January 9, 2000

Kadi Diallo’s Trial

We knew her first from her grief. The sight of Kadiatou Diallo stepping from a police van last February in front of 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx, seeing the place where police officers had killed her unarmed son and helplessly crying, “Amadou, Amadou,” until she collapsed in the arms of other West African Muslim women in traditional robes, was a haunting spectacle, replayed endlessly on television. Her grief attached poignancy to what until that moment had simply horrified: the unbelievable fusillade of bullets mistakenly aimed at this particular dark-skinned man. It let the world know that this victim was beloved, would be missed; it focused our horror, unease and anger in the person of one small mother from a tiny nation in Africa to whom New York had done such a grievous wrong.

Next we knew her because, in short order, she moved out of the hotel room the city had found for her and into one arranged for her by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and then further asserted her independence by refusing to meet with Mayor Giuliani. In a flurry of interviews over six days in the United States–and always with Sharpton–she assailed the injustice of the killing with apparently spontaneous lines like, “Amadou’s blood will feed the battle for justice for everyone.” Her efforts helped to crystallize an inchoate anger with the police into a protest movement that would eventually result in the Sharpton-orchestrated arrests at police headquarters of nearly 1,200 people, including David Dinkins, the former mayor; Kweisi Mfume, the head of the N.A.A.C.P.; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; the actress Susan Sarandon; and several members of New York’s Congressional delegation–the worst crisis of the Giuliani administration.

Kadi Diallo returned to Africa with her son’s body, Sharpton and a large contingent of reporters, who sent images of her loss around the world. Six weeks later, Sharpton flew her back to New York: the four policemen who had shot her son were being indicted on charges of second-degree murder. Following the arraignment, she began, with her son’s father, her ex-husband, what was planned to be a 16-city tour of the United States organized by Sharpton to decry police brutality. In the meantime, her son’s estate hired the O.J. Simpson “dream team” of Johnnie Cochran, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld to pursue a civil claim against the city that could net millions of dollars, despite Amadou’s near destitution. (Compensation in such a suit is usually based partly on lost future earnings.)

And then, finally, in what appeared to be a further expression of her poise and self-possession, this untutored mother from Guinea fired the dream team and, after a round of very public disagreements with her ex-husband over control of her son’s estate, in August hired a white, noncelebrity lawyer to pursue her claims.

“From Grieving Mother to Forceful Celebrity,” a Times article was headlined back in April. By the end of summer, Kadi Diallo was trying to go back to grieving mother, to bring some closure to a healing process she had barely begun. She patched things up with her ex-husband. She settled their three remaining children near relatives on the East Coast, where they would be close to her but insulated from the media zoo. She distanced herself from Sharpton. And she awaited the trial that might finally shed some light on what happened that night in front of 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx.

Then came the surprise announcement of Dec. 16: the trial was being moved to Albany. “The public clamor” over the case, according to an appeals court, made a fair trial in the Bronx impossible. Sharpton called, and she climbed into a car–it was time for another news conference.

The Diallo story can, in some ways, be told by its headlines: “Cops Blast Unarmed Man”; “1,000 Rally to Condemn Shooting of Unarmed Man by Police”; “A Mother Arrives From Africa to Mourn Her Slain Son”; “Slain Man’s Mother Rejects Mayor’s Aid”; “Battle-Tested Sharpton Slips Into Familiar Role”; “Diallo Dead, Cops Look for Dirt”; “Amadou Lied in His Claim for Asylum”; “Cardinal Holds a Meeting With Parents of Diallo”; “Diallo’s Mom Boots Dream Team”; “Diallo’s Parents Feuding Over Estate That Could Be Worth Millions”; “Diallo Dad Appeals to Ex-Wife for Unity.” They convey the Tom Wolfe-ian nature of the story, its tragedy and circuslike aspects. Most ordinary people caught up in this kind of frenzy go in energized but emerge at the end disheveled, embittered, spent. Kadiatou Diallo, in her quiet dignity, shows every sign of being different–a player almost preternaturally prepared to handle the insanity, a woman who, having been used for a few months by the media and politicians, seems to have learned enough now to use them right back.

She comes from the Guinean village of Labe, the fourth of nine children born to a prominent local family. In the archives of many newspapers her name is misspelled “Kadiadou,” because one of the first reporters she talked to, she says, misheard her, and thought her name ended like her son’s. She liked that, the melding of Amadou’s name with her own.

