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The Price of Safety in a Police State

April 11, 1999|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier." She is currently at work on a novel about Jerusalem

NEW YORK — The newest thing to talk about in New York is upholstery. Everyone is talking about the city buses. A few lucky passengers have had the sumptuous, almost European experience of sitting on actual upholstery on a New York City bus. OK, the upholstery is blue buzz-cut Astroturf, but, still, it is softer than molded plastic. A soft place to sit, and this, in the public sector. New Yorkers look at the radiant blue seats in astonishment. More evidence of the Giuliani miracle. Ain't it grand?

But is a soft blue seat worth the life of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant killed by New York City police officers two months ago? He's under the ground in Africa, and the passengers on the Broadway 104 bus are sitting pretty.

There is a connection. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's miracle has been about making the city safe and pleasant for white affluent people and visitors, and the way he saw fit to do that was to make it less safe for poorer African-Americans. His assumption has been that the African-American community was responsible for all New York's woes in the late 1980s. If you could get rid of them, or keep them in their place, all would be well.

Giuliani's policies are reminiscent of the great sweeps Haiti's Francois Duvalier used to initiate in Port-au-Prince, the capital. If a foreign delegation was coming, or a cruise ship, Papa Doc would round up all the beggars and cripples and bulldoze a slum or two, and throw half the people into his stinking jails and send the rest out to the country. For a week or two, he would make Port-au-Prince attractive and appealing, picturesque.

All Third World dictators are familiar with this kind of quick-fix urban beautification. If he had had them, Papa Doc would have gotten rid of his squeegee men, too.

It is no accident that the two men at the center of the current New York racial crisis are of African descent, but not African-Americans. Diallo and Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant brutalized by police in a Brooklyn station house restroom, were not the first black people attacked by New York's police, but they were clearly blameless from the get go. They had never been jailed, never arrested and had no police record. They weren't even from this country. They never owned a gun and were unarmed when the police came upon them. They couldn't be accused of bucking the U.S. system, or rebelling against it, or rejecting it: They came here because they were attracted by what America offers. It is the sheer purity of their cases that makes them so easy to organize around.

Africans and Haitians are stunned to be at the center of the American racial maelstrom. At first, they thought the story was about what it is like to be a dark-skinned immigrant in the United States. But no. Not having lived much in white-run countries, they hadn't internalized what it meant to be treated as inferiors or second class; they hadn't thought much about victim status. "If the police knew Diallo was African, not African American, they never would have bothered shooting him," a Ghanian immigrant said in the days after Diallo's killing. "The police here are trained to expect something from African Americans. When they see black skin, that's what they are thinking."

Police attitudes toward black Americans have helped create a split between black-skinned immigrants of Caribbean and African origins and African Americans, because once immigrants see how African Americans are treated by the police, they try to distance themselves from African Americans and the African American experience. The protests surrounding the Diallo and Louima cases have helped to heal that split.

Never before has New York--a city famous for its backslapping politicians--seen a mayor so insensitive to its people. Yes, every mayor has managed, more or less, to ignore the needs of the city's black community (with the arguable exception of David N. Dinkins), but Giuliani's lack of sympathy in the wake of Diallo's death was astounding. He's a police booster, a reflexive lover of authority, who loves anything in uniform--even if the uniform is plainclothes, like his infamous Street Crime Unit, four of whose officers were indicted in the Diallo killing.

In the weeks after the killing, the mayor seemed to be trying to turn himself into a cookie-cutter Republican, hoping his tough-minded reaction would absolve him in Republican eyes of his support for Democrat Mario M. Cuomo in the last gubernatorial race, won by a Republican. He wants his new GOP standing to put him in a nice place from which to begin his campaign swing for Senate in New York's conservative upstate.

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