I’ve had this clenched feeling in my stomach for the last three weeks, something between a burn and gnawing hunger. Today, when the four white police officers, all members of New York’s Street Crime Unit, were acquitted of all charges in the February 1999 murder of 22-year-old unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo — whose crime was having the temerity to leave his house and go get something to eat — I realized what the feeling was. It was the same old same old African-American clench of apprehension in America, same day, different corpse, and the beating goes on.
I wish I could say that I’m surprised by the verdict, but I’m not. The history of abuse and brutalization of black people by police and other law enforcement authorities is as old as the United States, and includes lynchings, beatings, burnings and shootings. What I am is $10 richer. I bet my mother they’d walk completely, and she bet they’d be convicted of the least possible charge and get probation. Good old Mom. At 81 she’s still clinging to a shred of optimism and popping Tums to ease that clenched feeling.
Me, I’m 10 bucks richer and eons more cynical, having sat in this very seat in Harlem for more than 20 years and heard the same verdict in the police killings of Clifford Glover, Randolph Evans, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble, LaTanya Haggarty, the list goes on and spreads across America.
And you know, I used to cry, rant, rave, get fucked up to try and ease the pain. But besides scarfing down a few candy bars, I’m cool, or constantly hot, so it seems normal. I’ve gotten used to dealing with the everyday indignity of being either invisible or threatening, feeling that twinge when I see the police or that clenching when the men I love are late; slowing down when I see the cops hassling kids on the street, just waiting for the next Amadou Diallo or Kevin Cedeno or Anthony Baez or … fill in the blanks.
Just in case you thought it just “seemed” like police have an eternal open season on black males, it’s time to drop the “seem” and dig the bottom line. Amadou Diallo was in the vestibule of the building where he lived and was shot at 41 times by four cops. His crime? He was there, black, and male. Around these parts, that adds up to suspicious behavior and apparently, according to today’s verdict, reasonable cause to kill. And if you found yourself swayed by the defense line that the whole thing was both justified and a tragic mistake — he didn’t respond when the cops talked to him; he reached into his jacket pocket; the wallet he pulled out looked like the barrel of a gun — just close your eyes and imagine that the figure in that vestibule in the Bronx was white. Then try to imagine the same outcome.
Neither can I.
No doubt some were moved to sympathy when the officers testified and cried on the stand. Sadly, people of my race — we of the clenched stomachs — are prone to believe those cops’ tears weren’t remorse, but apprehension at the thought of what would happen to them if the system really messed up and they went to jail. The most frightening thing is I don’t have any problem imagining officers Boss, Murphy, McMellon and Carroll strapped down and back on those mean streets, 9 millimeters polished to a burnished gleam and appropriately notched, dicks swinging with a new authority, committed to making the world safer from their own nightmares, sanctioned by the so-called justice system to enforce the law — with apologies to Malcolm — by any means necessary.
Saturday at 6 p.m. there will be a demonstration on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue and I will go, not hopefully, but to bear witness to my outrage, disgust and sadness, to gather strength where I may, surrounded by others who feel abused as I do. There will likely be many people there, for as many different reasons, and perhaps what we will share is our anger and a painful hunger for equal justice, even though most of us have no idea, find it difficult to imagine, exactly how that would work. But I’m speculating. What I know for sure is that many of us will share that clenched feeling in our gut — one that apparently will never go away.