Her father, she says, was unusual, insisting on the importance of education not just for his sons but also for his daughters, perhaps owing to his having an outspoken wife. (“I inherited that from my mom,” Kadi told me. “She doesn’t care if it makes you happy, she just tells us the truth. My sisters are that way, too.”) Even as a girl she was a beauty; when she was 14, a trader from a nearby village asked her father for her hand in marriage. Her father said he couldn’t answer for Kadi: “Go and talk to my daughter first,” he told Saikou Diallo, 30, a man who already had a wife and two children. “I don’t want to give you any hope before you do.” Kadi was unsure but willing; she is proud now that her father insisted that as a condition of marriage she be allowed to continue her education.

Amadou, the first of their four children, was born two years later, when she was 16. “I was very young, and I thought I was too young to keep him,” she told Newsday. “At night, I woke up to see if he was there.” As a boy, Amadou developed a lisp. His mispronunciation of her name became a treasured nickname. “Tatatou,” he called her.

By then the family was living in neighboring Liberia, where Saikou had a trading business. After a coup in 1980, they returned to Guinea to escape the instability. But Saikou found that the Socialism of President Sekou Toure made life hard for a businessman; he took his family to Togo. They returned to Guinea in 1984 when the president died, and before long moved to Thailand. Saikou had mainly been trading in gold and gems and, Kadi says, had a large store of low-quality Guinean rubies. A company in Thailand told him they had a heat treatment for the gems that could increase their quality. But Saikou ended up losing a lot of money and wanted to move to Singapore. Tired of constantly moving the family, Kadi refused to go and Saikou threatened to leave. “Maybe he was thinking I would come back,” she said. “Divorce is like a threat to the woman, to have more control–because only a small number of women can survive alone. Women are very disadvantaged in Africa.” But she would not be dissuaded, and the marriage ended. “I was determined to support myself and live on my own.”

Having learned her husband’s business, she began to trade gems in Bangkok, although she seldom wore jewelry herself. “The valuable stones, I sold them. I believe in turning the money around, buying and selling.”

Before long she moved her four children back to Conakry, the capital of Guinea. Through connections in the mining industry she endedup the highly paid representative of an Australian company interested in opening a gold mine; she went to the office every day, helping to arrange the needed permits and permissions. Amadou, who had earned a degree in computer science from a college in Bangkok, left on a tourist visa for the United States in September 1996. “He told me he wanted to realize his dream” of working in computers or electronics, Kadi said, “because he had seen me struggle to bring the children up and wanted to help me. His plan was to come back and assume his place as head of the family.”

The call from New York came when it was barely light on the morning of Feb. 4. On the other end of the line was Abdul Karim, Amadou’s cousin. Kadi’s younger sister picked up the phone. She knew something was wrong when Abdul insisted on talking to Oury, Kadi’s brother, “because in our tradition,” Kadi explained, “you cannot tell the woman bad news directly.” At the time, she was at the house of Sankarela Diallo, a young journalist and trader she had married two months earlier. (Diallo is a common name in Guinea.) Kadi’s sister demanded to be told what had happened. Abdul would not tell her and hung up.

“My sister called me immediately,” Kadi told me. “She said, ‘There was a call from New York–our cousin, Abdul.’ Knowing the time difference, I said, ‘If someone called this time from New York and it’s not Amadou, then it’s about him.’ I was thinking he was sick, maybe in the hospital, or maybe a car hit him or something. I was afraid to say I think he died, but, you know, I knew, that instant. . . . ”

Kadi began to weep as she told this story. The phone rang a lot that night, she said. “People would ask me, ‘Have you heard the news?’ and I would say, ‘No!’ And they would hang up. Many times!

“And once I hung up the phone and started crying, and my daughter, Laouratou, she held me until I had the courage to call one of them back, a man. And I said, ‘I believe in God–tell me, did my son die?’ And he said, ‘Yes.”‘ It wasn’t until about 4 p.m. that Kadi learned how. “My second son, Ibrahim, he was reading the paper, and I saw he was looking down, and I said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘Nothing, Mom.’ Because we teach men not to cry. But Ibrahim was crying. He was trying to be strong, but he could not believe it.” Then Ibrahim, 16, told her that the police had shot Amadou.

“They didn’t tell me how many bullets, because all the family wanted to protect me from the shock. But little by little I found out. Our Australian investor came in the evening, and he said, ‘I’m sorry, but they shot him many times.’ And I screamed, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Because the bullets and everything, they tried to minimize. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but they shot him many times, Kadi, too many times.’ And I told him: ‘You must tell me. How many?’

