William K. Piotrowski
Amadou has become a symbol for justice for a lot of people and, as his mother has
said, of different races and religions.... The father and mother have prayed with the
cardinal, prayed in two mosques, prayed in churches. This does not happen normally, where
people can bring different religious groups together, different denominations together.
Rev. Al Sharpton, "News Forum with Gabe Pressman," WNBC-TV, April 11, 1999.
The political and media storm over the killing of Amadou Diallo triggered an
inter-religious protest movement in New York City on a scale not seen since the height of
the civil rights movement. And as with the civil rights movement, it was religion that
drove the politics. Diallo died February 4 in the vestibule of his own apartment house in
the Bronx when four members of the New York Police Departments elite Street Crimes
Unit let loose a fusillade of 41 shots. Police later said that Diallo seemed agitated,
disobeyed police instructions, and reached into his pocket. A wallet was found next to
Within hours, the ubiquitous Rev. Al Sharpton seized the lead in shaping an immense
wave of outrage over the shooting of a pious, clean living Muslim immigrant with no
criminal record. And for several weeks the New York media tracked Sharptons success
at building a remarkably ecumenical "coalition of conscience" that harnessed
religious energies to demand fundamental reforms on behalf of the citys minorities.
Sharptons main targets were the police and the administration of Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani, who has trumpeted his success in cutting New Yorks crime rate.
Before the week was out, Sharpton was putting pressure on "mainstream"
religious leaders, most notably Cardinal John OConnor, to move into line behind his
protest movement. Sharpton also effectively co-opted other would-be African-American
protest leaders, most notably the Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlems Abyssinian Baptist
Sharptons ecumenical protest rallies, which grew in size and daily civil
disobedience, began outside One Police Plaza with hundreds of high profile New Yorkers
clamoring to join the protest and earn a place in jail. Sharptons goal was to induce
others to adopt his preferred religious language of protest, which was dominated by urgent
calls for justice. It was a heady time for Sharpton, who, despite immense notoriety, had
never before mobilized such impressive and varied support for one of his causes.
Faced with a delicate diplomatic challenge, OConnor, who had to criticize the
Diallo shooting without abandoning his own constituency, gradually deployed his own
religious rhetoric, one that put reconciliation in the foreground. It was this reassuring
language that eventually checked Sharptons charge.
Throughout the whole affair, New Yorks media watched breathlessly and with some
measure of surprise as religion and religious language suddenly drove political
mobilization and counter-mobilization in the city.
Sharptons public involvement with the Diallo case began almost immediately after
the February 4 shooting. On February 8, the AP reported that Sharpton gathered about him
representatives of Amnesty International and the NAACP to issue public statements and hold
small rallies, and that 1,000 people had gathered outside Diallos Bronx apartment
house. On Feb. 12, 1,000 people protested at City Hall and many more were mobilized for
Diallos funeral at the Islamic Center of New York. As the protests grew, Sharpton
served as the key broker. In a retrospective piece published March 21, Dave Saltonstall of
the Daily News emphasized the wide variety of religious groups and people of social
stature seeking to join the coalition: "All of them dialed the Rev. Al Sharpton and
his National Action Network last week for a single reason: to learn how they, too, could
get arrested in front of 1 Police Plaza to protest the police killing of Amadou
Journalists were struck by the diversity of religious faiths and walks of life
represented-a far, far broader group than had ever backed Sharptons activism in the
Tawana Brawley affair or the burning of Freddys discount clothing store in Harlem.
Sharpton became the outspoken voice in the media coverage and used the rhetoric of the
Diallo case to move into the political and religious mainstream. News coverage portrayed
him driving the protest.
The first stages of the protest emphasized African-American Protestant and Muslim
grievances about police treatment of minorities and hostility to the Giuliani
administration. The Rev. Michel Faulkner of Central Baptist Church told the Inter Press
Services Lisa Vives that he hoped Giuliani would "understand the amount of
tremendous pain that communities of color are in over this incident. If he does not, I
really think this will be a permanent blight on his administration."
At the hard-line edge of the coalition, Khalid Abdul Muhammed of the Nation of Islam
bitterly denounced the mayor and the police: "This is the time to speak the language
of those whose language is killing....This is the time for an eye for an eye, a tooth for
a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life." Early on, however, the New York media
showed a new tendency to look for ways to give respectful coverage of Islam, a trend
accelerated by the dignified and conciliatory stance of Diallos parents, whom
Sharpton had brought from Guinea to New York for the funeral. When referring to the four
officers involved in the shooting at his sons funeral, Saikou Diallo was quoted by
the AP on February 12 simply saying, "May Allah have mercy on their souls."
