Diallo protests: tense but peaceful

Monday, February 28, 2000

Michael Handy, ...
Michael Handy, lawyer for National Action Network, right, answers questions on Feb. 26 from people gathered in front of Bronx apartment building where four New York City police officers shot and killed Amadou Diallo.

NEW YORK — Critics of the news media regularly blame the arrival of television cameras for outbursts of disorder, as if the prospect of appearing on television incites people to anger and eruption. But in the Soundview section of the Bronx on the night of Feb. 25, after the acquittal of four police officers in the shooting of Amadou Diallo, it wasn’t the cameras that whipped up people’s wrath: it was the sight of police uniforms.

For many hours — on the block of Wheeler Avenue where Diallo died and on a ragged but peaceful march to and from the 43rd Precinct station house — demonstrators verbally lashed the police, who generally watched impassively. Violence threatened several times when police appeared ready to contain or move the crowd, but despite tense moments and some arrests, eventually the night ended without a major conflict.

The verdict was delivered just before 5 p.m., and before it was even an hour old the media were already a big presence in Soundview. Passengers on the Lexington Avenue local elevated train turned their heads when they pulled into the Elder Avenue station to look up Wheeler, which was set off by lights and satellite trucks. Down below the elevated tracks, on Westchester Avenue, Jimmy Breslin interviewed a man.

But the crowd gathered on Wheeler did not stay put for a photo opportunity. Instead, it surged down Wheeler to Watson Avenue, toward a tangle of entrance and exit ramps where the Bronx River Parkway crosses the Bruckner Expressway. More people stood on the sidewalk than marched in the streets, but the marchers found plenty of encouragement from the sidelines. And the police officers who shadowed the procession found plenty of invective: “You should be ashamed to wear the badge.” “What you gonna do, shoot the crowd?” “Shoot me.” “F— the police.” “F— Giuliani.” “We want justice.” And always, when noise seemed to die down, the recurring chant of “murderer, murderer, murderer.”

The marchers surged across the ramps by the Bronx River Parkway, crossing overpasses, climbing over highway dividers and stopping traffic. Reporters and camera crews lumbered after them, sometimes slowing to interview a straggler. A police officer helped a woman marching with a small child in a stroller lift the stroller over one of the dividers.

When demonstrators reached the 43rd Precinct stationhouse on Fteley Avenue, they formed a line opposite police who were dressed in riot gear with helmets and batons. Reporters and camera crews stood between the two, recording the anger in the crowd and the generally inexpressive faces of the police. The reporters were almost uniformly calm; some used the opportunity to exchange greetings with old friends and colleagues. All the emotion came from the demonstrators, who called out “Amadou, Amadou, Amadou …” Some brandished wallets before the officers and chanted, “Don’t shoot, it’s just a wallet.”

People raged into cameras and microphones. At the edge of the crowd, one officer talked quietly to angry men, calming them. The tensest moment came when the police deployed a line of officers to the crowd’s left, guarding the entrances to the Bronx River Parkway. There were angry words and jostling, but cool heads in the crowd prevailed and people headed back towards Wheeler.

The straggling groups of marchers that walked along Wooster Avenue acted less like triumphant protesters than a beaten army — sad, demoralized and angry at defeat. One man came close to fighting with a police officer who told him not to walk on the sidewalk, which was marked off by a police barrier. Another man’s shoulders sagged as he said to a companion, “It always rains on a sad day.”

Back at Wheeler, shortly before 8 p.m., there were again demonstrators and cameras. At the far end of the block, elected officials — Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, New York City Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi and New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall — spoke to reporters. On a night of raised voices, theirs were quiet.

When police drew up a line of officers in riot gear on Westchester Avenue, facing Wheeler, demonstrators drifted down from Diallo’s old house. One man, accompanied by a young boy, repeatedly shouted at the police, “There’s no riot here; why you got those sticks? This is not Soweto, this is the South Bronx.” Police showed no emotion in response.

Hours would pass before the street finally became quiet.