I can see it now. Some enterprising–some would say overly ambitious–comedians attempt to capitalize on the recent 4AM police barrage against departing customers of a strip club, which, at the end, resulted in 50 NYPD-issued bullets fired, instant community uproar, a mayoral press conference, and distressingly familiar recriminations of racism and injustice. The joke, perhaps, would go something like this: Sean Bell, he’s no Amadou Diallo, but he’ll do.
But wait. Some so-called “civil rights leaders” beat them to the punch–in action, not words.
Soon after the tragic death of Mr. Diallo, fond remembrances of a life defined by curiosity, hard-work, and an ever-present smile, poured forth. Mr. Diallo, a devout Muslim immigrant from Guinea, worked 12-hour days as a street vendor so he could achieve his dream of living life in America, having left behind a relatively comfortable upbringing abroad as the son of an art merchant. Meanwhile, Mr. Bell’s wife-to-be appears on Larry King Live and professes her faith in the very system that, as the police commissioner recently and so-eloquently put it, “snuffed out” the life of her husband-to-be.
No question, it is always a dicey proposition delving into, or even touching upon, the unsavory side of a recently departed. After all, a life is a life, no matter how many ways you choose to pigeonhole it into moral cubbyholes. Admittedly, I wondered myself whether Mr. Diallo, whose death generated as much, if not more, outrage among minorities, would have been caught coming out of a strip club at 4 o’clock in the morning, on a day when he was to become a husband, and also bestow, in an official capacity at least, the fruits of fatherhood upon two infants. (Despite not having known Mr. Diallo, the conclusion was an unsurprising no.) However, rather than blindly marshal Mr. Bell’s death, and the questionable circumstances surrounding it, as this year’s cause celebre for the civil rights movement, the more critical task, if any real bridging of the color gap is to be achieved, should be examining why, year-after-year, mayor-after-mayor, another brutal “us-versus-them” tragedy is woven into our increasingly tattered social fabric. It’s perhaps easier to pound the table, point the finger at “them,” and demand answers. But when it’s harder to have the police commissioner open his mouth for an expression of sorrow and regret than for a root canal, one must wonder whether any answers from “them” will be worth the paper they’ll be printed on. The question that we, as a community–one defined by values and morals rather than by race and geography–must ask ourselves, is what needs to be done to end what we commonly call “the cycle of violence,” but can be more aptly described as the cycle of ignorance, which, it must be conceded, plagues “us” as much as it does “them.”
To be sure, stopping the police from shooting their way onto another front-page news story is a relatively easy task. James Baldwin, the celebrated novelist and activist, offered at least a partial answer when he suggested the way to improve relations between the police and the black community was to “educate them”–“them” being the police, of course. To Mr. Baldwin, deadly, race-infused episodes like the 50-shot barrage against an apparently unarmed black man caught “in what [the police] consider to be a strange place,” is the product “of the cultivation in this country of ignorance.” Policemen, in Mr. Baldwin’s view, are nothing but “hopelessly ignorant and terribly frightened.” That was 38 years ago, however. One can argue that the culture and bureaucracy of New York’s Finest has hardened to the point where any police-oriented solution, even one as apparent and rational as Mr. Baldwin’s, has now become a purely academic proposition.
It then appears up to the community, or, in founding father vernacular, “the people,” to forge ahead with a solution. Acts of civil disobedience, such as the recently suggested boycotting of “white businesses” by the New Black Panther Party, besides generating fodder for the evening news, is a generally ineffective tactic for promoting change. Unlike in Mr. Baldwin’s time–the heyday of the civil rights movement any business which today may be described as “white” is perhaps so entrenched in the system financially and politically that boycotting it would, in force and effect, be like refusing to pay taxes because one disagrees with the government’s policies–appealing idea, not-so-appealing results.
Nor is it viable to seek relief from lawmakers, or even the courts for that matter. Putting aside the fact that both institutions tend to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to shaping a society upon progressive values (for this, the judiciary should not be faulted as much since it is, by nature, a forum for conflict resolution rather than one for debate and political rhetoric, although some may disagree), any measure that has a realistic chance of seeing the light of day will, to maintain a semblance of order, necessarily be watered down and of little practical significance for a multi-generation undertaking that, not so coincidentally, has time and again been stymied by these very same organs of the republic.
As bleak as things appear to be, there is a way out. It begins not in the halls of a government building but in the living room of a home. It requires not chest-thumping and finger-pointing but self-examination and self-sacrifice.
When recording companies peddle music to seven-year olds with lyrics of “smack that, all on the floor,” we have to say enough. (Smack That (Dirty) by Akon: #8 on iTunes Top Songs list as of December 16, 2006.)
When schools are temples of stratification and violence rather than education and camaraderie, we have to say enough. (From a December 9th Daily News story: “A 16-year-old boy was charged with murder yesterday in the wild Union Square melee that left a Brooklyn high school student dead.”)
When a doctor-turned-investment banker rationalizes his more lucrative career change by suggesting that “it has to be easier than the chance of becoming a Nobel Prize winner,” we have to say enough. (“Very Rich Are Leaving The Merely Rich Behind,” New York Times, November 27, 2006.)
When the government tries to export “democracy” abroad but fails to appreciate its own un-democratic policies here, we have to say enough. (“Civil Rights Hiring Shifted In Bush Era: Conservative Leanings Stressed,” Boston Globe, July 23, 2006; “Civil Rights Focus Shift Roils Staff at Justice: Veterans Exit Division as Traditional Cases Decline,” Washington Post, November 13, 2005.) The list continues, but the cycle need not.
As much as the police had a hand in Sean Bell’s death, we have only ourselves to blame when, because of our self-delusional belief that all is well with us not them, a similar fate befalls another hapless member of our community.
ALBERT WAN, a lifelong New York, is a lawyer currently clerking for a federal judge. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org