One year ago this week, four New York City policemen, members of the city’s elite Street Crimes Unit, were patrolling the Bronx, looking for a serial rapist who had struck the borough as many as 51 times. Spotting a man who resembled the suspect’s description in the vestibule of an apartment building, two of the policemen approached. What happened next is the subject of a highly anticipated criminal trial that opened earlier this week in Albany, New York.
According to the officers’ version of events, the man failed to respond to police orders to freeze, or to show his hands. In fact, they say, he turned as if to flee into the building before reaching into a pocket to pull something out, something black. A gun? That’s what they thought, and the two officers fired. When one of them fell, having tripped over the building’s steps, two more officers, seeing one of their partners down, left their car and joined the firefight. In all, 41 shots were fired, 19 of them striking and killing Amadou Diallo, a street peddler from Guinea, in less time than it takes to read this paragraph. He was unarmed.
A tragic, fatal mistake, as the police maintain? Or murder in the second degree, as charged by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson? Human error, or, as Eric Warner, the lead prosecutor, has promised to prove, “a conscious decision to shoot at a man” without justification? These are some of the questions 12 Albany jurors must now weigh as the Diallo trial gets underway.
It would be naive, of course, to imagine that the trial concerns only the terrible events of Feb. 4, 1999. Because the officers in question are white and Mr. Diallo was black, professional provocateurs led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose own career is built on racial agitation, have taken the raw tragedy of the incident and fashioned it into a political cudgel with which to whack at the New York City Police Department and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. (Months of protests and prejudicial publicity in New York City resulted in the trial being moved to Albany.) In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the death of Mr. Diallo, a tragedy to his family, has been an immeasurable boon to Mr. Sharpton. Last time Mr. Sharpton was in the news, it was because Stephen Pagones, a former New York prosecutor, had won a defamation judgment against him, a very public and tangible reproof of Mr. Sharpton’s shameful role in the Tawana Brawley hoax.
In the aftermath of the Diallo shooting, however, masked by the solemn and unreproachable face of mourning, Mr. Sharpton has been able to coalesce the Democratic opposition to Mr. Giuliani, emerging, improbably enough, as a political presence from a thoroughly disreputable past.
For the past year, Sharpton et al. have trumpeted the political symbolism of the racially framed Diallo case the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of white policemen to the point where it has completely drowned out the facts: Until this week, neither evidence nor testimony had even begun to be presented; the four policemen, presumed innocent until proven guilty, have not yet had their day in court. And so it is all the more reckless of New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, addressing a crowd of Sharpton supporters on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to have pronounced the shooting a “murder.” Having pre-judged the officers, Mrs. Clinton went further still, signaling her willingness to involve the federal government in the case, should the officers be acquitted.
Such irresponsible politicking has been the hallmark of the Diallo shooting for one year. We can only hope that the trial now begun will bring sufficient evidence to light, revealing to one and all that accusations of racism, however incessant, are no substitute for facts and reason.