Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Each Other's Blood

We've written about Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin (41 Shots)" several times here at Reason to Believe, most recently here and here. It is easily the most controversial song he ever wrote, as well as one of his most provocative.

Today is the anniversary of the incident that inspired that song. It was on this night 15 years ago that an unarmed Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by New York City police officers who mistook him for a suspected serial rapist.

Here is how the New York Times reported the story the day after it happened. As a former reporter myself, I find it fascinating just how much detail the story was already able to provide by the very next day:

Officers in Bronx Fire 41 Shots, and an Unarmed Man Is Killed
An unarmed West African immigrant with no criminal record was killed early yesterday by four New York City police officers who fired 41 shots at him in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building, the police said.
It was unclear yesterday why the police officers had opened fire on the man at 12:44 A.M. in the vestibule of his building at 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Soundview section. The man, Amadou Diallo, 22, who came to America more than two years ago from Guinea and worked as a street peddler in Manhattan, died at the scene, the police said.
The Bronx District Attorney's office is investigating the shooting, whose details were still murky last night because there were apparently no civilian witnesses and none of the police officers involved had given statements to investigators. But Inspector Michael Collins, a police spokesman, said that investigators who went to the scene of the shooting did not find a weapon on or near Mr. Diallo.
Relatives and neighbors described Mr. Diallo as a shy, hard-working man with a ready smile, a devout Muslim who did not smoke or drink.
''I am very angry,'' said his uncle, Mamadou Diallo. ''He was a skinny guy. Why would the police shoot somebody of that nature 30 or 40 times? We see the police and we give them all the respect we have.''
A friend, Demba Sanyang, 39, said: ''We have a very undemocratic society back home, and then we come here. We don't expect to be killed by law enforcement officers.''
The four officers involved in the shooting were assigned to the aggressive Street Crimes Unit, which focuses largely on taking illegal guns off the street. All four officers, who were in plainclothes, used their 9-millimeter semiautomatic service pistols, which hold 16 bullets and can discharge all of them in seconds.
Two of the officers, Sean Carroll, 35, and Edward McMellon, 26, emptied their weapons, firing 16 shots each, the police said. Officer Kenneth Boss, 27, fired his gun five times and Officer Richard Murphy, 26, fired four times.
All four have been put on administrative leave, which is standard practice after a police shooting.
Three of the officers -- Officers Carroll, McMellon and Boss -- have been involved in shootings before, which is unusual in a department where more than 90 percent of all officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty. In those previous incidents, Officers Carroll and McMellon were found to have acted properly, the police said; the case of Officer Boss -- he shot and killed a man said to be armed with a shotgun on Oct. 31, 1997, in Brooklyn -- is still being reviewed by the Brooklyn District Attorney's office.
Police rules on when officers can fire their guns are explicit: deadly force can be used only when officers fear for their lives or the lives of others. But once they decide to shoot, officers are trained to fire until they ''stop'' the target from causing harm. They are told not to fire warning shots, and to aim for the center of the body, not arms or legs.
Police officials said it was unclear whether the circumstances of the confrontation between Mr. Diallo and the officers justified such a shooting. What the police say is known is that the four officers were patrolling Mr. Diallo's neighborhood yesterday morning in an unmarked car in the hope that they would make arrests and in the process turn up information about a serial rapist in the area.
At a quarter to one, the officers encountered Mr. Diallo. All four got out of the car and approached him as he stood in the vestibule of his building, the police said.
A police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that a neighbor reported after the shooting that he had noticed a man, who the police believe was Mr. Diallo, loitering in the vestibule. The man described him as ''acting suspicious,'' said the official, who did not elaborate.
The officers did not communicate over their radios before they approached Mr. Diallo, the police said, so investigators said they did not know what prompted their initial interest in him.
Nor is it known why the officers began firing. A second police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, ''We don't know what happened, because we haven't spoken to them, but it looks like one guy may have panicked and the rest followed suit.''
After the shooting the officers called in on their radios, the police said, and neighbors telephoned 911. Soon other officers arrived on the scene, followed by detectives and the ranking officers who are required to respond to all police shootings.
