Protesters meet stoic police as New York reacts to verdict

Mourners bring flowers, candles to Diallo's apartment in the Bronx

February 27, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Thousands took to the streets yesterday, chanting angrily, halting traffic and seeking the justice they felt had been denied a day earlier, when a jury exonerated four white police officers in the shooting death of an unarmed black man.

"It's outrageous. It's outrageous they didn't even get negligent homicide. It's outrageous that the police are so racist," said Cindi Katz, a City University of New York professor who joined the largest of several public protests organized to decry the verdicts in the death of Amadou Diallo.

Katz, like others who marched down Fifth Avenue through midtown Manhattan yesterday afternoon, held up her wallet in mockery of the officers' contention that they thought the black object in Diallo's hand that night about one year ago was a gun.

Despite dozens of arrests, the protest was largely nonviolent. Hundreds of police officers assigned to keep protesters on the sidewalks and off the streets largely succeeded, by dividing and conquering.

March broken up

What began as one mass of more than 2,500 people marching together was broken up into several less unified groups as the march turned west at 42nd Street toward Times Square.

Separated by thick blue lines of impassive, uniformed and helmeted officers, the protest started to peter out after a couple of hours even as some marchers continued downtown to City Hall.

Officers largely refused to react as protesters got in their faces to yell, `Murderer!" or "Shame, shame!" Some demonstrators carried signs saying "KKKops" or decrying the department as a "Death Squad."

The march attracted a diverse crowd -- old, young, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, one group that called itself "Queers Against Cops" and another "Jews Opposed to Police Brutality." Shoppers and tourists stepped aside to let the protesters pass, and, from the windows of the Plaza Hotel and upscale boutiques along the way, spectators watched the chaotic passing scene.

Some protesters held out hope that the U.S. Justice Department would step in and investigate whether Diallo's civil rights were violated by the officers. The family of Diallo, a 22-year-old from the West African country of Guinea, plans to file a civil suit.

The protesters vowed to keep the case alive, at least on the streets. Another march is planned today at the United Nations.

"This really shows that people are not going to be satisfied with injustice time after time after time," said John Shapely, a law student and one of the marchers. "Justice is only going to come from the people's involvement in the system."

Anger was just one of the emotions to erupt yesterday as the verdict, reached Friday afternoon, began to sink in.

Impromptu shrine

With tears, flowers and candles, people marked the vestibule of the home where Diallo, a quiet street vendor, lived and was gunned down. From around the corner, from Staten Island, from seemingly all parts of the city, people visited the impromptu shrine in the Soundview section of the Bronx.

On Feb. 4 last year, the four plainclothes officers, part of the elite and aggressive Street Crime Unit who were investigating a rape case, noticed the 22-year-old Diallo and, as they would later say, thought he might be a suspect. The officers said Diallo reached into his pocket and faced them with something in his right hand. They opened fire, shooting 41 times, only realizing after Diallo was dead that he was holding only a wallet, they said.

The case caused instant outrage. Protests, some led by the Rev. Al Sharpton or the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, erupted uptown and downtown to demand criminal charges against the officers. Police rallied to support their fellow officers. The officers were indicted for second-degree murder, and the trial was moved to Albany out of fear that the officers would not get a fair trial in the Bronx.

As dozens of wary-looking police officers hovered on the streets yesterday, protesters and mourners flocked to Diallo's Wheeler Street home. A couple of young men, in black leather and sunglasses on a cloudy day, passed out fliers for the New Black Panther Party. Another group arrived to call for the resignation of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, whom they blame for the failure to win a conviction in the killing.

But most visitors belonged to no organized group -- they were simply individuals. Some knelt to pray before the flowers and candles on the sidewalk, others silently dropped their offerings and left without speaking to anyone.

"I had to be here today. I couldn't sleep last night after the verdict came down," said Elaine Scott. "I hurt as a mother. It could have been one of my sons."

Angry and solemn

By turns angry and solemn, those gathered outside the brick rowhouse said the killing of Diallo shows how white officers treat minorities in their neighborhood.

"They never address you as `sir' or `ma'am.' It's just, `Put your effing hands up,' " Scott said, shaking her head. "That's how they talk to us."

"I ask myself this question: If it had been a white neighborhood and a young white man was cut down by four black cops, would they be going home now to their families?" said Robin Haynes, a paramedic who lives near Diallo's former apartment.

He answers his own questions: "Absolutely not."

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