The Daily Newss coverage of the funeral February 12 included Imam Abdel-Rahman
Osmans message about freedom and respect. The funeral provided a chance for all to
grieve in a religious setting, but, for perhaps for the first time in American history,
those assembled for a major public funeral were obliged by the context to do so in the
Muslim tradition. In a February 13 piece, the Daily Newss Douglas Feiden described
Giuliani, a prominent Roman Catholic, as "shoeless, head bowed in prayer and facing
east toward Mecca."
In the days after the funeral, Sharpton turned up the pressure. He organized a well
attended procession to the airport, then got on the plane carrying Diallos body back
to West Africa. There, coverage of Diallos traditional Muslim funeral on February 17
was transmitted to New York. Clem Richardson of the Daily News vividly described the rite
in which hundreds of Guineans mourned for Diallo on his family estate.
The daily protests and civil disobedience at One Police Plaza became the signature
events of the middle period of the Diallo story-eventually about 1,200 Protestants,
Catholics, Jews, and Muslims were arrested there. Sharpton himself emphasized the
increasingly ecumenical nature of the protest. On February 14, he told Jesse Jackson on
CNN that the airport procession demonstrated the diversity of the protest coalition:
"One thing that were very happy is to see blacks and Latinos and Africans of
Africa and whites all marching together. Mark Rosenthal from the labor union marching with
Muslims and Jews and blacks, because enough is enough for everyone." On March 29,
Adam Nagourney of the New York Times depicted Sharpton marching with a group of rabbis
Unsurprisingly, the National Reviews Richard Lowry took a dyspeptic view of
Sharptons new-found ecumenism. "Wednesday, March 24, was Rabbi Day. To prove
the broad-based nature of his demonstration, Sharpton was allowing Jews to get arrested.
...Amid all the kente cloth and the African-inspired black, red, and green flags, the
prospective arrestees stand out in their white yarmulkes and T-shirts proclaiming
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. This is Dinkins gorgeous
mosaic, pale division."
To be sure, Sharpton didnt lack for competition. On February 15, WPIX-TV reported
that the Rev. Calvin Butts would conduct "an ecumenical memorial service" at his
Abyssinian Baptist Church. Andy Newman of the New York Times reported the next day that
nearly 1,500 people packed the Harlem church and listened to speakers including the head
of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Paul Menitoff, and the general secretary of
the Islamic Leadership Council, Shaykh Abd Allah Latif Ali.
On February 20, the Daily News reported that two "Big Apple religious
groups"-Brooklyns Love Fellowship Tabernacle and the Coalition for
Justice-planned their own respective marches and rallies. Another News story reported that
the Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, had held a
rally and prayer vigil on the Brooklyn Bridge. WNBC-TV mentioned yet another rally that
was held on Malcolm X Boulevard and publicized plans for rallies by 41,000 members of the
rap community; a Day of Outrage protest by a wide variety of religious leaders, activists,
and elected officials; and a rally by the National Action Network in conjunction with
Johnnie Cochran, the Diallo familys attorney.
The religious leader who faced the most complex challenge was New Yorks Catholic
headman, Cardinal John OConnor. He had a lot to lose, because Catholics were arrayed
passionately on both sides of the debate. But he also faced substantial public pressure to
say something in the face of the inter-religious protests against the police.
The cardinal took his first, tentative step on February 15 at a mass at St.
Patricks Cathedral: "No grand jury ... no local or federal authority can
adequately compensate for the death of a human person, made in the image of God, or
assuage the suffering or sorrow of his family." His second step was to announce his
own major ecumenical gathering on the Diallo crisis to be held at St. Patricks.
With characteristic shrewdness, the cardinal announced the gathering at the annual Mass
celebrated in honor of the NYPDs Holy Name Society. Michele McPhees report in
the March 22 Daily News emphasized OConnors expression of support for the
nearly 1,000 police officers in attendance and his exhortation against stereotypes. When
he turned to the Diallo case, he urged officers to recognize legitimate problems within
the department and stressed the importance of avoiding further such tragedies. But he also
made it clear that there was no warrant for fundamental reform. "He compared the
NYPDs image problem to the public perception of priests following a series of sex
scandals," McPhee wrote.
