Reporter's Notebook

Life in Occupied New York:

The Daily Outrage of Police Brutality

Revolutionary Worker #998, March 14, 1999

After the murder of Amadou Diallo, the New York RW bureau organized a multinational team to go out to different neighborhoods and interview people. This is part 3 of the Reporter's Notebook from the work of this team.

It's been a month since Amadou Diallo was gunned down in cold blood by four cops who fired 41 shots at him. The murdering cops still have not been arrested and charged with any crimes--or even questioned. They are on "desk duty"--issued new guns after they turned in the ones they used to shoot down Amadou. Mayor Giuliani wants to give the cops the "benefit of the doubt." The governor says "wait for the facts." Federal authorities are "monitoring" the local investigation.

All over the city, we heard great anger at the fact that these killer cops continue to walk free. And people expressed a deep desire and determination to see justice for Amadou. An immigrant woman from the Caribbean said, "If I had walked up to a police officer and shot him, they would lock me up without any question. The color of my skin have me guilty. Why can't these guys be behind bars?" In the Bronx, a Jamaican man told us, "I think they should really take them to justice, these four guys. This is murder!"

Protests, meetings, and prayer vigils are continuing. On March 1, 5,000 people converged on Wall Street despite an attempt by the police to stop the protest by setting up metal barricades--like they did at the Million Youth March in Harlem last year. As Bobo Diallo, Amadou's uncle, described how the cops shot his nephew, the crowd chanted, "Murderers! Murderers!" Over a dozen people were arrested for blocking traffic and sitting in the offices of Merrill Lynch, an investment firm that is one of Giuliani's major contributors.

When I opened up the morning papers on March 1, I saw another indication of how this great battle has turned all of New York City upside down. I read about the cover of the March 8 issue of the New Yorker magazine. The great cover was done by Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 cartoon novel Maus about his father's experiences as a Jew in Europe during the Holocaust. The cover is a drawing of a carnival shooting gallery, with a sign reading "41 shots 10 cents." A cop is shooting at three silhouetted "targets"--a man with a briefcase and cell phone, a kid with his hat on backward and an older woman with a cane. The drawing captures the way many Black and Latino people feel about the police. That this appeared on the cover of the New Yorker, a famous magazine of the New York literary/cultural scene, shows how the Diallo shooting has shaken the middle classes as well and compelled many to take the side of the basic masses against the police. Not surprisingly, the power structure was furious. Spiegelman has been viciously attacked by some of the media, and cops demonstrated outside the New Yorker offices. The magazine has stood by Spiegleman, who said the cover art was intended "as a warning sign of how radically the [public's] perception of a police officer has changed."

Meanwhile, powerful forces in the ruling class have sent clear messages of support for Giuliani and his police-state program. Giuliani is being promoted as a possible candidate for senator or president. He's been invited to Washington, D.C. twice in the last month to testify before the House about his "success" in "reducing crime." Giuliani appeared at a press conference with Congressman Bob Barr, a top rightwing politician who has spoken at fundraising meetings for white supremacist groups. Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, made a personal appearance with Giuliani at City Hall.

While the murder of Amadou Diallo has put a spotlight on New York, the epidemic of police brutality and murder is a problem in our communities from coast to coast. And it's not just local police. Clinton constantly brings up his push to put 100,000 more local cops on the streets as one of his top "achievements."

The War in the Neighborhoods

Police brutality is an everyday thing in the lives of Black and Latino people, other oppressed nationalities and immigrants in New York City. After a protest in the Bronx I talked with some sisters at the train stop. One sister said, "When they brought us here 500 years ago that was an act of war, and we're still at war." We talked about the checkpoints on the roads where cops randomly stop and search cars--and how every day when you go outside, you see the police throwing young people up against the wall or taking vans full of our children, handcuffed, to jail. As we compared experiences one sister said, "People don't realize how deep this is. Even we don't realize."

An African-American brother in Harlem told us about being harassed by police on his way home from work. "I'm walking down the street. You fit the general description of someone that just sold drugs, someone that just robbed somebody. And this is what happens. They put me up on the wall. They never find nothing. But it's the same thing repeatedly, day in and day out." Hanging out with his friends, a Black man in his 20s talked about what the cops do in their neighborhood: "They come and harass us, tell us we're not supposed to stand in our neighborhood 'cause we don't have no reason to be here. In front of our buildings where we grew up at, where we live at, where we go to school at, where we work at. And we're not doing no crimes. There's no reason for us to get up and go in the house."

We heard many stories of rampaging police from people in the neighborhood where Amadou lived. At the building where Amadou was killed, a Caribbean immigrant recalled what happened to him: "Cops picked me up and put me face down on the concrete, put handcuffs on me and threw me in the van for no reason...stick me up, put gun in my face. They took me to the station. They give me a DAT, a desk appearance ticket. They tell me, `We have to give you a ticket because we arrested you, but we're gonna let you go.' I asked them why they did that. They said I fit the description of somebody they was looking for."

