February 27, 2000

When Doing Wrong Isn't Wrongdoing


Would a Bronx jury have come to a different decision? More than likely. The Bronx population is largely black and Hispanic. Albany County, 160 miles north of New York City, is predominantly white. Race may not automatically determine destiny, but it comes awfully close in this country. The trial was moved to Albany by a panel of appellate judges who ruled that an avalanche of publicity, including mass demonstrations and the arrests of celebrities and leading political figures, had rendered a fair hearing impossible in the Bronx.

But while an acquittal was made more probable by the shift to Albany, it was not necessarily assured, though critics are bound to disagree. The dissenters can be expected to compare the Diallo affair with other notorious trials in which juries freed whites who killed blacks.

But absent evidence of intellectual or moral bankruptcy on the part of the jurors, there is no reason to reflexively evoke memories of Simi Valley, Calif., let alone Neshoba County, Miss., in the dark days of civil rights murders.

And yet.

And yet it was hard for many New Yorkers to shake the sense that this had all come out wrong. Aren't Americans taught from childhood that actions have consequences?

Yet the only one who bore the consequences in this dreadful affair was Amadou Diallo, who did nothing wrong, except maybe make the fatal error of pulling out a wallet the officers said they mistook for a gun.

Blacks were especially angry, nowhere more so than in the Soundview section of the Bronx where Diallo lived. Some people held black wallets aloft and mockingly cried, "Gun!" On the tense streets, it was hard to gainsay those who muttered that a wallet has a way of looking like nothing more than a wallet when held by a white man but somehow morphs into a gun in the hands of a black man.

And the judge's observation notwithstanding, the book is not at all closed, even in the courts.

The Diallo family will surely pursue civil charges. President Clinton's Justice Department is thinking about whether to intervene, a decision that may well become entangled in the Senate race between Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton. If nothing else, the officers' jobs are on the line.

The Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, can count on being subjected to his share of post-mortems, starting with his decision to charge the four officers with second-degree murder, a charge that even many of the New York Police Department's most severe critics thought from the start was unsustainable.

Nor is the Police Department off the hook.

For many New Yorkers, the central question was not the actions of these four officers. It was whether the hard-nosed and largely successful anti-crime strategies championed by Giuliani, which included the stopping and frisking of thousands upon thousands of black men on the street, had imbued officers with such a sense of entitlement and aggression that something like the Diallo killing was a disaster waiting to happen.

It did.

Copyright 2000
The New York Times Company