Racial politics

In February four white New York City policemen-members of the force’s elite undercover street crimes unit-shot and killed Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant and street peddler. Evidently the police thought that Diallo, who reportedly did not respond promptly to police orders, was reaching for a gun, when in fact he was only reaching for his wallet. In any event, he was unarmed and innocent of any crime. In a panicked reaction, possibly in response to their own ricocheting bullets, the police fired forty-one shots, striking Diallo nineteen times. The four officers have been indicted on second-degree murder charges, while both the U.S. Justice Department and the New York State attorney general extended or launched investigations into charges of police department misconduct.

Since the policemen declined to testify before the grand jury, it is still unclear exactly what happened the night of February 4. No other witnesses to the shooting have come forward. Newspaper stories report that the four officers were looking for a rapist thought responsible for more than forty assaults, and that Diallo fit the description of the suspect. All the officers involved were reported to have been utterly distraught in the wake of Diallo’s death.

There was plenty of reason for grief, and, in retrospect, it would have helped if the reaction to the tragic killing among the city’s political actors was as honestly grief-...

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