An African-American woman told us, "They run up in people's buildings and beat them down with their nightsticks because they have cigarettes or weed on them. That area is wild, but the cops still don't have to do what they be doing to people. Then the next thing you know, they take the people someplace else--and nobody don't find them. And then the cops beat 'em up and leave 'em out there. Come on, they don't have to do that to nobody, especially if you innocent. As a matter of fact, if you not innocent, they still don't supposed to do that to nobody."

A 40-year-old African-American man said he was searched by cops every day: "They come in the community and they're looking at us like we're criminals. You can have a Harvard Ph.D.--if you're a Black man you're a `criminal,' cause they don't know anything about you. Like Amadou Diallo, this man was a hard working man. He didn't do nothing to anybody. He came from another country. And look what happened to him.... If you're in America and you're a Black man, watch your back at all times." A teenager standing nearby spoke up, "They've drawn their weapons on me. They've put me against walls for no reason. It's not right. These cops are out of line. We have to do something about these police. We're not going to stand for this anymore."

Elder Avenue and the Street Crimes Unit

"One person can fire as a mistake. One bullet maybe. Maybe. But four person together shot 41 times--they must know that this is deliberately."

Saikou Diallo, Amadou Diallo's father,
on ABC's Nightline

The cops who fired those 41 bullets belong to NYPD's Street Crimes Unit--an "elite" group whose official "mission" is to rid the streets of guns. They are deployed in so-called crime "hot spots"--all in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods. In the past two years the number of cops assigned to the unit went from 100 to 438. They stopped and searched 45,000 people in 1997 and 1998 while seizing only 2,072 guns. They fired their weapons 28 times and killed three people.

The Street Crimes Unit cops have gotten away with murder before. In 1995, Marco Calderon shot Aníbal Carrasquillo. An autopsy proved Aníbal was shot in the back. Calderon was never charged. In 1996, Sergeant James Hand shot 15-year-old Frankie Arzuaga in the back of the head. Hand and other cops on the scene were never charged. In June 1996, three Street Crimes Unit cops fired 24 times and executed Aswon Watson in mid-afternoon on a busy Brooklyn street. None of the cops was charged with murder. One of the cops who murdered Diallo, Kenneth Boss, shot Patrick Bailey last year and left him to bleed to death. Boss was then allowed to volunteer for the Street Crimes Unit.

Elder Avenue is not far from where Diallo lived. Our team visited a block of Elder which is one of the city's "barricaded streets"--closed to traffic, cops stationed at either end. People must show I.D. proving they live there to pass through the checkpoints. This was supposedly done to "help" people: fight crime, get rid of drugs and take guns off the street. But everyone in this neighborhood had stories to tell us about police brutality--young, old, people with a hard edge who hate the police and those who still think the problem is just "a few bad apples."

Two 13-year-old kids spoke about what the cops actually do: "They don't let us go out much. We can't be coming in in cars. Taxis can't come in. They be like, `Get away from here.' They don't listen to us.... They just let them people come in, drug dealers....The police don't like nobody on this block. They treat us like trash. So we treat them back like trash. We curse at them, they curse at us.... The last time they started yelling at us for no reason, we took firecrackers and threw it at them."

A Caribbean immigrant gave an example showing how plainclothes cops never identify themselves when they come up on people: "I was going to the lottery store and on my way out this guy keep coming towards me. So I keep on walking towards the guy. I shifted to one side of the road and the guy shifted with me, too. So when we meet face to face he just grabbed me up by the collar, threw me up against the side of a building....I was dressed in an army jacket and they said they were stopping everybody coming down that block that particular day in army jackets."

People's lives are constantly disrupted by having to deal with getting stopped on the street, beaten up, falsely arrested and imprisoned. Some people lose their jobs because they're held on bogus charges and can't get to work on time.

Eddie is a Puerto Rican guy in his 50s who's already been grabbed twice by the cops this year. He was put "through the system" and held overnight: "I was clean. I had nothing on me. I was arrested for criminal trespass. Now they're coming up with this one: If they selling drugs on the corner, you can't stand within 30 feet. Or if there's prostitution. I'm supposed to know there's prostitution or that they're selling drugs on the corner? I was standing there and I was arrested. A few months later, arrested again. I went through the system. In the morning they cut you loose. They give you two days community service--and you go home after they put you through the hassles of central booking."

Fred is an African-American proletarian who's been in and out of jail since he was young, set up on minor things by the cops. We showed Fred and his friends the RW and asked about his experiences with police brutality. He was quiet at first, sizing us up, wondering if he should speak and how much he wanted to say. When he finally did talk, he told us about an incident he was involved in the other day: "There was a girl riding a bicycle. The police jumped out of the car and he hit her here on the back, right? She fell off. He pulled her pants down. He didn't find nothing."

Fred's story reminded me of a Nightline program I saw on TV recently. A former member of the Street Crimes Unit admitted on the air that their "job" was to target and harass anyone in the neighborhood. He was shown in the shadows to hide his identity from other cops who might retaliate: "Just a person turning around looking at us would be all that was needed in order to `justify' us coming in contact with that person to inquire where are you going, what are you doing...We were told someone on a bicycle was either carrying a gun or carrying drugs. Someone on a bicycle, we would accidentally on purpose bump the bike...We would jump out of the car and we would frisk the person."

