Pity the poor immigrant

The cast of characters in the Diallo trial -- from Rudy's NYPD to the Rev. Al Sharpton -- is priceless, so why does TV drag in Bernhard Goetz?

Topics: Paul Shirley,

You don’t see all that many African immigrants on television.
There isn’t much of a market for them in sitcoms, newsrooms or
weather reports, of course, though in police and medical dramas
you might find one now and then. (It’s hard for the actors to get
the accent right.) Most of the time, African immigrants are
pretty much invisible.

If you live in New York, however, you see them everywhere.
They’re driving your taxi, delivering your groceries, wiping your
baby’s cute little bottom. From the bodegas to the street
vendors, African immigrants are the suppliers for our various
needs. They are the latest wave in that immigrant tide most of
our ancestors rode in on.

Amadou Diallo has been on television a lot lately, thanks in
large part to Court TV, which is presenting the trial of the
policemen who killed him. It has been a year since he was shot to
death in the Bronx by members of the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit,
invariably referred to in the press as the “elite” Street Crimes
Unit. The unit’s motto was “We Own the Night” (and in Diallo’s
case they might have added: “You Pay for It”).

Such braggadocio may have contributed to Diallo’s killing last
February, though the four officers on trial — Kenneth Bass, Sean
Carroll, Richard Murphy and Edward McMellon — now maintain that
they did everything by the book. The four veteran officers — all
out of uniform — were on the lookout for a serial rapist when
they confronted Diallo in the doorway of his apartment building.
Did they identify themselves? Did he hear them? Was pulling out
his wallet (which one of the cops mistook for a gun) the best way
to respond?

Apparently not, since the officers reacted by firing
41 rounds at him. Diallo was struck by 19 bullets — 16 of those
shots passed through him and three were removed by the medical
examiner. In the year that followed there were a number of
protests in front of police headquarters in Manhattan, all
spearheaded by that man for all seasons, the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The protests were successful by media standards (arrested guests
included the actress Susan Sarandon and former New York Mayor
David Dinkins) — perhaps too much so. In response to a request
for a change-of-venue by the officers’ defense team (all four
were charged with second-degree murder), the trial was moved to
the state’s predominantly white capital, Albany.



Sharpton and company had a field day with this decision,
comparing it to the move of the Rodney King trial to Simi Valley, Calif.,
(and we all remember how that verdict went over). But
before the whole world could cry “Fix!”, a state supreme court
justice, Joseph C. Teresi, allowed Court TV access to the
proceedings, deflating Sharpton’s accusations that the
African-American (and African immigrant) community was being cut
out of the action. This move also cut Sharpton’s planned protests
in Albany off at the pass. Now all anyone interested in attending
the trial needed was a television set — and maybe a few cups of
coffee.

For if C-Span is democracy in action (the U.S. Congress seems to
function in something slower than real time), Court TV is the
legal system — live! The wheels of justice turn slowly and there
is no fast-forward. The folks at Court TV seem to have the same
philosophy of the officers on trial: Shoot first and ask
questions later.

Compared to O.J., which went on forever, the People vs. Bass is
flying by, with Teresi sustaining and overruling
objections right and left, and generally keeping the proceedings
on a short leash. (Call him anti-Ito.) He does not seem to be
playing favorites and the justice he has administered so far is
definitely of the double-edged variety. After ruling Monday that
an “ear witness,” Ida Vincent, could not testify that she heard
someone plotting what sounded like a coverup right after the
shooting, Teresi reversed himself after defense attorneys “opened
the door” by asking about other specifics. (“Defense Team
Blunders,” the Daily News shrieked afterwards.)

Reportage in general has focused on the pause three witnesses
reported in the fusillade. Defense attorneys preferred the word
“break” (a semantic distinction that is lost on me) but the real
question is that of length. While Vincent agreed with other ear
witnesses that it was several seconds (long enough, presumably,
to see if Diallo had a gun or was even moving), the pause –
sorry, break — Vincent illustrated by rapping out the shots on
the witness stand was less than one full second. More time might
have indicated that the officers meant to finish the immigrant
off.

