The shine of his belt buckle, the color of his keys, the reflection from his wristwatch, but his wallet? One year ago, Amadou Diallo lost his life to 19 bullets from New York’s finest because of his wallet. Twenty-five years ago, my wallet saved my life.
I was in college but the incident still burns bright in my memory. I was walking across Harvard Yard and noticed the unfamiliar blue lights of a Cambridge police car. As I approached my destination, the car drew closer. In my innocent mind I began to think, “I wonder what’s going on in Grays Hall?” Suddenly the car stopped and the two officers jumped out. One crouched behind the car door; the other approached me slowly with hand on gun. And then I knew, it wasn’t inside Grays Hall, the problem was outside Grays Hall and it was me.
I wonder now, if I had ignored the flashing lights (after all I knew they weren’t meant for me) and reached for the door, would those have been my last steps?
I cannot help thinking, What was on Amadou Diallo’s innocent mind? What did he think as the unmarked car disgorged its mysterious cargo and as the men in plainclothes rushed up the block? Did he even know they were coming to his door? He did not realize in time that it was him. He was the danger. Maybe he reached for his wallet for the identification that was being demanded. But they thought, mistakenly, tragically, that he was a criminal and his wallet was a gun.
In the incident involving me, the Cambridge police warned me to take my hands out of my pockets, slowly. I complied. They asked me for I.D. I complied. I showed them my Harvard student card. They relaxed. I lived. I demanded to know why I had been stopped. They said someone had been mugged in the subway and I fit the description, a black man in a white coat. I fit the profile.
The verdict of not guilty for the New York police officers accused of murdering Diallo did not surprise me. I just had heard a lecture on the law regarding use of deadly force from Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks. The law states that if an officer believes that lethal danger is imminent, the officer may use deadly force. Even if the officer is mistaken, even if the danger is accelerated because the officer trips and falls [as police claim in the shooting death of a homeless woman, Margaret Mitchell, in Los Angeles], the officer is within the law to use deadly force.
The real tragedy of the verdict is not that it was wrong, but that it was right. The travesty is that it was legal to kill Diallo, that it was legal to kill Mitchell, and that if I had opened that door or pulled my hands out too quickly it would have been legal to kill me too.
The scary part of racial profiling is that in addition to the fact of there being a crime committed, a suspect at large and the perception of a gun, complexion is an element of the danger. Blackness is considered a risk factor. But why is this not so with whiteness? My question about racial profiling is: How do they ever catch any white criminals? There ought to be a law.
The protests in New York are misplaced. They protest because the killing of Diallo was wrong. They should protest because it was “right.” They should protest because it was legal. Because if it had been wrong, we could hope that it might not happen again. But because it was “right,” because it was legal, we can start counting the days until the next Amadou Diallo.