Fred and his friends thought what the cops did to the girl amounted to rape. Yelling "Riot! Riot!" Fred tried to get other people to stop the cop--and ended up getting busted again. "When they took me in, the cop said, `We can't lock him up for a riot 'cause we didn't call for backup.' So when I got to the precinct they booked me for loitering. I was doing five days for that before I seen the judge. Then when I came out, they be parked up the next block, the same sergeant. I'm walking. `Hey you, come here!' I kept walking. He said, `You, I'm talking to you. Come here! Don't walk away when I'm talking!' So I just kept walking. He went in front of me. He says, `If I catch you up that block again, I'm locking you up. You don't have to have nothing, I'm locking you up."'

Fred had some strong opinions about the "mission" of the Street Crimes Unit: "We getting killed for all this. If we carry a gun now, that new law they got, 10 years automatic. No record. Ten years you get automatic. If I carry a gun now I get a life 'cause of my record. I'll get life in prison.... Yeah, they telling us now to turn in our guns, turn in our guns. For what? So they don't want you to have guns when it's time to fight back? People are not gonna be turning all their guns in. They gonna need them pretty soon. Yeah, people are buying guns now. They buying more guns because they don't want the same thing to happen to them like that happened to [Diallo] around the corner."

"This Affects All of Us"

There has been a conscious attempt by some forces to pit people of different nationalities against each other, and to prevent unity between basic people and middle class people. It is true that the protests so far have involved mostly African and Caribbean immigrants and African-Americans. But almost every protest, vigil and meeting has involved people of many different nationalities, including white people. Our multinational team has been welcomed everywhere. And almost everyone we spoke with wanted to see people of all nationalities unite to fight police brutality and the other outrages of this system.

I met Jane, an 18-year-old white student who lives in the suburbs, at a prayer service for Amadou Diallo at the Islamic Cultural Center. Her best friend lives in a project in Harlem. She told us about the time she and her friend were picked up by the cops: "The police had us in the station for four hours, when they told us 20 minutes. We were given no explanation for why we had to stay there for so long. My friend was forced to stay in jail when he was innocent.... He's someone that's stayed out of trouble his whole life. He's had every excuse to get into trouble and he hasn't. And it just bothers me so much the way the system tries to suck people in if they don't get them already. So I'm trying to do everything I possibly can to get people at my college involved with what's going on, to get people in general involved. Because I think things need to change, and they need to change now."

A middle class Black woman told a member of our team: "I have seen policemen being abusive on 34th Street area to vendors. I've actually seen them stomp the vendors' hands when they go to collect up their goods because they're not supposed to be in a certain area. Policemen can be quite abusive, as you have seen in the news. And for me as a new mother, it's frightening because I have a son to bring up--and because of his color, he might be shot at or possibly killed."

Many people pointed out that police brutality is "spilling over" to neighborhoods that are predominantly middle class or white. An African-American woman told me about her brother: "We live on the Upper West Side and they stopped him because they wanted to know what a young Black man was doing on the Upper West Side. He was 19 at the time. They proceeded to take him in and arrest him and held him till the next day. They had no reason. They had nothing to charge him with. So it's not isolated--it's rather systematic."

At a rally at City Hall, I met two Black woman in their 30s who had come together to the protest. One told me, "This affects all of us--Black, white, young, old, American, West Indian, African, Asian, everybody. And it's about time that it stops."

"We Have to Fight and Change Things Now"

In the midst of the outrage over Amadou's murder a New Jersey State Police training tape was uncovered. The tape shows cops being trained to make "profile stops"--singling out, harassing and brutalizing Black and Latino people on the state turnpike. The commander of the state police went on TV and try to defend this blatant racism. He was fired--but the fact that he felt free to do this and that the tape was made in the first place shows how systematic racism, police brutality and national oppression is.

In the past month, tens of thousands of people in New York have risen in resistance. "Amadou!" has become a rallying cry for those who hate the way they have to live under the constant threat of the system's armed enforcers. Many feel Amadou sacrificed his life for them, that his death has moved them to act and has brought people together to fight.

A Black proletarian who lives in Diallo's neighborhood told me, "I'm the mother of four girls and I just thank god I didn't have a son. What people have to go through just to walk down the streets of New York with the police, the type of attitude that they have with the Black youth, that's terrible.... We have to fight and try to change things now.... A lot of lives have been wasted. A lot of lives have been taken. We can't wait for later any more. Something has to be done now at this moment or we'll be losing more of our children, more of our nephews and brothers and maybe sisters next."

An African-American woman at a city hall protest said, "I have friends and my husband has friends who've been stopped, they've been harassed for no real reason. This is just part of everyday life. It's become so common to us it's not even outrageous anymore. We don't think it's outrageous because we've just accepted it....We shouldn't be complacent anymore. We shouldn't even have accepted searches without reasonable cause or racial profiling. So I think that this instance has made us realize that we have to stand up. We shouldn't accept it anymore, none of it."


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