Call it the pause that represses.

Tuesday’s proceedings centered around the testimony of Dr. Joseph
Cohen, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Diallo.
Cohen’s version of events was as close as the prosecution was
going to get to an eyewitness account and the defense was
duty-bound to jump all over it. Was the spine severed or
perforated? And how could Diallo have turned while falling if he
was essentially paralyzed?

“If a helicopter came in and lifted him up, that would explain
it,” a defense lawyer harangued. (The prosecution objected and
Teresi sustained.)

Granted, the police attorneys are in a tough place, even though
some members of the jury (eight white, four black) have law
enforcement experience. They can blame the system (the cops were
“trained not to wait for the glint of steel” one attorney said
in his opening remarks); and the job (they feared for their
lives); and try to put the killing in the best light possible. At
one point Tuesday, for example, one of the defense lawyers seemed to
be making a case for 9 mm full-metal-jacket bullets.
Hollow-points would not have passed through Diallo’s body with
the same ease, he argued, making the full-metal-jacket the kinder, gentler
ammo of the day.

And unseen by the folks at home is the victim’s now-famous
mother, Kadiatou Diallo. Her grace and composure, even in grief,
has been a P.R. nightmare for the NYPD. While adopted (some would
say appropriated) early on by Sharpton, her presence has had the
opposite effect of his. While Sharpton traditionally provokes,
Mrs. Diallo has called upon all concerned to do the
right thing. As she reminded the audience on Court TV’s “Pros and
Cons” last week, her son “was full of hope and belief in
America.” (She did not attend court Tuesday, due to the nature
of the evidence presented.)

For its part, Court TV’s presentation of the trial has been
straight-ahead and unfiltered, only occasionally using break-out
graphics to remind viewers what they’re watching and why. Anchor
Fred Graham adds a benign and, well, courtly presence –
especially compared to “Pros and Cons’” Nancy Grace, who seems to
be doing an impression of Ted Knight. While Grace may be
concerned about the staid nature of the hearings, her attempts to
sensationalize what is already a hot-tamale case are over the
top. Her vocal inflections don’t seem to have much to do with
what she is saying (“Believe it or not, I have not made up my
mind in this case”), and she squints and widens her eyes so often
that she appears to need new contact lenses.

By contrast, former CNN hand Catherine Crier is almost a voice of
reason and professionalism — though her choice of an
“exclusive” guest on her lunchtime program Tuesday provided one
of the coverage’s more bizarre moments. Bernhard Goetz may be an
expert in shooting unarmed black men, but what “The Subway
Vigilante” of 1984 has to do with this particular case is
anybody’s guess.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the legal system here,” Goetz
whined at one point, to which Crier countered, “It turned you
loose.”

The desire to sensationalize these solemn proceedings is perhaps
a natural one, though Court TV would be wise to resist it. The
testimony of a Mrs. Diallo says far more than any heated “debate”
between legal experts could, just as the ability to observe the
trial and its players enables us to draw our own conclusions.

Until the trial began last week, most New Yorkers had seen no
more of the four cops than a few seconds of tape of them walking
into police headquarters last year, looking rather lost. Sean
Carroll (who probably yelled “Gun!” when Diallo pulled his
wallet) seems the most stricken, staring intently at the
schematic drawings of the victim, refusing to touch the weapon he
fired.

On Tuesday, as Cohen held up Diallo’s shoe to show the jury
the placement of a particularly incriminating exit wound, the
humility of the victim’s life was brought home. It was a cheap
brown sneaker, probably a knockoff. It had been suggested by the
defense that the videos Diallo sold may have been pirated as well
– though that’s hardly a shooting crime, even in Giuliani’s New
York.

Before the people rested Tuesday afternoon, making way for the
officers’ testimony Wednesday, we got to hear about Bernie
Goetz’s new cause. “Be Kind to Animals” was the message on the
button he wore, and he bemoaned the fact that 25 million
squirrels are killed in the United States each year for target practice.

Not African immigrant squirrels, I trust.

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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