An investigation began, and no weapon was found on Mr. Diallo, Inspector Collins said.
A pager and a wallet were found lying next to the body, a police official said, adding that it was unclear whether the officers could have mistaken the pager for a weapon.
Mr. Diallo had lived in New York for two and a half years. A member of the Fulani ethnic group, he came from a village called Lelouma and followed relatives who had moved here. He worked as a street peddler, selling socks, gloves and videos on 14th Street in Manhattan. He sent much of the money he earned to his parents back home, friends said.
Yesterday, Mr. Diallo arrived home from work around midnight, said his roommate, Momodou Kujabi. The two men discussed who was going to pay the Con Edison bill, and then Mr. Diallo turned on the television and Mr. Kujabi went to bed. Another roommate, Mr. Diallo's cousin, Abdou Rahman Diallo, was already asleep.
Mr. Kujabi said he thought Mr. Diallo might have gone out for something to eat, as he often did after coming home from work.
Then came the shots, and a knock on the door, he said. It was the police.
Mr. Kujabi said that the officers brought him down to the vestibule to identify his friend's body. ''I said, 'How can this happen?' '' Mr. Kujabi recalled telling the officers. '' 'I left this guy less than 30 minutes ago.' '' 
An autopsy found that Mr. Diallo died of multiple gunshot wounds to the torso, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the Chief Medical Examiner's Office. Further tests are required to learn how many wounds there were and where the bullets entered his body, she said.
Steven Reed, a spokesman for the Bronx District Attorney's office, said the shooting was being investigated would probably be taken up by a grand jury.
Stuart London, a lawyer representing the officers, said that he was still trying to determine the facts of the case. ''It would be premature to comment,'' he said.
And Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani urged people to withhold judgment on the case. ''We've had terrible mistakes in this city when people have reacted to rumors and intuitions and feelings,'' he said. ''Let's let the situation run its course and then let's react to the facts.''
But Kyle Waters, a lawyer representing Mr. Diallo's family, said he was concerned that the police officers may have overreacted to Mr. Diallo. ''There was nothing to indicate that he was a criminal, nothing to indicate that he had a weapon,'' he said. ''For him to be sent back to his homeland in Guinea in a box is a horrible tragedy.''
State Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, who represents the area, called the shooting ''outrageous,'' adding that it was clear that excessive force was used.
Mayor Giuliani said the circumstances of the shooting were unclear because the officers involved had invoked what is known as the 48-hour rule, which gives police officers two business days to consult with their union lawyers before they speak to investigators.
But police officials said that was not the case; instead, they said, they have not spoken to the officers because the Bronx District Attorney's office asked them not to. That is common practice in police shootings. When prosecutors pursue possible criminal charges, police officers, like other citizens, can invoke their right against self-incrimination and decline to talk. The 48-hour rule comes into play when the Police Department pursues possible administrative charges. Officers in such an investigation are required to answer questions after the 48-hour respite, or face dismissal.
Yesterday, relatives began making plans to return the body of Mr. Diallo to his parents in the village of Lelouma. ''I think there is no reason to shoot someone more than 30 times,'' said Mamadou Diallo.

Bruce Springsteen wrote "American Skin" following the Diallo killing as a meditation on, as he later said, "what happens when we stop talking to each other." He famously played it at Madison Square Garden despite protests from the New York City Police Department during the 1999-2000 Reunion Tour. He's played in fairly regular setlist rotations ever since, and the song was given updated urgency following the February 2012 killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Samford, Florida.

The song in its full form moves from hushed to explosive and back to hushed, evoking sadness and frustration and empathy and regret and even a little redemption. It asks each one of us who we are and what our role is as we walk around in a shared American skin. And the ghostly refrain, "41 shots," keeps seeping in throughout, reminding us the embers of that bad, bad night are never far away and will never disappear.

It's a responsibility placed on all of us when he sings:
"41 shots, with my boots caked in this mud.We're baptized in these waters, and in each other's blood."

Here is a rather unique version of the song, performed by Bruce alone on Elvis Costello's Spectacle four years ago. The song is stripped down to its bones, Bruce going it alone on a darkened stage with EC watching. But every inch of its power remains.

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