“He said, ‘It’s 41 bullets.”‘

It took two more days for Kadi to get plane tickets and visas for herself, her new husband and her uncle. They arrived at John F. Kennedy airport midday on Tuesday, Feb. 9, and were involved in politics before they stepped off the plane. The Guinean government had called its diplomats in New York, who were to transport Kadi’s party to Manhattan. “The ambassador wanted to take me, but the city pulled me into their own van. They said they are responsible for our security.” This was the same city government whose security forces had killed her son. “The ambassador told me, ‘Don’t panic.’ But I was already panicked! I didn’t expect that. I wanted to go to the Bronx before the hotel,” she said, and they acceded to her wish.

Just two days before, a thousand demonstrators, led by Al Sharpton, gathered in front of the house on Wheeler Avenue. (Guinean immigrants in New York had alerted Sharpton to the shooting the day after it happened.) The arrival of Kadiatou Diallo came as a complete surprise and must have seemed like a gift from heaven. “Justice,” she said when she emerged from her son’s apartment–having never yet heard of Sharpton–mustbe done.”

Sharpton visited her and her husband in the city’s choice of hotel, the Stanhope, that evening and offered her another, the Rihga Royal. Though relieved, she was also apprehensive about the gift. “My reaction was, How much is this costing and how am I going to pay it back?” Kadi’s ex-husband, Saikou, who had flown in from Vietnam, also accepted Sharpton’s offer.

Over the next several weeks, the Diallos’ search for justice and Sharpton’s larger political agenda dovetailed perfectly: the rallies that made Amadou famous in death and pressured the police also served as a way for Sharpton to show leadership and cement gains he had made in rehabilitating his image since the latest round of batterings over the Tawana Brawley scandal. He brought together elements of the city’s liberal Democratic coalition, which had once been dominant, as no one had in years (100 chanting rabbis and rabbinical students were among those whose arrests he had orchestrated at police headquarters) even as he reminded us of his penchant for shameless publicity-seeking: it was Sharpton who would arrange Kadi Diallo’s return from Guinea to greet the four indicted policemen upon their arraignment in court on March 31. “Let the mother stand and stare when they bring them in handcuffs,” he said. “Now that’s drama!”

Sharpton’s involvement benefited the Diallos, even as it bound them to him more than they later appeared comfortable with. Sharpton helped turn Kadi into a public figure who wielded sudden and substantial power; her “brilliance” in joining the protests he had started, as he put it to me, quickly transformed a simple trip to repatriate her son’s body into a crusade for social justice. He also, figuratively speaking, moved her into his house–arranging for her to live in a furnished cooperative apartment near the new Islamic Cultural Center mosque on East 96th Street and offering financial support that continues to this day.

Though none of them will discuss it, it seems reasonable to presume that Sharpton also made Amadou’s parents aware that there was big money to be made. He brought in Johnnie Cochran to pave the way for a wrongful-death suit against the city by setting up an estate. (Under law, foreign nationals can’t bring such a suit on their own; the estate sues the city, and the estate receives proceeds from any settlement or judgment.) Before Kadi and Saikou left for home with Amadou’s body, Cochran hurriedly arranged for the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, chairman of Sharpton’s National Action Network, to be the estate’s administrator. Sharpton also laid the groundwork for the Amadou Diallo Foundation, which would presumably receive some of the windfall.

But the relationship soon soured. Kadi is so adamant about not talking about her disagreements with Sharpton that she does not even wish to be quoted on her desire not to talk. She doesn’t want to stir up any bad feelings, she told me, or add fuel to the media fire; since the summer she has steadfastly refused to say anything bad about her former advisers. But a careful reading of the news reports suggests that the first dissonant chord was struck during Sharpton’s planned 16-city speaking tour against police brutality. Kadi didn’t make it beyond the second stop, a big rally in Chicago on April 10, during which she was embraced by Jesse Jackson and received several standing ovations. After that the tour apparently collapsed.

An acquaintance of hers who was there remarked that some of Sharpton’s comments about the United States were probably at odds with Kadi’s own feelings. Sharpton had told the Chicago crowd that immigrants to the United States were often deluded: that instead of opportunity and success, what often awaited them was discrimination, hardship and beatings or even death at the hands of the police. Jackson had said that the Diallo case shows that in America “it’s open season on blacks.”

