That rarely happens when it comes to victims of horrible violence. Lazy journalists will opt for the tired cliches: "honor student," "the hard-working father of three" and so on. But people are more complicated than that. There was more to Diallo's story than his post-mortem image as a hard-working street vendor and devout Muslim?the image promulgated by the media?suggests.
Almost every news article about Diallo states that he came here from Guinea as a legal immigrant. But Diallo lied his way to political asylum in America. According to the Daily News, in October 1998 Diallo gave a sworn deposition to immigration authorities claiming that soldiers beat his parents to death in Mauritania. Diallo claimed he was beaten with sticks and imprisoned in a military camp in Senegal. None of that's true, and New Yorkers have, in the wake of Diallo's death, even seen his mother on tv alive and well and becoming a minor, if melancholy, media star in her own right. Nonetheless, his fable went over with authorities and he was granted political asylum.
In truth, Diallo's family was fairly prosperous by Guinean standards. His father and his relatives were merchants and traders who sold their goods in Togo and Thailand. It was a family of travelers. Far from sitting in a Senegalese camp, Diallo was educated, receiving an associates' degree in electronics before immigrating here, at the age of 20.
Stories about Diallo also claim that he was a street vendor who sold videos, tapes and CDs on 14th St. That Diallo did, and he put in some long hours out there plying his trade. At the end of the day he stored his stock in a back room at C&B Convenience Store.
But what I firmly believe is that Diallo sold bootleg videos and tapes. Now, that Diallo lied about his parents being murdered in order to get asylum, and that he sold illegal goods, doesn't mean he deserves to have been shot dead. By all accounts he was a decent 23-year-old man.
Still, to understand what happened on the night of Feb. 4, 1999, in the Bronx, you need to know Diallo's history. I think Diallo thought the Street Crime Unit cops who confronted him in front of his house were immigration officials. I think he panicked, and he was reaching for his wallet to prove his legitimacy. That sudden moment of fear and the move for his wallet cost him his life. And this city is an angrier and sadder place because of his death.
A few days ago I went up to 1157 Wheeler Ave., in the Soundview section of the Bronx, and stood in front of Diallo's house. All the flowers and memorials are gone now. It was a bitterly cold night and the only sound I heard was that of a rat knocking the lid from a garbage can. The block is lined with two-family brick homes, much like Diallo's. The houses are well maintained. It's a block that's trying to maintain some dignity in a rough part of the city. There's not much in Soundview?it's the type of New York neighborhood that well-heeled Manhattanites will never have reason to visit. It's hard to imagine it ever being gentrified, and after the Diallo trial blows over it will return to the anonymity it's accustomed to.
I walked into the lobby of Diallo's apartment and read the testimonials to Diallo scrawled on the wall. The lobby is small: 5-by-8, and the left wall still bears the scars from the bullets that tore it up almost a year ago.
I felt miserable standing there. I looked out to Wheeler Ave. and saw what Diallo saw just before he died. He had nowhere to go. The door behind him was locked. The short pathway to the street was blocked by two police officers with their guns drawn. A red Taurus stood where, on Diallo's fateful night, two other cops had been waiting. At 22 Amadou Diallo had all the time in the world, but in a matter of moments after seeing those cops, he was dead.
I rehearsed in my head the events of Feb. 4, 1999. On that night, Officers Carroll, Boss, Murphy and McMellon left the Randalls Island headquarters of the NYPD's Street Crime Unit. By 10:30 they were cruising Soundview in search of a serial rapist who'd been plaguing the area since 1993.
Around the same time, Amadou Diallo was boarding the number 6 train in Manhattan to go home to the Bronx. Diallo reached his house at about 11:30. His cousin was asleep in one room. Diallo and his other roommate watched a movie together. Around 12:30, Diallo's friend went to bed and Diallo left his apartment. He didn't say where he was going. But at 12:45 a.m. Diallo was standing in front of his Wheeler Ave. apartment and the four SCU cops were pulling their car over and approaching.
Officers Carroll and McMellon walked up the narrow pathway to Diallo, their guns drawn. Ed Martinez, a man who lived across the street from Diallo, was in bed when he heard three shots and then a short silence followed by a fusillade of bullets. Forty-one shots were fired.
Let's put that in perspective: According to one report, about 1 percent of the NYPD's 39,000 cops fire their weapon in any given year. On average, they squeeze off 2.7 bullets during each shooting incident. The Diallo shooting, then, is off the charts, and no one can explain why. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, except for the four cops, and as of yet they haven't said much. A theory going around is that Carroll and/or McMellon tripped and yelled, "He has a gun." Each of those men let off 16 shots. Officer Murphy got off four shots and Officer Boss five. Diallo was hit 19 times. Bullets tore through his aorta, spinal cord, lungs, liver and kidneys. Eleven bullets hit him in the legs, which may lead some to believe that Diallo was shot on the floor.
The mortally wounded Diallo lay face-up, wearing a Yankee knit cap. His beeper was shot in half and his wallet, containing $169, was on the floor. He had only the keys to his apartment in his pocket. Within minutes, ambulance 1304 picked up Diallo's body; nine minutes later he was pronounced dead.
Two weeks later Amadou Diallo was buried in Guinea, his native country. The Fulani tribe honored him by slaughtering three cows and a goat and serving them to all his relatives as a remembrance. The gravediggers were given the head of a slaughtered cow for their work.
The four officers who shot Diallo were indicted in the Bronx. That venue was changed, though, and now a court in Albany has the burden of sorting out this tragedy. It's appropriate, in a way. The Diallos always were travelers.