Friendly Fire in the Bronx
Jude Wanniski
March 1, 2000


To: Rev. Al Sharpton
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Diallo Verdict

I'm writing in defense of the unanimous jury verdict of "not guilty" in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo by four white NYC cops. Before you decide this missive is from an insensitive honky, let me assure you that I was one of the few white guys on my block who defended the acquittal of O.J. Simpson when the verdict came down. As I wrote then, Oct. 6, 1995: "The trial of O.J. Simpson demonstrated something of incredible importance to black America. That is, we have finally reached a point in our national family that a physical black man could be tried for murdering a beautiful, blonde white woman, that a mountain of evidence would seem to point toward his guilt, that almost all of white America would believe in his guilt, and yet the law of presumed innocence peculiar to our nation would free him on the reasonable doubt of a jury of his peers."

As my headline on this memo indicates, Rev. Sharpton, my reasoning on the Diallo death was that he was killed by "friendly fire," and that there should be no guilt attached to the officers in the minds of the black community, ours or theirs. In a war zone, soldiers at times accidentally shoot and kill their own comrades. What we term "friendly fire" is precisely due to the dangers of war zones, where the sudden sighting of what appears to be an armed hostile results in a hail of bullets from both sides of a common unit. Yes, if Amadou Diallo was not a black man, he would be alive today. But the police were looking for a black man who had raped a neighborhood girl, which is why they did not come to my door in Morristown, N.J. The black and Hispanic Bronx has been a war zone for many years. The cops who opened fire when they believed they found their man in a tenement hallway, with a gun in his hand, fired 41 bullets, but we now know the jury put the 41 out of their minds and concentrated on the first shot. Was it justified?

When the story first broke, I became upset when my wife became outraged at the idea of 41 shots being fired at an innocent black guy. I was ready to jump up and down myself, until I read the first account, which explained the reason for the hail of bullets: The angles in the corridor were causing the bullets to ricochet back at the police, who thought their "man" was returning their fire. When I reported this to my wife, she immediately saw that she had perhaps been hasty. As with the O.J. trial -- where she agreed the reasonable doubt justified acquittal, we decided to leave this to a jury to sort out. When we learned one of the cops mistook Diallo's hand on his wallet for his hand on a gun ... and yelled out, "The gun!" prompting fire ... it seemed the reaction of the officers may have been unjustified. Perhaps they were too trigger happy and as a result should somehow be punished, even if there was no verdict of manslaughter.

Then we learned the officer who saw the gun/wallet had experienced the sight of a wallet in a man's hand in a way that made it look as if he were gripping a small pistol. The jurors were shown such a gun and pictures that made it appear a man holding a wallet was holding a gun. It was this final straw that broke the back of the prosecution. And it left me with the image of "friendly fire." Of course I am not happy with the death of an innocent man, but I am increasingly irritated by those in the political world or news media who are so quick to denounce the jury of eight whites and four blacks who came to the only decision consistent with our legal system.

By the way, Rev. Sharpton, I have also defended your role in the black community, in cooling off the passions aroused by the decision. Where my old colleagues at The Wall Street Journal editorial page trashed you in Monday's lead editorial -- calling you a "demagogue" -- I read your statement as a reasoned one that fit the distress felt at the moment by black citizens of New York who did not have the opportunity the 12 jurors had to see the evidence played out.

For those who missed your statement and saw only photos of you appearing to harangue the crowds, here is the relevant part of your remarks:

I've been asked by the family to go to the street where Amadou lived to let the people know that we've not given up, that we do not want to tarnish his name with any violence. Let not one brick be thrown, not one bottle be thrown, not one evidence of violence come from us. We are fighting violence -- violent men that shoot an unarmed man 41 times and then stand up in court and try to act like there is justification for that. Do not confuse us with the violent ones and the reckless ones. For those that believe in Amadou, do not betray his memory by acting like those that killed him. Don't be a traitor; be one that is willing to go the long haul for justice. We are on our way to dealing with the federal government so that we can clear up in this land that any man has the right to stand on his doorstep, any man in this nation has the right to look down his street, any man has the right to expect the police are protecting him, not shooting him.

As a prominent and respected spiritual and political leader in the black community, this kind of statement seemed reasonable to me under the circumstances. Even while I absolve the police officers of wrongdoing, as did the Albany jurors, I know Diallo's death should have a higher purpose, one that helps lead our national family on a path that makes "friendly fire" and urban "war zones" a nasty memory.