters and brothers from throughout the world standing shoulder-to-shoulder in struggle against the armed enforcers of this system. We spoke with people from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia. Many have gathered around us to tell their stories and thanked us warmly for listening.

In Memory of Amadou

Amadou Diallo used to sell videos, T-shirts and other goods from a table in front of the C&B Convenience Store in a middle class neighborhood in Manhattan.

A member of our RW team spoke with an immigrant from Bangladesh who runs C&B. He said Amadou was "nice, honest, hard working." When he heard police fired 41 bullets at Amadou, he was shocked. "This is like an execution system of killing, you know? They did target practice." He put a up a sign announcing Amadou's funeral. "I put the sign on the city property over there in the tree outside. Cops came in and started taking off everything, ripping it off and then tried to give me a ticket.... We have to protest, demonstrate, do what we can do to get the justice done."

Each day since the shooting he has set up a table with a remembrance book, flowers and a picture of his friend, Amadou. Over a hundred pages of the book are filled with messages--in Chinese, French, Spanish, Arabic and English--from people who've stopped to pay their respects.

One man wrote: "My condolences to the Diallo family. I love you Amadou. They almost killed me, too, in 1983."

A woman from the neighborhood remembered, "...walking past every night speaking to you and listening to what you have to say. I will miss you and I will never forget you." Another wrote, "You gave me your chair because you saw that I was tired (so many times). We always smiled at each other and you always had kind words. God knows that this is such an injustice."

One message in the book said simply, "Your death will make a difference." It has already made a difference--it has brought tens of thousands of people together in the struggle for justice for Amadou and against police brutality.

False Promises

Most of the immigrants told us that before they came to the U.S. they couldn't imagine that police brutality and racism were such serious problems, or that they would have to struggle so hard to survive. Many are shocked at the way Amadou was gunned down in cold blood, shot 41 times as if he were but an animal. Over and over again people brought up the hypocrisy of the U.S. government's claim that this country is the model for freedom and human rights throughout the world.

On the first warm night in March we went out in Harlem. Dozens of immigrants gathered in front of a West African restaurant. Most spoke either French or the native languages of their homelands. A few knew some English. All of them were men and many were Muslims. Together we struggled through language and cultural barriers so that people could tell their stories. We passed out Carl Dix's "On the Police Murder of Amadou Diallo: 41 More Reasons for Revolution"--in English and French.

For hundreds of years, people from West Africa were forced to America by the whip of slave hunters. Now, they explained to us, they were forced to the U.S. by the whip of hunger.

A Senegalese musician said some people in Africa get a false impression of America from movies and television. "Because of Michael Jordan, the basketball player, because of Mike Tyson, because of Wesley Snipes...I mean you say oh, he got a lot of money. Oh, I can do something like him." He said it's really hard to make a living here especially if, like many immigrants from Africa, you don't have papers. Most who come to New York work long hours for little pay as taxi drivers, street vendors and bicycle messengers.

A man from the same village as Amadou Diallo told us he cried over and over about Amadou's death. "We thought this was a country of rights, a country of justice, a country of peace, a country of human rights, a country of good people.... The whole Guinean population asks why did they kill him in a way that they've never heard of?"

A woman from the West Indian island of Antigua brought her children to see where Diallo had been murdered. She talked about the cold racism of U.S. society. "You're supposed to be there because you're white, there because you're Black. I heard about it but I never believed it was like that."

A sister from Trinidad said the atmosphere has grown more hostile since she first came here. "Today, you go into certain places, it's just like when you saw it in the '50s and the '60s. They're looking at you and they're 'what the heck are you doing here?' They don't want you."

A man from the West African country of Guinea said: "This thing happened to Amadou Diallo and it happened to other people. So I think all the communities need to be together, Black or white, everybody, to ask for justice."

A group of men in front of the Harlem restaurant passed around the picture of "Killed In Cold Blood By the NYPD." We talked through a translator. A Guinean man asked, "Why do all the American powers from Clinton on down, why do they let Giuliani keep on doing this?" One of the RW crew remarked that we thought they were imperialists--that the U.S., France and other imperialist powers have plundered Africa and exploit the immigrant people here.

This had an electrifying effect. For the first time, the brother from Guinea spoke in English. "Have you been to Africa?" When we said no, he explained in French: "The great powers like the U.S. and France, they come there. They destroy the lives of the people. All they care about is the money. You can see the way they've destroyed it. Go to Africa, like in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Two people, one wants the oil. The other one says you can't have the oil. They fight and they kill the whole population. And these two people who are killing the whole population, they get the power and the weapons from France or England or the United States." The RW and the French edition of the Revolutionary International Movement's pamphlet "Our Ideology Is Marxism-Leninism-Maoism" changed hands.

Victims of Police Brutality

Almost every immigrant we met has been a victim of police brutality. Cab drivers said they've been stopped, ticketed and arrested. Vendors have had their goods stolen. They've been beaten. On Diallo's block, a man from the South American country of Guyana who knew Amadou said his son is afraid to go out of the house. And he's afraid to walk down the street with his son for fear they will both be shot.

