Twenty-three-year-old Amadou Diallo died in a hail of police bullets on Feb.4, 1999, but not only did his death spur a new leg of the local civil rights quest, the symbol of Diallo’s innocent blood spilled was used to create scholarships–renewable gifts–for students striving to make the best of themselves and contribute to society.
“We’re here to mark the 10th anniversary of my son’s passing with a few words to reflect on it and by moving forward with the Amadou Diallo Foundation,” said Kadiatou Diallo at the beginning of the press conference at the Bronx Community College on February 5.
It was almost like a family reunion, with a series of Ooh-remember-when-we’s breaking up sentences as warm reflections glowed on the faces of former Mayor David N. Dinkins, Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amadou Diallo, Rev.Al Sharpton, Rev. Herbert Daughtry and Assemblyman Reuben Diaz Jr.
What could have been a painful remembrance instead turned into a teaching moment of upliftment, inspiration and motivation.
The young Bronx Assemblyman Reuben Diaz recalled the “marching, tears and the prayer vigils.” He told Mrs. Diallo, once a mother of four, “You cradled the community as if we were all your children.”
To say Madam Diallo was stoic would belie her passion, determination and conviction of keeping her son’s memory alive through financially assisting and verbally encouraging young people to achieve through education.
Kadiatou’s eldest son was hit 19 times by four white NYPD cops, who aimed 41 bullets at him. They were to later claim he “fit the description” of a suspect their Street Crimes Unit was looking for. Actually, the street vendor had just been returning home and was standing in his own doorway in the Soundview section of the Bronx, when Kenneth Boss Edward McMellon, Richard Murphy and Sean Carroll fired their weapons at him. Rev. Daughtry reflected on what he called “the death chamber in his own vestibule.”
Despite the massive civil disobedience, citywide protests and international attention, the second-degree murder charge and the evidence, the four cops were eventually acquitted in the controversial case, which had been moved to Albany. Then-acting Attorney General Eric Holder at the Justice Department refused to pursue federal civil rights charges against the four officers. Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy became city firefighters.
Kenneth Boss remains on desk duty with the NYPD and is scheduled to return to Iraq for a second tour with his Marine reserve unit. Sean Carroll retired in 2005 and now works in an administrative position at Floyd Bennett Field. Rev. Daughtry called Diallo’s death “another in a series of police killings.” As he went down the list, mentioning Eleanor Bumpers and Louis Baez, he said that born of the city’s collective pain and memory came “the decision to do a South African series of demonstrations” at One Police Plaza. Sharpton surmised: “For 1,200 people, for over 13 days, to just come by the hundreds and submit nonviolently to jail hadn’t happened anywhere in this country since the ’60s.And that amount of people going to jail in a day had not happened in the ’60s. It was unprecedented to see former mayors, members of Congress and Academy Award-winners like Susan Sarandon going to jail with housewives and regular people every day.”
Dinkins said that some people asked if it “was dignified for a former mayor to be arrested.” But he said jurisprudence made it a no-brainer. The city was caught up with a passionate outrage that birthed an organic movement demanding change in policing, which eventually led to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly terminating the Street Crimes Unit. And, as Sharpton pointed out, while the family may not have won the case, cops involved in such cases can no longer take it for granted that they would not be arrested, prosecuted or convicted, he said. He talked about an effective and sustained movement that came out of the people’s response to Diallo’s killing.
The reverend also noted that when Mrs. Diallo arrived in New York, Mayor Giuliani’s administration kicked the P.R. machine into high velocity, placing her family in a top hotel on Fifth Avenue, but on the urging of a community too familiar with police brutality cases and that particular mayor’s regular response to it, she “left that hotel and she has become a hero and a symbol of the movement ever since…and she came back to give comfort to others, including the family of Sean Bell.” Sharpton said, “She never got involved in politics. She always said she wanted no violence, no misbehaving. This city and this nation owes a lot to Madame Kadiatou.” Sharpton praised her “responsible leadership,” and noted other cities like Oakland, Calif., which saw days of urban rebellion in the wake of the police killing of Oscar Grant last New Year’s Day.
“Any one of us could be Amadou Diallo,” said Diaz. “The Bronx was vilified.” The 43rd Precinct was “the wild, wild west.”
Diaz remarked how the outlook had seemingly changed. “We felt we couldn’t walk down the street with a wallet in our pocket, let alone be president of the United States.” Meanwhile, the Diallos are in limbo in terms of their status. Here on an extended tourist visa, her green card pending, Kadiatou Diallo is unable to travel to visit her son’s burial site or even the computer lab she is building in Amadou’s name. She is requesting that members of the community contact their congressperson to speed up the vote on legislation proposed by Cong. Charlie Rangel to give the family status here, which will enable them to travel back and forth.
On Thursday, tribute was paid to Mrs. Diallo’s efforts to memorialize her son by bestowing Amadou Diallo Fund $1,000 scholarships on five Bronx Community College students. Dinkins continues to serve as chairman of the Amadou Diallo Foundation established by Kadiatou Diallo “to diminish racial conflict and foster greater respect for differences among people.”
The former mayor continued that work in February 2005 when the foundation created the Amadou Diallo Scholarships “to help bring the dream of an American college education into closer reach for students of African descent throughout the Diaspora. “The Diallo scholars have an obligation to carry forth the message of the Diallo Foundation, and we need them to know that we are invested in them,” said Mayor David Dinkins. “Ours is an investment that has no price, but it has great value. It comes to them from over the generations and across national borders and is not to be misspent.”