Diallo, Amadou 1976–1999
Amadou Diallo 1976–1999
Entrepreneur, street merchant
Street merchant Amadou Diallo wanted a piece of the pie when he moved to America. Instead he became a martyr for the crusade against police brutality when he was slain by New York City police officers in February of 1999. His death ignited a movement to reform police procedures in New York and other cities.
Amadou Diallo was born in Liberia on September 2, 1976. He was the oldest of four children born into a well-to-do family from Guinea. His father, Saikou Diallo, and his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, ran a business exporting gemstones from Africa to Asia. They often went away on business trips to Singapore and Bangkok, Thailand, leaving Amadou and his siblings at home in the family mansion. Young Amadou later attended French-language private schools in Togo and Thailand, where he studied English and computer engineering. He soon became fluent in English and developed an interest in American culture. He became a fan of basketball and followed the career of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan. “Amadou was the kind of boy who had ambition to go to school and to be somebody,” his father told the New York Times.
In 1989, when Diallo was 17 years old, his parents divorced. He lived with his mother for a time in Bangkok before announcing his intention to move to America. “He said he wanted to come [to America] to be his own man, to support himself, and go to school,” his mother told People. “To be [in the U.S.] was always his dream,” she continued. Before departing for the United States, Diallo first returned to his homeland of Guinea to ask the blessing of family elders. Upon receiving their approval, he boarded a plane for New York City.
After arriving in New York in 1997, Diallo rented a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx. He worked as a bicycle messenger but had difficulty making ends meet. He gave up that job when a neighborhood convenience store owner agreed to let him sell merchandise at a small table outside his shop. In return, Diallo agreed to do odd jobs for the merchant. Diallo hoped to make enough money selling trinkets and tee-shirts to support himself, earn his high school equivalency diploma, and eventually enroll in college.
At a Glance…
Born on September 2, 1976 in Liberia; died on February 4, 1999 in Bronx, New York; parents are Saikou and Kadiatou Diallo, Education: Attended French-speaking private schools in Togo and Thailand, Religion: Muslim.
Career: Bicycle messenger; street merchant.
Awards: Family set up Amadou Diallo Foundation in his memory to help other African immigrants.
Like many immigrants, Diallo enjoyed a difficult, but satisfying life in his new home. He told friends he missed his family, especially his mother, and briefly considered going to live with his brother in Angola. In the end, however, he decided to continue living in America. A devout Muslim, Diallo prayed five times a day in the storeroom of the convenience store where he worked. He read voraciously, especially newspapers and magazines, and played soccer at a nearby park. He followed American sports, especially basketball. He was known to be a generous man who often lent money to fellow immigrants or gave to beggars who passed by his table.
After two years of struggle, Diallo’s fortune began to improve. In late 1998, he called his father in Vietnam to ask his advice about starting a small business. Diallo and one of his half brothers hoped to open up a shop selling silver and gold rings in New York. Diallo also made plans to marry. He called his mother to inquire about the family of a Guinean woman whom he considered a good match. By late January of 1999, Diallo felt he could afford to buy his brothers Nike sneakers as a reward for doing well in school.
Diallo’s plans for his future were cut short on the night of February 4, 1999. He was returning to his apartment that night when an unmarked car pulled up and four plainclothes policemen got out. They attempted to question Diallo, who they said declined to respond to their inquiries and reached for something in his back pocket. One of the officers saw the object and thought it was a gun. He yelled, ‘gun!’, and tripped down the stairs. The four officers began firing their weapons. In all, 41 shots were discharged. Nineteen of those bullets hit Diallo, causing him to collapse against the door of his building. He died instantly. The object turned out to be his wallet.
The shooting set off a firestorm of protest in New York City. Critics charged that the police had acted without restraint and with insufficient concern for the life of a poor black street merchant. In response, police defended their methods as necessary and proper in the fight against crime. New York’s mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, became the focus of a massive civil rights campaign designed to highlight the issue of police brutality.
Everyone began choosing sides. Black leaders staged a three-week protest outside City Hall. Many were arrested including Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, former New York mayor David Dinkins, and actress Susan Sarandon. New York state senatorial candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton called the shooting a murder, but she later retracted her statement. Activist Angela Davis was quoted as saying in Black Issues in Higher Education, “It was outrageous.”
Rev. Al Sharpton stepped up as leader of the protests, and began a heated debate with the mayor. According to the Africa News Service, Sidique Wai, president of the United African Congress said “African immigrants would stand with their African-American kin in their fight for justice.” Many called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.
Though Diallo’s parents requested the funeral not become political, an impromptu rally began after Mayor Giuliani’s arrival at the funeral in New York. Giuliani tried to speak to Diallo’s parents, but his request was denied. Diallo was buried in Guinea, next to his grandfather. Thousands of Guineans attended his funeral.
The four police officers: Sean Carroll, Edward McMellan, Kenneth Boss, and Richard Murphy, were indicted. The trial began on February 2, 2000. February 4th marked the one-year anniversary of Diallo’s death. On February 25th, all four officers were acquitted of all charges. Demonstrators marched peacefully in protest of the verdict. Hundreds joined Sharpton in a prayer vigil outside of the United Nations. Many, including some of the jurors, blamed the prosecution, citing Bronx district attorney’s Robert T. Johnson’s alleged failure to cross-examine and alleged failure to bring up the racial factor.
Sharpton and other black leaders, along with Diallo’s father, Saikou, lead a protest in Washington, D.C., outside the Justice Department. Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou, began to distance herself from Sharpton. Though he hired a team of lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran, Kadiatou fired them. In April of 2000, Diallo’s family brought a $61 million suit against New York City and the four policeman. They asked for one million per bullet fired and $20 million for pain and suffering.
The family has also set up the Amadou Diallo Foundation, to raise money and establish programs in Diallo’s memory. Kadiatou Diallo stated in Essence, “‖I hope that my son’s death will serve in some way to solve the racial problems in America and help change police tactics.
Bringing people together for real healing will help me to get some closure. What I want the legacy of Amadou to be. . .is for people to come together. Especially the African people and the African-American people.”
Africa News Service, March 8, 2000.
Black Issues in Higher Education, March 30, 2000.
Essence, November 2000.
Jet, April 26, 1999.
National Post, February 13, 1999.
New Republic, March 13, 2000.
New York Times, February 12, 1999.
People, April 19, 1999.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 13, 2000.
Social Injustice, Spring 2000.
Time, March 6, 2000.
—Bob Schnakenberg and Ashyia N. Henderson
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