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Amadou Diallo
Amadou Diallo

The shooting of Amadou Diallo occurred on February 4, 1999, when Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was shot and killed by four New York City Police Department plain-clothed officers—Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon and Kenneth Boss—after they mistook him for a rape suspect from one year earlier. The officers fired a combined total of 41 shots, 19 of which struck Diallo, outside his apartment at 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Soundview section of The Bronx. The four were part of the now-defunct Street Crimes Unit. All four officers were charged with second-degree murder and acquitted at trial in Albany, New York.[1]

Diallo was unarmed, and a firestorm of controversy erupted subsequent to the event as the circumstances of the shooting prompted outrage both within and outside New York City. Issues such as police brutality, racial profiling, and contagious shooting were central to the ensuing controversy.

Early life and career

One of four children of Saikou and Kadijatou Diallo, Amadou's family is part of an old Fulbe trading family in Guinea. He was born in Sinoe County, Liberia, on September 2, 1975[2] while his father was working there, and grew up following his family to Togo, Bangkok and Singapore, attending schools in Thailand, and later in Guinea. In September 1996, he came to New York City where other family members had immigrated. He and a cousin started a business. According to his family's lawyer, Kyle B. Watters, he sought to remain in the United States by filing an application for political asylum under false pretenses, saying that he was from Mauritania and that his parents had been killed in fighting to buttress his claim that he had credible fear of going back to his country.[3] He worked as a street peddler, selling video cassettes, gloves and socks from the sidewalk along 14th Street during the day.[4]

Events surrounding death

In the early morning of February 4, 1999, Diallo was standing near his building after returning from a meal. At about 12:40 a.m., police officers Edward McMellon, Sean Carroll, Kenneth Boss and Richard Murphy, who were all in street clothes, passed by in a Ford Taurus. Caroll later testified that Diallo matched the general description of a serial rapist who had struck a year earlier, or that he might have been a "lookout".[5][6][7]

The officers testified that they loudly identified themselves as NYPD officers, but a witness, Schrrie Elliott, testified that they started shooting without any warnings.[6] Diallo ran up the outside steps toward his apartment house doorway at their approach, ignoring their orders to stop and "show his hands". The porch lightbulb was out and Diallo was backlit by the inside vestibule light, showing only a silhouette. Diallo then reached into his jacket and withdrew his wallet. Seeing the man holding a small square object, Carroll yelled "Gun!" to alert his colleagues. The officers opened fire on Diallo, claiming that they believed he was holding a gun. During the shooting, lead officer McMellon tripped backward off the front stairs, causing the other officers to believe he had been shot. The four officers fired 41 shots[8] with semi-automatic weapons,[9] more than half of which went astray as Diallo was hit 19 times.[1][10]

The post-shooting investigation found no weapons on Diallo's body; the item he had pulled out of his jacket was not a gun, but a rectangular black wallet. The internal NYPD investigation ruled the officers had acted within policy, based on what a reasonable police officer would have done in the same circumstances with the information they had. The Diallo shooting led to a review of police training policy and the use of full metal jacket (FMJ) bullets. On March 25, 1999, a Bronx grand jury indicted the four officers on charges of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. All four officers' bail were set at $100,000.[11] On December 16, an appellate court ordered a change of venue to Albany, New York, stating that pretrial publicity had made a fair trial in New York City impossible. On February 25, 2000, after two days of deliberation, a jury in Albany acquitted the officers of all charges. Officer Kenneth Boss had been previously involved in an incident where an unarmed black man was shot: 22-year-old Patrick Bailey died after Boss shot him on October 31, 1997.[12] As of 2012, Boss is the only remaining officer working for the NYPD. After his acquittal, Boss was disarmed and reassigned to desk duty. In October 2012, Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly restored Boss' ability to carry a firearm against the protests of Diallo's family.[13] On December 17, 2015, Kenneth Boss received a promotion to the rank of sergeant despite objections from the victim's mother and civil rights activists. Boss was promoted in accordance to police policy, which is not subject to review by top department officials.[14]


On April 18, 2000, Diallo's mother, Kadijatou, and his father Saikou Diallo, filed a US$61,000,000 ($20m plus $1m for each shot fired) lawsuit against the city and the officers, charging gross negligence, wrongful death, racial profiling, and other violations of Diallo's civil rights. In March 2004, they accepted a US$3,000,000 settlement. The much lower final settlement was still reportedly one of the largest in the City of New York for a single man with no dependents under New York State's "wrongful death law", which limits damages to pecuniary loss by the deceased person's next of kin.[15]

