Mark Naison: Thoughts on the Latest NYPD Killing of an Unarmed Black Man

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Historian Mark Naison is Professor of African and African-American Studies and Director of the Urban Studies Program at Fordham University.]

When Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, was struck down by 41 bullets in a Bronx vestibule six years ago, I had hoped that outrage that followed would insure that no incident like this would ever happen in New York City again. Though the 4 police officers who killed Diallo were acquitted of any crime, I thought that the NYPD would change its training and deployment procedures enough so that Black citizens of New York could walk the streets without worrying that they would be gunned down in a panic by fearful police officers

Apparently, I was wrong. This weekend, an unarmed Black man, and his two friends, leaving a bachelor party at a Queens strip club the day before he was to be married,
were the targets of a barrage of 50 bullets leveled at them by undercover police officers

Even if the police officers thought they were under attack, there is something terribly wrong with this scenario. There is nothing in any police manual which justifies the discharge of 50 bullets into a moving vehicle when officers are not under fire. This was not only a case of mistaken identity, it was a case of rage and panic overwhelming professionalism, and as a result, a young man is dead on the eve of his wedding and his two friends lie in a Queens Hospital in critical condition.

As I grapple to understand this tragedy, I keep returning to the subject of race. It is no accident that the victim of this explosion of police outrage, like Amadou Diallo, or for that matter Rodney King, was a young black man. In a nation with a troubled racial history, where every popular medium propogates images of black men as dangerous, police patrolling black neighborhoods are carrying the same poisonous brew of racial fantasiess, fears and stereotypes that led Michael Richards to unleash a racial tirade at black hecklers in a comedy club.. Subliminal racial rage is ugly enough when it explodes verbally; but when it leads to the uncontrolled discharge of weapons against unarmed citizens, it is a deadly threat to our social contract.

We may find that these particular police officers may have no past history of racist behavior. Some of them may even be Latino or Black. But that only makes their actions
all the more frightening. If racialized images of Black men as dangerous are so powerful and pervasive that they can trigger uncontrollable explosions or rage -whether verbal or physical- in normally decent people, then we as a society are in deep trouble.

The NYPD needs to discipline the officers involved and put sharp controls on it's elite units, but all of us need to take an honest look at our own feelings about race and our
own complicity in this terrible tragedy.

When it comes to healing the legacy of racism, we still have a lot of work to do. Our laws may be color blind, but our psyches most certainly are not.

comments powered by Disqus