A Daily News editorial the following day praised the cardinals approach:
"OConnor could have chosen the safe track through this sea of blue, without the
risk of waves. To his credit, he sailed straight into the heart of the matter. Namely the
publics perception justified or not of police attitude and behavior, particularly in
and toward minority communities."
Deeply resentful of the cardinals conciliatory stance toward the police
department, Sharpton stayed away from the service, which went forward at St.
Patricks April 20 with 1,500 people, including dozens of politicians, scores of
clergy, and many "ordinary New Yorkers" in attendance. The purpose, wrote
Jonathan Hicks in the New York Times, was "to shift civic discourse over the incident
from the fiery civil disobedience in front of Police Headquarters to a more spiritual,
forward-looking sense of unity."
In Sharptons absence, it was Butts who made the most dramatic symbolic gesture,
descending from the cathedral pulpit to embrace Giuliani in an explicit gesture of
reconciliation. Some, including Sharpton, claimed that the embrace was choreographed.
"It was, without question, a spontaneous act prompted by the movement of the Holy
Spirit," Butts told Hicks. "I went to the service, a church service. I went to
worship. When I go to worship, I allow myself-my total self-to be caught in the spirit of
worship." Whatever motivated the embrace, Sharpton interpreted the act as a gross
betrayal of the cause.
"Now Im all for unity, but enough is enough!" he told Peter Noel of the
Village Voice. Accusing the major figures at St. Patricks of shunning his protests
and selling out the movement, he said, "Ill be damned if Ill sit here and
allow them to turn around the work that weve done in New York City."
With the St. Patricks service, OConnor reclaimed his place as a voice of
reason, standing as a mediator between the police, the politicians, and the citizens as
guarantor of a general commitment to rebuild broken bridges. Yet while his political savvy
and rhetoric of reconciliation ultimately deflected Sharpton and sheltered Giuliani, he
wasnt the player who introduced the language of religious healing and forgiveness
into the confrontation. Rather, it was Amadou Diallos parents, Saikou and Kadiadou
Diallo, who showed New Yorkers aspects of Islam that have rarely gotten much press. They
were dignified, loyal, moderate, pious, ecumenical, optimistic, conciliatory, and, like
other Guineans interviewed during the course of the story, expressed confidence in
When Sharpton, OConnor, and the Diallos met just after the four policemen were
indicted for second-degree murder April 4, Jodi Wilgorn of the New York Times reported
that the meeting was delayed to accommodate the Diallos, who were completing their
afternoon prayers. After the meeting, Kadiadou said of OConnor, "He knows all
religion is about healing. We agreed on one thing: All of us, we pray to one God. He told
us people should leave their differences and come together, and something good will come
out of it." Said Saikou Diallo, "He will call all of the religions, whatever
religions, to pray together, for Amadou."
Muslims in the United States and elsewhere frequently complain about the image of Islam
that permeates American society and dominates the American media: Muslims as terrorists,
religious fanatics, oppressors of women, and repressors of other faiths. As outrage
swirled around them, the calmest, most moderate figures involved in the Diallo story were
the Muslims-a reality reflected in the news coverage. Beginning with Amadou Diallo
himself-portrayed as a quiet, highly observant Muslim who loved America and worked hard to
fulfill the American dream-and moving through the dignified scenes of Muslim worship in
New York and Guinea, Americans got a highly positive picture of Islam and its suddenly
strong presence in the United States.
In particular, coverage of the Diallo story served to emphasize Islams arrival as
a potent religious force in New York and the nation. The mere sight of Christian leaders
like Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and OConnor participating in Muslim worship or
Muslim-sponsored meetings gave new recognition and respectability to Islam itself. New
Yorks political leaders have long-since mastered the art of attending Catholic,
black and white Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish ceremonies and events. From now on,
they will have to do Islam too.
For as with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the planets have shifted a little
bit as a result of the Diallo protests and the inter-religious coalition it called into
being. On June 4 Police Commissioner Howard Safir announced that the police Department had
appointed the imam of a prominent Harlem mosque as its first Muslim chaplain. Of course
Safir, reported the AP, "made no mention of Diallo, who was Muslim, in announcing the
selection of Izak-El M. Pasha, the resident imam of the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque."