As Tanya Thorpe watched the protests about George Floyd’s killing spread across the United States, even up to her own neighbourhood in relatively quiet, relatively conservative upstate New York, she thought about the first time she went to a protest, as a young adult, over the shooting of a West African immigrant called Amadou Diallo.
“That was my first,” she said. “The first time I saw something and felt like I had to be there.”
Diallo, born to a Guinean family in Liberia in 1975, was unarmed and in his own apartment building when he was shot dead by police officers in New York City in 1999.
The trial of the police officers was moved out of the city to the state capital, Albany, near where Thorpe lived. She braved the cold to attend a protest at the courthouse during the trial, and was hopeful that justice would be served.
“My young, naive self thought maybe this time there will be a conviction; they will be held accountable. Something will happen, something will change,” Thorpe said.
Twenty-one years later, Americans are still protesting police killings of black men and women, and the damage that systemic racism has wrought on the black community. A trial followed Diallo’s shooting, although none of the police officers who shot him were convicted of any crimes, and one of them remained on the force until 2019.
But Diallo’s death has not been forgotten. Instead, his name has been invoked in recent weeks together with other black Americans killed by the police in the two decades that have passed. He remained on Thorpe’s mind as her husband and son joined in protests about recent police killings.
Diallo was on the stoop of his apartment building on a February night when four plain-clothes officers got out of their unmarked car and approached him after deeming him suspicious. They said they thought he reached for a gun after retreating inside the building, although it turned out he was pulling out his wallet, presumably to show the officers his ID. Forty-one shots were fired.
After his death, he was described in The New York Times by neighbours and relatives as a “shy, hard-working man with a ready smile, a devout Muslim who did not smoke or drink”.
Speaking to the television station CBS last week, his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, described speaking to her son just before his death. He told her he had just saved enough money to start college.
“As the mother of Amadou Diallo, having to suffer my loss on February 4 1999, my wound was opened again,” she said, on hearing about Floyd’s death. “Retelling [Amadou’s] story today is breaking my heart.”
Speaking in the Netflix documentary series Trial by Media, released earlier this year, Chike Frankie Edozien, a Nigerian-born journalist who covered the shooting of Diallo for New York Post, criticised much of the media coverage surrounding the case. Although Diallo’s death was heavily reported in the media, and prompted immediate outcry, protests and controversy, Edozien said coverage of Diallo as a person was often shallow. As a Guinean man in New York City, he was treated by the police officers as inherently dangerous, and by the media as a poor African immigrant.
“The media didn’t have any other concern in discussing who he was,” Edozien said. “They would say, ‘He was a street peddler. He lived in a poor neighbourhood.’ He was just completely and utterly otherised from day one.”
He had a good life in Guinea and left behind his privilege to move to America, his mother told the Trial by Media filmmakers, because he wanted to make it on his own and study computer science.
Whereas some knew Diallo as a street vendor in the Bronx, to his mother, he was well-travelled and well-educated, and spoke five languages, including Fulani. But to police that night in February 1999, he was a black man, which was enough to arouse the suspicion on its own.
The nature of the shooting — four cops and 41 shots against an unarmed man who was in his own apartment building — prompted protests and heavy media coverage, as did the acquittal of the officers in the resulting murder case.
Diallo’s death made an impression in popular culture as well, resulting in a song by Bruce Springsteen [American Skin (41 Shots)] as well as a collaboration, Diallo, by Wyclef Jean and Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour.
In 2002, in the wake of Diallo’s death and the officers’ acquittal, the street crimes unit of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) — the plain-clothes unit to which the cops who killed Diallo belonged — was disbanded. Despite that change, plain-clothes officers continued to be involved in controversial shootings in the city.
On June 15 2020, history repeated itself when NYPD’s “anti-crime units” — another set of plain-clothes units involved in high-profile shootings — were disbanded.
Like the disbandment after Diallo’s case, however, the department won’t be getting rid of plain-clothes officers entirely.
A mural of Diallo was painted in the Bronx after his death in 2001, and in 2017 a second version was painted, this time by Hawa Diallo, a Mauritanian immigrant and artist.
His legacy was still resonating as the country saw more than 1 000 people killed by police that year. Despite making up only 13% of the population, black people accounted for 27% of those victims, and more than a third of cases in which the person killed was unarmed, according to the database Mapping Police Violence.
Last year, in an article about the 20th anniversary of Diallo’s death, residents in his old neighbourhood, including Guinean immigrants, told New York media outlet The City that “tense interactions with officers persist”.
‘This so-called free country’
“Amadou was killed 20 years ago and it saddens me to see that there’s still similar cases happening in this so-called free country I brought my children to many years ago thinking they’ll be safe here,” Hawa Diallo, who is not related to Amadou, told the Mail & Guardian in an email.
“But now I am filled with sleepless nights whenever my kids are out, I sit up and pray for their safety.”
She’s currently working on a painting dedicated to “all the people fighting the fight to change policing and racism”.
Suzanne Plunkett, a photojournalist, posted a photo on her Instagram account earlier this month of Kadiatou Diallo mourning her son at a vigil held on the first anniversary of his death.
Noting that she took the photo two decades ago, she wrote in the caption that it is important “that we don’t let another twenty years go by without change”. It’s one of more than 27 000 posts on Instagram tagged under #amadoudiallo.
“I do remember [Kadiatou Diallo] being this kind of, you know, really sort of strong character,” Plunkett, who covered the protests as well as the officers’ trial for the Associated Press, told the M&G.
“And then when she just had this moment with tears (at the vigil) it was just really heartbreaking.”
Amadou Diallo’s death inspired some police reforms, at least in New York City, but those reforms weren’t enough to stop the killings of others in the city who have died since; or of Floyd in Minneapolis; or Breonna Taylor, in Louisville, two months earlier; or, just two weeks ago, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta — the list is endless.
Although policing in America is a decentralised affair, with cities managing their own forces, much of the overall policing systems and tactics that killed Diallo are still more or less in place across the country.
These systems have become the target of protesters who are aiming for a massive redistribution of local budgets, in an effort to defund police departments and pump that money into social services, rather than introduce incremental policing reforms.
Diallo’s name lives on, from the street named after him in his neighbourhood to the foundation his mother started that gives out college scholarships. It also lives on for Thorpe, as part of a larger process of remembering and celebrating African-American history.
“Some people are just now learning about Emmitt Till,” she said, in reference to the 14-year-old who was lynched in 1955 after talking to a white woman.
“They’re just learning these names and these stories. There’s a reason why we say ‘Say their names,’ at least in our community, and it’s because, you know, we’re told that once you stop talking about somebody, that’s when they’re really gone.”