In Harlem, a man from Guinea told us: "They say this is a country of human rights. But foreigners who come here really get a lot of police brutality by the U.S. police. There are a lot of Africans who come here who don't have their papers.... Africans have an international driver's license but the police here will not recognize and honor it. And they say this is a country of human rights. So then why won't they accept an international permit in this country? They handcuff me. They do this every time. I was very sad to hear about this guy who was killed. But this is how they give American justice."

I talked with immigrants at a demonstration in the Bronx where a grand jury is meeting to decide whether to indict the cops who murdered Amadou. A man from Guyana told me: "When you drive your car and the police put on the light, you've got to stop immediately. And when they come out it is two of them, both of them got their hand on a gun. They put their hand on the gun walking to you. If you're a nervous person and you shake you're likely to get killed. So you might as well block the traffic and cause a traffic jam and let the whole world see what happens because you ain't got nothing to lose. I mean this is what the place has become now...We want democracy and human rights. Because all of us have the same feelings." A Muslim man from West Africa's Gambia said: "We're here for justice for all the victims, not only Diallo. We need justice for all of them--Black, white, brown, red, all human beings. We're all created equal from God, no matter what. Diallo, they kill him. They shot and kill him, his blood is no different from your blood...What happened to this guy could happen to anyone. It could happen again."

A brother from Nigeria who came here to get an education characterized life in America as "living in a state of war." He spoke about how the cops busted into the wrong apartment looking for someone, a common practice of the NYPD: "My son was taking a nap and also I was taking a nap. And at some time the door was knocking. I went to the door and I asked who it is. He said, `Well, just open it.' I said, `Please hold on, let me put my shirt on.' He told me, `Open the friggin door or I'll break it down.'...Before I came back to the door from putting my clothes on, the door was already on the ground. They kicked the door down and they came inside the house at gun point. And they started kicking me, beating me with a gun, put a gun in my mouth, dragged me all over the place, searched my house."

Later, he went to the precinct to ask them to fix his door. A Black sergeant insisted the police didn't break down his door. "Then those police officers arrived at the police station and I pointed them out. I said those are the police who came to my house...The police officer goes `Okay, follow me.' Then I become arrested. I was arrested right from there without any reason. They keep me in there the whole day until the next night. I told the police officer at that time I had to pick up my son.... He replied that my son is 10 years old, he's old enough to take care of himself. And I said no. I was begging him to go back home to get my son.... He was by himself with the broken door until I got home."

He told me another story about his son. "He went to the park with the boys and they were sitting down there talking. The police show up and tell my son, `What you guys are doing here?' My son said, `We just got back from school. This afternoon we're playing in the park.' He was arrested. All those boys was arrested. And I asked the court to find out why he was arrested. They said he was in the park at the wrong time. And I asked the police officer what time is this park supposed to be open to the public? He told me don't ask silly questions...What happened to Diallo could happen to me or my brothers or sisters. It could happen to my son."

A man from Ghana in West Africa said he was recently arrested when police at a roadblock wrongly claimed his license was suspended. He spoke with great bitterness about a green card lottery in his country. He told me if you win a green card they promise you a job, money and a place to live when you get to the United States. But when you get here there's nothing--and you don't have the money to get back. He said, "When I was in Africa, I thought this country was the land of opportunity, everybody had their civil rights, immigrants, too. It appears it's the opposite way from what you thought...When an innocent person dies like Amadou Diallo you'll be like `Why?' If you see somebody being shot up like that, you're not supposed to die that way. Your heart will break...You know, we have a proverb in our country. In Ghana we say that if you are chewing somebody's finger, watch your finger... We need a revolution. It needs to be done to get our rights as humans."

Margret's Story

I first saw Margret at an early protest for Amadou Diallo --fist in the air, tears pouring down her face. I wondered at her deep anger and sadness. When later we marched together from Wall Street to City Hall, she told me her story. She had fled Haiti--to escape the U.S.-backed Duvalier government and its Tontons Macoutes death squads. Margret lives with the memory of the people she knows who were tortured by the Tontons Macoutes--and now those brutalized by the New York police.

As we marched, Margret would tell a story, break into tears, gather her strength and move on to the next one. The Macoutes beat her father so badly he could not stand up straight for the rest of his life. The Macoutes killed 29 people in one family alone. Margret gasped as she told me how they threw a two-year-old baby up in the air and caught it on a bayonet. Margret belives that the Tontons Macoutes were directed by the U.S. government.

Margret told me: "Amadou Diallo is lucky they did not put drugs in his pocket --say he had drugs in his pocket or he had a gun. They do that to a lot of people's children, send them in jail just for nothing. It's terrible. This cannot go on...Every time I think about Amadou Diallo I cry. I have a son that was beat up. They broke his hands. Even though he was handcuffed, they sprayed mace in his eyes."

Margret was in the protests after the NYPD tortured Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a toilet plunger. She says, "It should not have happened. And those things, like I say to you, happen in Haiti, too. I believe the U.S. government know what's going on in Haiti. When we come here, they do the same thing to us. What happened to Abner Louima, I remember it happened back home. About 30 years ago under the Duvalier regime they put four young men in front of the cemetery and people were pumping bullets on those kids. That's the same thing that's going on in here. We came here to get away from this. We did not come here to get the same thing which we used to get back home. They act as if it's free. This country is not a free country. I don't think so."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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