When the reverend calvin Butts stepped forward to deliver his sermon in the Abyssinian Baptist Church two days after the Diallo verdict, he held no prepared text in his hand and in fact was not entirely sure what he was going to say. All he knew for certain was that, like much of the city's black population, he was angry.
And so Butts stood in the pulpit, looking radiant in a royal-blue robe with gold brocade trim, and told the churchgoers what happens after an ugly episode of police brutality or, say, when someone like Louis Farrakhan has been spewing anti-Semitism. White leaders call on him to intercede, to ask for calm, or to denounce the offensive remarks. And that's exactly what happened when the four cops charged in the Diallo shooting were acquitted. He received several such calls, but the one that pushed him over the edge, the one he decided to tell his congregants about, came from a man he describes as a "substantial figure" in the business and political life of the city.
"He said to me, 'Calvin, you black people ought to understand that it was a fair trial,' " Butts told his congregation. " 'And still there's all these rumblings now.' And then he starts telling me, 'Well, you know, most crime is black-on-black crime, and the police have done a lot of good. And we need you now. You're a black leader. We need you to go out there and deal with your people.'
"At that point, I told him: 'Go to hell, white man.' "
Coming from Butts, this was a shocking remark, one that seemed sharply at odds with his record as a builder and a conciliator. In the past decade, Butts has worked comfortably and effectively within the system, forging relationships with business leaders and politicians, starting a development corporation, getting close to Governor Pataki, and generally doing whatever he could to bring money, housing, and commercial enterprise to Harlem. He'd become such a pillar of the Establishment that when he was named president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury five months ago, even the New York Post endorsed him.
But his stark rebuke to the businessman, evocative as it was of a different time and a different attitude, was the sound bite -- along with a few blistering shots at the mayor -- that got picked up by the newspapers and the radio and television stations. Taken out of context, and coupled with his call for agitation and resistance, it made Butts sound like a fiery, threatening, old-style black activist -- like Al Sharpton, actually (ironically, Sharpton seemed to be everywhere, calling for restraint). The New York Post promptly (and predictably) called for his resignation from Old Westbury, and the remark threatened to undo much of what he'd spent the past ten years building.
"With something as egregious as this case, when 41 shots are fired," says Urban League president Dennis Walcott, "it makes people who've always been trying to work inside the system to get reform obsolete."
Butts, however, has absolutely no regrets about making the statement -- outrage, he says, was the only possible response, and his congregants needed to hear him say it. "I thought about the backlash, and I knew that part of Giuliani's madness is that he might cut off funding. That he might punish the community," Butts told me late one evening last week when he was driving back to the city from Albany. "He's done it in the past. But I could not be swayed by that. Doing right for the wrong reason is the worst temptation. There's no amount of housing units or economic-development projects that can make up for the death of a young man, the way Amadou Diallo died. You simply can't be silent," he said.
"And these people can't ask me to call for calm," he continued, "if they're not willing to confront their mayor. You want me to call for calm in my community when a completely innocent young black man with no weapon, going home after a long, hard day's work, is shot at 41 times? Instead of saying, 'Hey, Cal, you should do this and you should do that and black people this and black people that -- and black people, black people, black people.' They should say, 'Hey, Cal, this is a time when guys like me, guys in commerce and industry, are gonna go into a room with the mayor and close the door and tell him this can't continue. The police cannot continue to treat black people this way.' "
For Butts, as for other prominent black leaders I spoke to, the Diallo verdict and its aftermath crystallized feelings that had been building for a long time. In fact, both Butts and New York Urban League president Dennis Walcott sum it up in almost exactly the same words: "When you look at this case, the thing that hits home for blacks is that it could've been any one of us at any time," says Walcott, who has worked exhaustively and quietly over the past couple of years to bridge the gap between the minority community and the Police Department.