Anthony H. Gair, lead counsel for the Diallo family, argued that Federal common law should apply, pursuant to Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. In April 2002, as a result of the killing of Diallo and other controversial actions, the Street Crime Unit was disbanded. In 2003, Diallo's mother, Kadiatou Diallo, published a memoir, My Heart Will Cross This Ocean: My Story, My Son, Amadou (ISBN 0-345-45600-9), with the help of author Craig Wolff. Diallo's death became an issue in the 2005 mayoral election in New York City. Bronx borough president and mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer, who had protested the circumstances of the killing at the time, later told a meeting of police sergeants that although the shooting had certainly been a tragedy, there was subsequently a move to "over-indict" the officers involved, which led to criticism of Ferrer by the Diallo family and many others following the case.[16]

The event spurred subsequent social psychology research. A number of experiments have been conducted with both undergraduate volunteers and police officers playing a computer game where they must choose whether to shoot or not to shoot a target who may be white or black, on the basis of whether or not they are armed. Such studies find that participants made slower and less accurate decisions on whether to shoot an unarmed black target than an unarmed white target, and were quicker and more likely to correctly decide to shoot an armed black target than an armed white target. The authors of one study wrote that the shooting studies "provide powerful evidence that racial stereotypes create associations and expectations that play a role in the sort of split-second decisions that may literally be a matter of life or death." However, no correlations have been found between participants' indicated levels of racial bias, and their performance in the games.[17]

On March 13, 2015, Capital New York and other news organizations reported that 50 of the 15,000 IP addresses belonging to the NYPD were associated with edits, dating back to 2006, to English Wikipedia articles, including this article on the Amadou Diallo shooting. These IP addresses geolocate to NYPD headquarters at 1 Police Plaza. Detective Cheryl Crispin, a NYPD spokeswoman, said that "the matter is under internal review."[18][19][20][21]

Amadou Diallo is buried in the village of Hollande Bourou in the Fouta Djallon region of Guinea, West Africa, where his extended family resides.[22][23]

Cultural references to Diallo

Malcolm Gladwell devotes the sixth chapter of his best-selling book Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking to the Amadou Diallo shooting. Gladwell spent more than a year interviewing cognitive psychologists trying to understand the psychology of a police officer's instant response to an object in an innocent black person's hand might differ from his/her response to an object in a white person's hand.

The Diallo shooting has been referenced in the music of rapper 88-Keys;[24] Bruce Springsteen's song "American Skin (41 Shots)";[25] the Ziggy Marley song "I Know You Don't Care About Me"; the Trivium song "Contempt Breeds Contamination"; The Spooks song "Things I've Seen"; the song "What Would You Do?" by Paris; the Blitz the Ambassador song "Uhuru"; Dead Prez and Static-X's remake of dead prez's song "Hip Hop" on the album Loud Rocks; "Feb. 4 '99 (For All Those Killed By Cops)" by Mike Ladd; the song "Diallo" by Wyclef Jean;[26] and the song "Lament for the Late AD" by Terry Callier.[27] Lauryn Hill's song "I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel)" on her album MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 was a response to Diallo's killing. Robotrash mentions Diallo on their track "Just Talkin' to My Mirror". The Public Enemy album There's a Poison Goin' On features a song titled "41:19" based on the number of rounds fired at and striking Diallo and contains lyrics concerning police harassment and violence. Pharoahe Monch's cover of the Public Enemy song "Welcome to the Terrordome" includes a reference to Diallo as well as to Sean Bell and Timothy Stansbury in the introduction. Diallo's shooting is also referenced in the song "W.O.L.V.E.S." by Krumbsnatcha and M.O.P., which appeared on the soundtrack for the 2001 film Training Day ("What happened to Diallo was a muthafuckin' shame").[28]

Electro pop band Le Tigre, formed by Kathleen Hanna (formerly of Bikini Kill), lamented the Diallo shooting in their song "Bang! Bang!", which ends with a vocal chorus counting numbers that ends with 41, the number of shots fired.[29] In his song "The Other White Meat", which deals with police brutality and racism, New York rapper Immortal Technique tells the police "I got 41 reasons to tell you to suck a dick" and "Guns don't look like wallets", clearly referencing the shooting and counting every bullet fired as a reason.[30] Immortal Technique also briefly mentions the incident in the song, “Fight Until the End” off of Sabac Red’s 2004 album, Sabacolypse: A Change Gon’ Come and in the song, “Runnin’ Away” off of KRS-One and Buckshot’s 2009 collaborative album, Survival Skills. It was also referenced in the song, "So You Wanna Be a Cop" by the Crack Rocksteady 7, in the lyric: "and after 41 shots, you're grinning in the donut shop". "One Dead Cop", by the related band Leftöver Crack, references the incident in the lyric "Bragging how you blasted gunshot 41." The incident was briefly mentioned by rapper Heems in his song "WOYY": "Diallo got shot when he said the block was hot."[31]

The piece "Amadou Diallo", included in the album Ethnic Stew and Brew by jazz trumpeter Roy Campbell, Jr., was inspired by the shooting, ending with a rapid burst of notes replicating the 41 gunshots.[32] The incident also served as the basis for Erykah Badu's track "A.D. 2000" (the abbreviation standing for Diallo's initials), from the album Mama's Gun. Rather than singing a condemnation of the NYPD, as had most other artists who were incensed by the event, Badu chose to sing an elegy which, while noting the tragedy of Diallo's killing, also observes the furor over the circumstances, which she viewed as likely to be temporary: "No you won't be namin' no buildings after me/To go down dilapidated ooh/No you won't be namin' no buildings after me/My name will be misstated, surely". In his album The Beautiful Struggle, Talib Kweli speaks of "Brother Amadou as [...] a modern day martyr."[33] Kweli makes further reference to the shooting in his song "The Proud": "It's in they job description to terminate the threat/So 41 shots to the body is what he can expect".[34]

Folk Punk outfit Mischief Brew wrote "Thanks Bastards" which references the Diallo shooting in the lyrics "41 bullets, there's 41,000 thorns in your side" "Found a wallet, not a gun, and mothers wiping tears from her eyes."

Late Brooklyn MC Sean Price also referenced the shooting in the song "Lighters In The Air (Funeral Song)". "Wop babaloo bop-da-wop bam-boom, cops got a few glocks and popped Amadou! Put'cha lighters up..."

Hip Hop duo, Dead Prez, referenced the shooting in the song "That's War" on the mixtape "Turn off the Radio Vol. 1"

Roni Size's song "Centre Of the Storm" (featuring Zach de la Rocha) has verses that reference Diallo.

The rap songs "Invincible" by CNN and "What If" by Fredro Starr also reference the shooting, mentioning Diallo by name in each.

The singer Lovari was a friend of Amadou, and lived around the corner from the storefront where Amadou worked on East 14th Street in the East Village.

In a March 2018 Vulture interview, Julian Casablancas of The Strokes revealed that "New York City Cops" off The Strokes' debut album Is This It was a political song influenced by the shooting of Amadou Diallo.[35]

Amadou Diallo appears as a character in Alfredo Vea's novel The Mexican Flyboy (U Oklahoma Press, 2016).

Amadou Diallo is referenced in Claudia Rankine's American Lyric 'Don't Let Me Be Lonely' (Graywolf Press, 2004).

Amadou Diallo is referenced in Don Wilson's The Force (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017).

Amadou Diallo is referenced in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Back Bay Books, Little, Brown, 2005).

In 2000, a group of human rights organizations completed "The Day After Diallo", a short video about police violence against people of color in the context of the killing of Amadou Diallo. The video was co-produced by WITNESS, New York City PoliceWatch and The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.[36][37]

In 2002, Playwright Rhonda Robbins wrote and produced "The Fourth of February, a Play?" that explored the cultural ramifications of the Diallo shooting.

Amadou Diallo was a central theme in Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends documentary "Black Nationalists". This shooting was also covered in Season 6, Episodes 20, "I'll Draw You a Map"and 21, "Voire Dire this" of ABC's NYPD Blue.

Diallo's death is also referenced in November, 2000, in season 11, episode 6 of Law and Order, in which a witness describing the racial tensions caused by young white police officers patrolling black communities states, "that's how you wind up with 41 shots in some poor black guy coming home from work."

Diallo's death is also referenced in season 6 of NYPD Blue, episode 20 "I'll Draw You a Map." The ex-boyfriend of a woman whose husband is shot in their apartment expresses concern that he'll end up with the same fate as Diallo. The detectives discuss later in the episode that they're just trying to do the right thing and not all cops are like the ones who shot Diallo.

See also

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