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News: After 41 Shots

Amadou Diallo's mother speaks out against police brutality

By Nichelle M. Bolden · March 17th, 2004 · News
Kadiatou Diallo says her son, like others killed by police, has been misrepresented.
Jymi Bolden

Kadiatou Diallo says her son, like others killed by police, has been misrepresented.

Kadiatou Diallo's son is famous in a way no mother would want. In 1999 the unarmed West African man was gunned down in a barrage of gunfire by four New York City police officers.

The story of the death of Amadou Diallo, memorialized in Bruce Springsteen's song "41 Shots," is of special significance to Cincinnati, according to Ahoo Tabatabai, program coordinator of diversity education at the University of Cincinnati (UC).

"Her son's name is synonymous with Roger Owensby, Timothy Thomas and now Nathaniel Jones," Tabatabai says.

Those names haven't entered the Rock lexicon, but their deaths -- unarmed men killed by Cincinnati Police officers -- have nonetheless attracted attention around the world. Addressing a crowd of about 150 students, faculty and activists March 11 at UC, Kadiatou Diallo said she knows about the similarities with her son's death.

"I have been watching in the news about Cincinnati, especially when Timothy Thomas was killed and the riots occurred," she said. "I grieved with his family and with the city. I have this experience in my lifetime. I saw the incident with Nathaniel Jones, as well."

Since her son's death Diallo has spoken across the country about police brutality, racism and racial profiling.

"It was so hard on me," she said.

"I just don't want his death to be in vain. I learned that there was so much that went on even before my son came here, with racial profiling and police brutality."

Diallo recently met with the family of a young African-American man who was shot by a police officer on a rooftop in Brooklyn in January. A culture of fear between police and minority communities around the country makes conditions ripe for incidents involving police misconduct, she said.

"There is fear between the black community, the Latino community and the police," Diallo said. "If you are afraid of the people that you are to protect, how can you do a good job?"

Discussing the need for community-oriented policing, she detailed a proposal in the New York state legislature -- the Diallo Bill. The proposal would repeal a rule that keeps police officers from being questioned within the first 48 hours of a shooting. It would also require officers to live in the communities they serve and allow special prosecutors to be appointed when officers are tried for misconduct.

"They cannot be the police, judge and executioner," Diallo said. "We have to find a way for them to do their jobs. This mentality needs to be changed. We don't want our children to be killed. We must break the blue code of silence."

She and Amadou's father, Saikou Diallo, founded the Amadou Diallo Educational, Humanitarian and Charity Foundation to further the causes that were central to their son's life and death. The foundation supports efforts to improve police-community relations and promote racial healing and awards college scholarships.

"(Amadou) always wanted to go to college, but now he isn't able to," his mother said.

The foundation's board consists of nationally renowned political, civil rights and educational leaders, including former New York Mayor David Dinkins; Norman Seigel, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Roscoe Brown, former president of Bronx Community College.

The foundation also aims to preserve the memory and identity of Amadou Diallo. Since his death, he has often been depicted as a poor, uneducated immigrant who barely spoke English and couldn't understand the commands that police allegedly shouted before shooting him.

Her son was none of those things, according to Kadiatou Diallo. Born in Liberia, he lived in and traveled to several countries across the globe. He spoke five different languages. He was a child of privilege. Often when police are involved in shooting a member of a racial minority, there is a rush to stereotype the victim, she said.

"If it isn't when they open the books to show that they have felonies, then it's something (else)," Diallo said. "That way the police can choose what light to have the victims portrayed in."

Instead of revenge, Diallo said she advocates a peaceful resolution that crosses racial, gender and religious lines. She encouraged the audience to use the discussion at UC as a starting point to facilitate change.

"You must come around in the name of peace," she said. "Use tonight as a foundation and push forward. Write a report and rally around the cause."

Dan LaBotz, a Miami University professor and member of Cincinnati Progressive Action, praised Diallo for emphasizing the need for collaboration among oppressed groups.

"I think she made two very important points," LaBotz said. "First, that she has not focused on the police officers that killed her son, and she is not interested in revenge -- she wants to see a change in the system. Second, that while African Americans suffer most from police racism, the problems can only be solved by a coalition of African American, Latino and white citizens and people of all faiths."

Tabatabai found the speech to be just right for a discussion of local issues of police conduct.

"She's such an amazing person," Tabatabai said. "She's such a pillar of strength. We realized that this needed to be the focus of discussion on campus." ©



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