Racial profiling a matter of life and death

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (U-WIRE) —Just two days ago, I had a rock-solid belief about what happened that tragic night when Amadou Diallo was fatally shot, dying in a barrage of 41 bullets, 19 of which pierced his body. 41 times? “You could kill an elephant with that many bullets!” was the sentiment echoed to me by many students. Almost everywhere I went, people were debating the verdict. Nothing? Not murder, manslaughter — not even reckless endangerment? Something was flagrantly wrong here.
I went to bed the night of the verdict with the whole case weighing heavily on my mind. What was going to happen? Would there be riots in New York? Would the officers be suspended anyway in order to appease the mobs?
I went to sleep early, but that night I was carrying a loaded automatic handgun, my finger millimeters from the trigger. I was in a maze of hallways or in some sort of apartment complex, either chasing someone or being chased by someone who also had a gun. I remember it was dark. I feared for my life, but I also feared for the person on the other end of this chase. A simple curling of my index finger would bring death and destruction to the person and sadness to their family.
All at once, feelings of terror, empowerment and confusion raced through my mind, flooding my thought process. I could feel the other party getting closer, but I didn’t know what to do. Time was running out fast, and I had to make a decision: live a murderer or die in cold blood?
My psyche couldn’t handle it. I woke up in a cold sweat, my heart racing a thousand times a minute. The power and the fear I felt at the same time in that dream were so intense. That’s when it hit me like a brick wall: We have no right to say what happened that night. Imagine being a police officer in New York City, combing the streets every night, seeing the side of life no one ever wants to see — murder, robbery, prostitution, domestic violence and drugs.
It is the side of life that police officers cite as to why they sometimes burn out and leave the force willingly.
The dream I had made me loosen my views on what happened that night and acknowledge that it possibly may have been an accident, but in no way has it made me do a 180. I still think something went terribly wrong that night, but there is no way can we know what really happened; only the four people involved do. A jury composed of eight whites and four blacks found the officers not guilty on all charges and, right or wrong, we have to stick by that.
This case is part of a far larger problem of police brutality and racial profiling that is occurring in America. If anything good can come out of this, it will be a crackdown on police brutality and racial profiling. Diallo’s mother said that their first crime was singling out Diallo as someone who would commit a crime.
Just two years ago, Gov. Christie Whitman went on record saying that New Jersey did not engage in racial profiling, and such a thing could never happen in New Jersey. Yet when the facts came out, Whitman did her best job of spin control since President Clinton.
As it turned out, 77.2 percent of motorist searches were of blacks or hispanics, compared to only 21.4 percent for whites. In a recent nationwide study, nearly 75 percent of young black males interviewed said they had been a victim of racial profiling while 30 percent said it had happened more than six times. Nearly two thirds of Americans — white and black — believed racial profiling occurred. Eight out of every 10 cars searched in a four-year period on the southern stretch of the turnpike were driven by minority members.
The Justice Department reported filing criminal charges against 74 officers for excessive force in 1998 — a 12-year high. Crime rates are at their lowest numbers in years in New York City. Crime is down in all the major cities in America, but is this the price we have to pay for it?
Diallo was a hard-working immigrant with a bright future ahead of him. Now he is gone. The guilt or innocence of the officers has already been decided in the courts. The department might still suspend the officers, and a civil suit might be imminent. Al Sharpton now leads protesters in shouts of “No Justice, No Peace.” But if the case of Diallo is to have a legacy, it shouldn’t be a legacy marked by the words “No Justice, No Peace.” It should be a legacy that marks the beginning of the end of racial profiling and police brutality in America, so tragedies like this are spared in the future. Peace.
Alexander Vargas’ column originally appeared in Friday’s Rutgers University paper, the Daily Targum.