Summer 1999, Vol. 2, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Different Spiritual Politics

Preaching the Word in Littleton

On the Beat: In Lagos, Religion’s Above the Fold

Something Wiccan This Way Comes

Kosovo: A Confusion of Tongues

Methodism’s Time of Trials

Spiritual Politicking and the IRS

Correspondence: Was the Church Arson Story Legit?

The Diallo Killings: Sharpton Ecumenistes

by William K. Piotrowski

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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 Department’s 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 Diallo’s body.

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 Sharpton’s success at building a remarkably ecumenical "coalition of conscience" that harnessed religious energies to demand fundamental reforms on behalf of the city’s minorities. Sharpton’s main targets were the police and the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has trumpeted his success in cutting New York’s crime rate.

Before the week was out, Sharpton was putting pressure on "mainstream" religious leaders, most notably Cardinal John O’Connor, 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 Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Sharpton’s 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. Sharpton’s 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, O’Connor, 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 Sharpton’s charge.

Throughout the whole affair, New York’s media watched breathlessly and with some measure of surprise as religion and religious language suddenly drove political mobilization and counter-mobilization in the city.

Sharpton’s 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 Diallo’s Bronx apartment house. On Feb. 12, 1,000 people protested at City Hall and many more were mobilized for Diallo’s 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 Diallo."

Journalists were struck by the diversity of religious faiths and walks of life represented-a far, far broader group than had ever backed Sharpton’s activism in the Tawana Brawley affair or the burning of Freddy’s 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 Service’s 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 Diallo’s 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 son’s funeral, Saikou Diallo was quoted by the AP on February 12 simply saying, "May Allah have mercy on their souls."

The Daily News’s coverage of the funeral February 12 included Imam Abdel-Rahman Osman’s 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 News’s 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 Diallo’s body back to West Africa. There, coverage of Diallo’s 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 we’re 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 shouting "Shalom!"

Unsurprisingly, the National Review’s Richard Lowry took a dyspeptic view of Sharpton’s 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 Dinkin’s ‘gorgeous mosaic,’ pale division."

To be sure, Sharpton didn’t 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"-Brooklyn’s 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 family’s attorney.

The religious leader who faced the most complex challenge was New York’s Catholic headman, Cardinal John O’Connor. 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. Patrick’s 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. Patrick’s.

With characteristic shrewdness, the cardinal announced the gathering at the annual Mass celebrated in honor of the NYPD’s Holy Name Society. Michele McPhee’s report in the March 22 Daily News emphasized O’Connor’s 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 NYPD’s 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 cardinal’s approach: "O’Connor 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 public’s perception justified or not of police attitude and behavior, particularly in and toward minority communities."

Deeply resentful of the cardinal’s conciliatory stance toward the police department, Sharpton stayed away from the service, which went forward at St. Patrick’s 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 Sharpton’s 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 I’m all for unity, but enough is enough!" he told Peter Noel of the Village Voice. Accusing the major figures at St. Patrick’s of shunning his protests and selling out the movement, he said, "I’ll be damned if I’ll sit here and allow them to turn around the work that we’ve done in New York City."

With the St. Patrick’s service, O’Connor 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 wasn’t the player who introduced the language of religious healing and forgiveness into the confrontation. Rather, it was Amadou Diallo’s 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 American justice.

When Sharpton, O’Connor, 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 O’Connor, "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 Islam’s arrival as a potent religious force in New York and the nation. The mere sight of Christian leaders like Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and O’Connor participating in Muslim worship or Muslim-sponsored meetings gave new recognition and respectability to Islam itself. New York’s 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."