When Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was killed on February 4 in a hail of police bullets, the city’s reaction came from the gut. The first demonstrations-mourners placing flowers at Diallo’s Bronx doorway-were ad-hoc. But rage about the incident quickly sparked organized responses, starting with marches on City Hall and the Bronx courthouse and peaking with an astounding month of civil disobedience at police headquarters, during which nearly 1,200 people were arrested.
By the time the March for Justice and Conciliation crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on April 15, cracks had formed in the citywide show of unity. A core of leaders, centered around Al Sharpton, were accused by other demonstrators-including parents of police brutality victims-of turning the Diallo tragedy into their own political platform.
Four days after the march, City Limits convened a discussion with five activists who took part in the demonstrations. They reflected on what it all means-and what happens next.
Moderator Angela Ards is the Haywood Burns Fellow at the Nation Institute. She is a journalist and activist who covered the Diallo shooting and its aftermath for The Nation and works with Citywide Coalition for Justice, the Diallo group affiliated with Rev. Calvin Butts.
Charles Barron is chair of the Unity Party and president of Dynamics of Leadership, which trains community and nonprofit groups. With Rev. Herbert Daughtry, Barron organized the Leadership Summit, a group that collaborated with Sharpton’s National Action Network on planning Diallo actions around the city.
Karl Franklin is director of New York City Police Watch, a project of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. His organization documents police brutality and misconduct, makes legal referrals, and supports organizing efforts around issues of police brutality.
Bill Batson has done organizing and community relations for 1199 National Health and Human Service Employees Union for more than a decade. He served as press coordinator for the Coalition for Law and Order and Peace and Justice, the Sharpton-led group that organized the Brooklyn Bridge march.
Esther Kaplan is a member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a 7-year-old advocacy group for economic and social equality in New York. The group has been involved with police brutality issues since 1992 and participated in Al Sharpton’s civil disobedience campaign.
Angela Ards: Why does the Diallo shooting strike such a chord?
Karl Franklin: Historically, especially with the black community, the issue is state violence. Most of the mass rebellions in the ’60s took place after confrontations with the police. I actually thought that the Louima incident would spark these types of demonstrations. But I think it was the nature of this particular crime that said “enough is enough.” Particularly with Giuliani’s attitude, coupled with people’s feelings of disenfranchisement toward the police. I have to compliment Al Sharpton for being able to see that on the radar screen and take it and carry it forward.
Esther Kaplan: I agree–this was the last straw. This is a little ugly, but I think that there’s been like a deal that people struck with Giuliani which is, “Look, you make this city safer, and we’re going to overlook your excesses.” Certainly white New York felt this way, certainly Jewish New York, but big sectors of black, Latino and Asian New York did too. I think people finally clicked that it wasn’t an okay tradeoff. It wasn’t okay to feel safe and comfortable on the Upper West Side if people were being gunned down that viciously. That deal that people had made with Giuliani had run out. There are the people that he has made things good for and the other people he’s disregarded, but people finally didn’t want to feel that alienation anymore. That’s what I really see in the Jewish community. Now they’re saying, “We’re going to really think about it, and make that human connection that Giuliani has encouraged people not to make.” It’s a profound spiritual moment, where people decided to think of themselves as part of one city, not two cities.
Charles Barron: You never know when an issue can just take off. People said “Black Power” long before Stokely Carmichael, but when he said it in ’67, for whatever reason, it took off. It’s hard to tell whatever it is that launched this one. Part of it was the outrageous nature of 41 shots hitting a person who is totally innocent. Another part is it coming right after Louima. People had a lot of pent-up frustration. Some of us have been on the [police brutality] issue for a long time and have just started pulling pieces together around Diallo.
I think the challenge for us was not to have just another issue, but to really give it a movement characteristic-basic and broad, reaching different ethnic groups. Make it into a human issue more than just a civil rights issue, or a black issue. I think the leadership was conscious of doing that, and I think to some extent, it’s been successful. If the problem is systemic, we always felt the solution should be systemic. The bottom line is to change the political equation. America needs wealth and power more equitably distributed. As long as that is not happening, symptoms of a deeply rooted illness–racism, sexism, exploitation–will lead to police brutality, inadequate health care and neighborhoods that are deprived.
Bill Batson: We have to remember that initial reactions were spontaneous. The first time it got organized was when Charles and Rev. Daughtry brought demonstrators to One Police Plaza. That was probably the most brilliant move ever because the mayor had not covered his flank. He forgot that his whole regime is predicated on police power.
There’s just been great organizing. We’ve had the most improbable coalition I have ever seen: Dennis Rivera, called a communist by many; Al Sharpton, celebrated in some quarters, demonized in others. And Cardinal O’Connor! There were a lot of fights. But the miracle getting through this was not allowing the mayor to bait us.
Ards: Do you always have to have life-and-death issues to get people to respond?
Franklin: I can’t say that it doesn’t help, of course. That’s why it’s so important right now to fight for some systemic changes–get those things in place while the iron is hot, while the targets are clear. If systemic changes aren’t done, when some other shooting or something else happens, people are going to be back in the street again. Next time may not be just civil disobedience-it might be outright rebellion, because people will reach a boiling point. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the trial starts. Because if you remember Rodney King, that was the time when people said, “We already did all the protesting, now let the judicial system work.” Look what happened.
Barron: There’s a danger of a movement focusing on a single issue and not on long-range, systemic changes. Even then, we need to have the basic discussion of “What is systemic change?” Strengthening the Civilian Complaint Review Board is not a systemic change-you can have civilians there, but as long as you’re going back to the police commissioner to mete out the punishment, that’s not systemic change. It’s still police policing the police. One of the things we were calling for initially is the creation of an independent agency with subpoena power. Police need to be punished when they commit crimes. It is that simple.
Behind The Scenes
Batson: I’m most worried about the politics of our cohesion. I’m not happy with the 10-point plan. It was written on the back of an envelope, and then it got endorsed by the Times. It made me really nervous. It was the overzealousness of people to have something substantive before a media conference. And there was an element of human error.
Barron: Originally we had a coalition, where it was myself and Rev. Daughtry, working on civil disobedience. We were meeting every Tuesday at Rev. Daughtry’s church with different groups, like Women for Justice, Richie Perez [of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights]. We had written up seven or eight points for change. We gave Rev. Sharpton the idea about the civil disobedience at One Police Plaza, we were the principal organizers behind that. Then everything was hijacked by the union and establishment-type leaders. I think the process was very unprincipled. Some of the plan items, I think, don’t go deep enough. The agenda of the unions and the elected officials is another thing I would question.
Here’s the dilemma: How do you have the front of unity, knowing you were ripped off? By acclamation we supported the 10-point program and then discussed the points afterward. By acclamation! Never in my life had I been a part of something like that. Sharpton knew I was upset. He said, “Is everything all right, Charles?” “No Rev, but I’m going with the flow.” It’s about unity.
Kaplan: What I think Charles is saying, from a very high point in the leadership, is actually happening throughout the city right now: a conversation about a 10-point plan that we don’t all agree upon. Like number 7. What is the need to propose a police pay raise in the wake of a horrible shooting? What mixed message is that? The question really is: Can you hang with it enough to move forward? Ultimately what is really valuable with all this tongue-biting that’s going on in a lot of quarters is that people are really feeling that unity. I don’t know if it’s going to hold, but I hope it will.
Ards: How do you move toward unity when there are unprincipled actions taking place?
Barron: When I say unprincipled, I mean that [former Deputy Mayor] Bill Lynch, Dennis Rivera–they had to pull Sharpton in because they knew this thing would not go anywhere otherwise. David Dinkins too. We were already meeting with a broad section of people working on systemic changes. If they wanted to do it, we could have gone in the back room and hammered out a program. It didn’t happen that way because there are long-range political concerns people have, particularly around the mayoralty.
I’m not into being prophetic, but I can almost guarantee you that when the dust clears, this will have a lot to do with the mayoral race in 2001. Peter Vallone is gonna be the favorite for some of these folks. A few people may think Freddie Ferrer should be the person. A lot of them will not support Rev. Sharpton for mayor, but I guarantee you they’ll encourage him to run anyway because they know that Vallone cannot bring out the black and Latino vote. They hope that Vallone beats Sharpton in the Democratic primary and then they can get Al to pledge support for Peter in November. That’s what I think most of this is about.
Batson: We need to have new leadership. As coalition press person I promoted people like Yasmin Hurston, who’s lived her whole life in Harlem, works for C. Virgina Fields. She should be out there. Terrence Tolbert, Marc Lapidus–these are names you don’t hear every day. Suddenly, I’m giving them press coverage. There’s a chance to change the way we do politics.
Barron: The one thing we have to remember is that we have Giuliani on the ropes, and we don’t need anything to happen to take him off the ropes. But how do we keep him there? Keep the unity going? And be principled at the same time? Sharpton could’ve pulled the Brooklyn Bridge demo off without $300,000 [spent on media ads and technology, including a big-screen TV]. But there was a reason why it went that way–the promotion was mutually beneficial to Sharpton and to the establishment-type leaders and the unions. Who could say “No” to this coalition when everybody in New York is in on it? It’s kind of got you trapped to do what you’ve got to do.
Ards: How can activists working on other issues learn from what’s happened?
Barron: We have to take it from a temporary coalition to a permanent working alliance if we really want to move to other issues. We need to have a retreat somewhere for a few days. All of us are upset because our people don’t have jobs, don’t have adequate housing. Environmental racism is alive and well.
But we have to get more proactive and visionary than even that. What do we want for New York City? What if we had New York, or America? What revolutionary changes should we make so that government’s done differently? If electoral politics isn’t it, then what’s the agenda outside those politics that is going to create that change?
Franklin: One of the good things that’s happened is that the bar has been raised. It’s not just about demonstrations anymore. On other issues, they’re doing civil disobedience now, like the community garden folks.
Kaplan: One thing that has been underlying a lot of what we’re saying is that the Democratic party is not our party anymore. Bill Clinton is undoing most of the gains of the ’60s–this is under Democratic leadership.
Batson: And you have Sheldon Silver systematically destroying the state party.
Kaplan: There you have a guy at war with [Councilmember] Margarita Lopez and the real activist leadership in his own community. Most of us live in districts with long-term machine politicians representing us, where we watched insurgent candidate after insurgent candidate being mysteriously knocked off the ballot before we could vote for them.
I think that one of the ironies of this whole period of activism is how much in front David Dinkins has been as a big figurehead. Police brutality was on the rise under Dinkins. We have a real problem with the Democratic leadership in this city and a real lack of accountability. And it’s very easy in a Democratic machine town for all this kind of energy to be channeled into what are ultimately ineffective candidates.
Barron: I try to stay as close to the leadership as I can–even though I get angry–and try to have some kind of influence. I’m not giving up on it. Separately, you keep building your organization. I keep building the Unity Party because there should be another movement that rivals what we have now, so we don’t feel that this is the only game in town and we have no choice.
Batson: What I like about this moment is that we’re approaching a skip in the electoral cycle [when term limits evict the mayor and City Council]. You can see the players lining up, like Mark Green, as close to the podium as they can get. Because of [politicians’ involvement] we’ve been able to take a Black Panther issue and pull it into the mainstream. The fact that rabbis are getting arrested over police brutality and not even calling it “misconduct” is incredible.
Ards: What happens next?
Barron: We use the term “movement” too loosely. Diallo does have movement potential, but we still have to work a lot of things out. There’ll be struggle on how to build a permanent alliance around these issues, and that means temporary coalitions that pop up after we have an emotional issue that people respond to.
Franklin: I think we have to be clear about defining systematic change. What is it that we’re calling for? Those 10 points were obviously not representative enough of all our feelings. Let’s talk about revamping them or adding new ones to the mix, so that people come in with their own. With Diallo, a lot of people who have some connection to an organization suddenly thought they were players. We need to make sure it’s not just the people who are in the media spotlight right now who sit down to talk. Other people who’ve had long history on the police brutality issue also need to be there.
Batson: When Newsday ran the list of names [of demonstrators arrested], I knew all these people. When I saw my name between [Assembly Member] Dick Gottfried and [Weather Underground leader] Bernadine Dohrn I said “Oh my God, it’s random, it’s sudden, it’s shaped by somebody else’s pen.” We’re only going to control just a certain x percent of this. The rest of it is out front and out of our control.
Our leadership is almost followship. Right now we’re following the masses that are out front of us. Even the Police Benevolent Association is out there. If you read letters to the editor you’ll find retired police chiefs saying that we in the law enforcement community know that we are building a police state, and we want to know how we can be taken off this job.
Kaplan: Politically, the things that are intimately linked to police brutality are our schools and our prison system. We’re dealing with a level of police harassment that’s affecting the self-image of young kids of color in the city–it’s horrifying. Our schools are now prisons, and a huge sector of certain neighborhoods are going to end up in prisons. That nexus of issues will pop up soon, I hope. Who’s leading the struggle to save our schools? It’s women. And once you start contending with that, you’re getting a different kind of leadership.