From what I could tell, Kadi Diallo just didn’t believe that. When discussion moved from the particulars of her son’s case to a broader critique of American society, Sharpton’s political narrative ceased to be her own. At one point she told me of a sympathizer who had said to her, “I’m very sorry for your son–he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“No!” she had responded sharply. “He was in the right place!” Amadou, I had heard his uncle assert in the same vein, “loved America more than most Americans.” The rift between Sharpton and Kadi seemed to be about a built-in fork in the road, the place where an immigrant narrative of opportunity and fair treatment diverged from an African-American narrative about civil rights and historical injustice.

Kadi would not comment on my speculation. But when I asked her whether being in the public eye had helped her to grieve, she seemed to speak to it. “In one way yes, in another way no,” she said in November. “I wanted to express myself. What I was saying was the kind of thing that will ease my pain. But after that, I realized that I didn’t grieve. A few months ago, I came back to my senses, because the anger and the agony were gone. I don’t want to do that anymore– the speeches and things.”

As 1999 drew to a close, Kadi was crying a lot. She would wake up, she said, to find her pillow wet with tears. In Guinea, she said, it is thought that “if you keep on crying,” the deceased person “will be suffering because they are seeing you from where they are.” Prayer, she said, helps her to regain her composure.

Saikou Diallo, whose lawyers would let me speak to him only in their presence, also declined to talk about the rift with Sharpton. The speaking tour, he claimed, collapsed because of “bad communication” between himself and Kadi. But it is a matter of record that in June, Saikou publicly broke with Sharpton, saying his son’s death had become “too politicized” and “lost its main focus.” Shortly after, he incorporated his own, separate foundation and said he wanted somebody besides Cochran to represent the estate. Lawyers who have been involved in the Diallo matter say that the Diallos agreed to the Cochran-brokered arrangement because they were apparently unaware, having arrived in the United States only a few days earlier, that they could administer the estate themselves as long as each of them named a co-administrator who was a resident of New York state. (Through a spokesperson, Cochran insisted to me that he had made the Diallos aware of all the possible choices.)

In July, Saikou, through a new lawyer, filed papers to be named administrator of the estate himself. Kadi responded in August by hiring Robert Conason and filing a competing motion, amid blazing headlines, to be named administrator, asserting that a father who had abandoned his wife and children did not deserve any control over the estate. In November, Saikou and Kadi arrived at the power-sharing arrangement it seems they could have had all along. Now she fervently regrets the public acrimony.

“I will always respect him,” she said of Saikou. “We believe in our culture and religion–if you respect the father of your children, you will have blessings. It’s important for people to know that 10 years ago we divorced, we didn’t go to court. We have mutual respect.”

But resolution with Saikou didn’t end things. In a statement to Newsday, Conason, Kadi’s lawyer, inflamed the Sharpton camp by suggesting that his client would welcome the participation of Giuliani in the Amadou Diallo Foundation–even, frankly, if he wants, to be co-chair with Dave Dinkins.” (Kadi denies ever entertaining such an idea herself.) Newsday further suggested that Kadi viewed the foundation as a necessary corrective to the “protests and mass arrests that followed the killing” and the “already poor relations between Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the city’s minority communities.” The message was consonant with Kadi’s actions and with what she had told me: the time for fighting was past. Reconciliation was important to her own goals of healing.

But in movement politics things aren’t so simple. To Sharpton’s partisans, Kadi Diallo had not only left the fold, she had also–by hiring a white lawyer and wishing for peace–betrayed the movement. In an op-ed article this fall in The New York Amsterdam News that went unnoticed in the mainstream press, Sharpton’s ally Alton Maddox Jr. blasted Kadi.

“Make no mistake about it,” he began, “the mother of Amadou Diallo . . . is no Rosa Parks.” While Parks “retained and stuck with an attorney of African ancestry,” he wrote, Kadi Diallo “has suspiciously chosen to replace attorney Johnnie Cochran with a Wall Street law firm which has no history of rocking the boat or threatening the status quo.”

Despite “all that the African community has done for Diallo,” he wrote, “she announced (through her recently retained white attorney) . . . that it was time for the city to heal from the racial strife caused by the marches and demonstrations in the aftermath of her son’s death. She is either an opportunist or a fool or . . . both. Civil disobedience did not cause this city’s racial strife.”

Not wishing to inflame matters further, Kadi says, she never responded to the attack.

I spent the first day of Ramadan, Dec. 9, with Kadi Diallo. At one point, our driver, an Israeli, deduced who she was and effusively offered his condolences.

