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Blue’s Unequal Treatment

Guest Column
John Reed

Like a firing squad, four plain clothes New York City police officers gunned down the unarmed and innocent Amadou Diallo with 41 bullets at the front entrance of his apartment building. “Self defense” was their excuse; the wallet he allegedly pulled from his pocket looked like a gun, or so they say. Now a jury has bought the claim of “self defense” despite medical testimony that several of Diallo’s wounds resulted from being shot on the ground. These wounds included one bullet that went in his right foot and up his right leg to the knee, and another that went through his left toe and grazed up his left leg.

In Providence, Rhode Island, police officer Cornel Young Jr. was slain by fellow officers while responding to a violent disturbance. Again the excuse is “self defense.” The killers say they didn’t know Young was a cop because he was in plain clothes. A murder charge has been filed, but not against the men who shot him -- rather, against one of the suspects in the brawl who complied with police orders to drop his weapon and didn’t kill anyone.

Amadou Diallo apparently was supposed to know that four white men in plain clothes jumping out of an unmarked car, drawing weapons and yelling at him in a language that’s not his native tongue, are police officers, not robbers or nutcases. Furthermore, he was not supposed to panic, but instead he was to do exactly as instructed. If he did pull his wallet out, it seems entirely possible he thought he was being robbed. That misunderstanding was fatal.

Those who killed Cornel Young Jr., on the other hand, also did not recognize an officer in plain clothes. Instead of getting killed for that mistake like Diallo, they were allowed to shoot and kill Young, and to go free. We have two cases of a terrible “mistake,” and in both cases it’s an innocent black man who lies dead, and white shooters who walk away. Are they just isolated incidents?

I believe an honest look at American history shows they are not, but rather part of an ongoing pattern of violence and discrimination against blacks. Underlying this pattern is the racist assumption held by many people that blacks are more likely to be criminals.

There are a number of evils that plague law enforcement in this country. They include racism, classism, a lack of accountability, and an over-readiness to resort to violence. Some take the attitude that since police risk their lives on the job, they shouldn’t be questioned or criticized by civilians. However, many other people risk their lives on the job, and some jobs are far more dangerous than being an officer. For instance, loggers and fishermen have over ten times the on-the-job fatality rate as police officers. Should they be above criticism too? A taxi driver is more likely to be murdered on the job then a police officer. Does this mean that they too should be able to empty every bullet from a semi-automatic weapon into a passenger who makes a “sudden” or “suspicious” move?

I suspect a lot of those people who now say “let the police do their job” when questions about police brutality are raised would change their tune with some role reversals. Imagine if a wealthy white executive was riddled with bullets on his front porch by four black plainclothes police officers because he mistakenly fumbled for his wallet, or if whites were stopped and frisked for no good reason just as often as blacks, or if drug raids on the wrong address resulting in property destruction -- and, sometimes, innocent lives lost -- happened just as frequently in wealthy suburbs as in the inner city.

Hopefully, people will realize that the unfair treatment of blacks or any other ethnic or social group doesn’t just hurt people in those groups; it hurts everyone. If police cracked down equally on all people, as hard as they do now on black men, maybe fewer psychopaths would be walking our streets. Then again, if you’d rather not live in a police state, don’t accept treatment for others that you wouldn’t want for yourself. Demand equal and fair treatment by the police and the justice system for all.

John Reed is a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.