Who Will HumanizeDiallo?
By Dr. EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON
Thefrenzied search is on to find out why the four White New York policeofficers who shot African immigrant Amadou Diallo walked out of anAlbany court free men. One answer came from a defense attorney whowatched the trail proceedings closely. He noted that the defenseattorneys for the officers smartly defied the conventional defensetrial strategy of refusing to put a defendant on the stand to testifyin their behalf. This strategy was glaringly apparent in the O.J.Simpson trial. Instead the attorneys put the four cops on the stand.In doing this the defense was able to "humanize" them. In other wordsthey came off not as the racist, brutes as many depicted them, but ashonest cops who simply made a terrible error in judgment.
It worked. Unfortunately the price to humanizethe four White officers was to devalue the life of a Black victim.But this was really not that hard to do. Two centuries of legalslavery and the decades of legal segregation, lynchings, mob violencegave the firm signal that Blacks had few legal and political rightsand need not look to the police and the courts to protect them.
During much of the 20th Century, Blacks weretypecast in the media and popular culture as lazy, buffonish, andcrime-prone. The civil rights movement of the 1960s brought onlyslight improvement to the Black image. By the 1980s, the shallowreservoir of White goodwill and tolerance generated by the civilrights movement had long since dried up and much of the media and thepublic once more transformed Blacks into the stereotype of the pimp,dope-dealer and gang banger. The slash and burn assaults on jobs,education, health and social programs; and the roll-back of civilrights and affirmative action touched off a fresh round of Blackbashing and replanted the notion that Blacks were an expendablecommodity.
The O.J. Simpson verdict, the Million ManMarch, the Rodney King beating, the Los Angeles riots further widenedthe racial gap and ignited a full head long retreat into a dangerousracial knownothingism in which Black and White communities appearedmore as warring camps then socially interactive communities. Blacks,especially young Black males, were now blamed for much of the crimeand violence in America. The public screamed for more police,prosecutors, prisons and tougher laws. The prison cells quickly beganto bulge with young Black males.
The "us vs. them" low intensity racial warfarethat has badly disfigured relations between the police and manyBlacks has taken a big toll on many law enforcement and publicofficials as well as those in the Black communities. It has forcedmany police officials to defend the morally and legally indefensiblepractice of racial profiling on the grounds that Blacks arecop-hating lawbreakers and therefore cracking down on them is merelygood law enforcement. It has pushed many public officials into nearparalysis when it comes to reigning in police violence. They dreadbeing branded soft on crime.
Meanwhile, the police-Black conflict reinforcesthe already deep belief of many Blacks that the police have an openlicense to kill and maim in the Black communities and, as in theDiallo shooting, won't hesitate to use it. This dangerous mix ofmistrust and hostility between many Blacks and the police sparked theintense rage that followed the controversial shootings of TyishaMiller, Margaret Mitchell, Diallo and other Blacks. Worse, therefusal by police, prosecutors and juries to vigorously punishofficers who overuse deadly force against Blacks fortifies politicalmean-spiritedness, widens the crisis and turmoil in the inner cities,pollutes the political process, mars the criminal justice system, andexpands the racial divide.
There is faint hope that the Justice Departmentwill do more than merely "review" the Albany verdict and will bringfederal civil rights charges against the officers. But given theJustice Department's well known reluctance to second guess stateprosecutors when it comes to prosecuting cops there is no almost nolikelihood that this will happen. TheAlbany verdict will probably stand. And it will, again, send thefrightening message that Black lives are still less valuable thanWhite lives.
Dr. Hutchinson, a nationally syndicated columnist and the directorof the National Alliance for Positive Action, is based in LosAngeles. He is an executive editor of USAfricaonline.com and TheBlack Business Journal.
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