I wanted to talk about Amadou Diallo because, unlike others represented in “Seven Last Words...”, I didn’t know, or remember, anything about his killing. And because his last recorded utterance – “Mom, I’m going to college,” made me want to know more about his backstory.
As I looked into Amadou Diallo’s killing I was surprised by my memory lapse because back in February of 1999 and for the ensuing year, it was a major cause celebre in New York City and beyond.
Here are the facts:
Amadou Diallo emigrated to New York from the Republic of Guinea in West Africa in 1996. He was born in Liberia, the eldest of four children of relatively prosperous parents. He grew up in Liberia, Guinea, neighboring Togo and Thailand. He attended the International School in Bangkok and the Informatics Computer School in Singapore. He spoke five languages – Fulani (the native language of Guinea), English, French, Spanish and Thai. His goal was to get a college degree in computer science.
When he emigrated from Guinea to New York he left behind a note for his mother that said: “The solution is U.S.A. Don’t leave my brothers and sisters here.” He loved Bruce Springsteen because, Amadou’s mother said, he represented the dreams of ordinary people. He’d play “Born in the USA” over and over. In one painful irony, Springsteen would later write a song about Amadou’s death called “American Skin (41 shots).” It includes the lyrics: “It ain’t no secret/No secret my friend/You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
In New York Diallo refused help from his parents and supported himself as a sidewalk vendor, selling video cassettes, gloves and tube socks. Shortly after midnight on February 4, 1999, he was sitting on the steps of his apartment building in the Bronx when four plainclothes officers of NYPD’s elite Street Crime Unit approached him. Later they would say they thought he was a suspect in a series of neighborhood rapes, but subsequently suggested they had identified him as a mugger or drug dealer. They shouted at him to raise his hands. Diallo reportedly reached into his pocket for his wallet. The lead officer yelled “He’s got a gun!” Suddenly Diallo was gunned down in a hail of bullets – 41 rounds in all, some allegedly fired after he went down. Nineteen bullets hit him, piercing his aorta, spine, lungs and other organs. He died on the spot. Officers found no gun on his body, only a black wallet and a shattered pager. Amadou Diallo was 23 years old.
The killing touched off a firestorm in a city already on edge over issues of policing. It was a time when Mayor Rudy Giuliani had launched a get-tough-on-crime campaign that included the controversial stop-and-frisk policy that gave rise to charges of racial profiling. Less than two years earlier, there’d been public outrage and months of media coverage, over a case I do remember – that of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant whom police beat, strip-searched, handcuffed and brutally raped with a broomstick.
Diallo’s killing touched off another firestorm of controversy and months-long media coverage, culminating in the indictment of the four involved police officers on charges of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. They were acquitted of all charges. Amadou’s parents subsequently won a $3 million settlement against the city of New York.
Amadou’s mother, Kadiatou Diallo, became a major figure in the protests the followed his death. She arrived in New York five days afterward and was taken in tow by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who realized how galvanizing she could be in the ongoing campaign against police brutality. For a time she appeared with Sharpton at rallies and press conferences around the nation. But she became uncomfortable with her symbolic role and split with Sharpton over a disagreement about who would represent the Diallos in a lawsuit against the city and the officers. “I didn’t even know about race issues,” she told the New York Times in a 10-year anniversary interview in 2019. “Everything was happening so quickly….I came back to my senses (after) the anger and agony were gone.”
But Mrs. Diallo didn’t retire from what would become a decades-long effort to “promote racial healing and build strong community support in guiding students’ pathways to success.” That’s from the mission statement of the Amadou Diallo Foundation, which she established with the settlement money.
She rejects cynicism and bitterness over Amadou’s killing. “I stay the course and I do what I can without bashing the police, without being revengeful,” she told the Times. She still lives in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, but goes to New York annually to administer the foundation. The foundation built a school in Amadou’s name and awards scholarships to immigrant and African-American students pursuing computer science careers. After the asphyxiation of Eric Garner during an NYPD policeman’s chokehold in 2014, Mrs. Diallo became close to Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, with whom she talks frequently.
Finally, about Amadou Diallo’s last known utterance: Hours before he was killed, he called his mother in Guinea to report that he’d saved $9,000 and would fulfill his dream of going to college. His mother recalled his excitement when he said, “Mom, I’m going to college!” She acquired a trademark on those words and uses the phrase in her foundation work.
Richard Knox is a writer and a Master Chorale baritone who lives in Sandwich, NH.
Sunday, June 19th 2022 4:00 PM
609 Main Street
Tickets are free for undergraduates and students in grades K through 12
$27 for seniors
$32 for general admission
Follow the link below to get your tickets.
https://www.city-journal.org/html/diallo-truth-diallo-falsehood-12011.html (right-wing publication)
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/nyregion/amadou-diallo-mother-eric-garner.html?searchResultPosition=1 10th-anniversary interview with Kadiatou Diallo