We visited a 96-year-old Guinean immigrant to the United States, Mohammed Korka Diallo (no relation), at his senior citizen’s residence in Harlem. He was from their village, Kadi said. She had visited him often for conversation and comfort since coming to New York. Korka wanted to get out of his apartment for a while, so we set up a triangle of chairs in the building’s austere lobby. He told me how he had served in the United States Army in World War II, how he had been the host of Sekou Toure, the future president of Guinea, on Toure’s trip to New York on the eve of the country’s independence in 1958. Of Amadou’s death, he said angrily: “That should never happen here. Never! America’s the greatest country on earth. And America is the worst country on earth.”

Korka, with his rheumy eyes, gazed at Kadi admiringly. “Each time I look at her,” he said, “I feel like crying. How does she hold herself? How does she go through life? It’s too much–but she’s strong. Such a strong person–more than a man.”

Kadi began to weep. He patted her leg. “Sometimes I cry, but it’s just to let it go,” she said. Two women recognized her as we left and expressed sorrow for her loss, now 11 months old. She told me that people recognized her everywhere.

Back in the car, she said she had been upset all day. “Ah, because no food in your stomach?” I asked, referring to the fast of Ramadan. No, she said, because she was so far away from home on such an important holiday. “Some days I just want to drop everything and go back.” She began to weep again. “I lost my son,” she said. “He was 23 years old and 5 months. We all expect to die, but not–like that.”

Back in the apartment, I asked her about the coming trial of the four policemen accused of killing Amadou. She would be there every day, she said, to be sure that justice was done.

“And if they are acquitted?” I asked.

“I will be very disappointed,” she said.

Two days later she called me back. She had been thinking about that quotation and wanted to improve on it. “I hope and pray that there will be a conviction–that’s why I’m calling for all the people to stand together, so that there won’t be this kind of incident again.” Use that, she said.

It reminded me of something she once said about limiting her public appearances so as not to abuse the sympathy people felt for her: “I have to think which is good to do as a grieving mother.” Both quotations showed an awareness of the power of the image, which is perhaps unseemly in a mourner–but which, in the media circus of New York, is probably indispensible.

Then, suddenly, on Dec. 16, the state Supreme Court Appellate Division changed the venue of the trial to Albany, saying that a fair trial in the Bronx was impossible. Jury selection is now scheduled to begin Jan. 31. To those seeking a conviction, this was seen as a disaster: the (white, upstate) residents of the capital, it is assumed, are much less likely to convict (white) policemen than are the (black and Latino) residents of the Bronx.

Stunned as I was by the news, I was even more surprised to see Kadi behind the microphones at Sharpton’s news conference that evening. She had given me the impression that she no longer spoke to him at all. The court’s decision, he began, was “immoral and an insult to the people of the Bronx.” He drew the inevitable, disquieting parallels to the trial of the policemen in the Rodney King case, which was moved from Los Angeles to suburban Simi Valley; the verdicts in the case sparked the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

Kadiatou Diallo, as usual, waited until her ex-husband, Saikou, had said his piece, then added in a quiet voice: “We don’t want our agony to be prolonged. We are here, we seek justice, we respect the rules. It’s not fair.”

Sharpton’s anger, Kadi’s sorrow, together again. I called her at home the next day, and she said he had called with the news–what choice did she have? It was important to make a statement, and he was having a news conference. (Sharpton told me that despite not having made public appearances together since early summer, they had never stopped talking by phone–much of the time about the foundation.)

And, she said, she had another statement, for me: “I don’t want this trial to be Reverend Sharpton versus Giuliani.” She wanted people to focus on the trial, not politics. And she was setting forth a personal agenda for Albany: she was asking Sharpton, but also Representative Charles Rangel, Muslim leaders and others, to help put together a group of religious leaders, of all faiths, “to come and support the family at the trial.”

“They should come in peace,” she said firmly. “Rallies are not necessary. At this moment, we are not going to have just one person in charge.” By which you mean Sharpton, I asked? “He does what he can do when it is necessary,” she replied obliquely, but the message seemed clear: from here on out, it was not about the fight, it was about healing–hers and the city’s. Justice in Amadou’s case was a precondition. But it struck me that maybe the conclusion to Kadi’s story, if she could write it–if her lawyer really weren’t making it up–would be one in which Dinkins and Giuliani sat together on the board of the foundation in her son’s name, making educational grants to young African immigrants, keeping them safe.

One response to “Kadi Diallo’s Trial”

  1. raymond manieson says:

    Dear Sir,
    my name is Raymond from ghana i read this article the person is one of my old friend which we lost contact for years.I would like to re-establish contact with Mr sekou or his ex-wife,kadi. Hope you will reply soon.