The Sounds of Silence

For Amadou Diallo’s parents, of course, the verdict is the only issue. For the rest of us, it’s not the issue at all. Even people who think the verdict was the right one under the circumstances surely can’t believe that the problems the shooting and verdict put on such stark display can, or should, be tucked away.

The issue, in a word, is race.

The Senate campaign in which the mayor is involved is supposed to be about other things – about health care and education and vision, among other pleasant topics. But now, for a week, at least, it’s about something that wasn’t part of the script, something that isn’t upbeat at all, something politicians hope at all costs to avoid.

Rudy Giuliani wants to avoid it most of all, of course, since his relationship with black New York is the single worst thing about his mayoralty. And since he has to know the acquittal does him no good. If the verdict “is anyone’s political problem, it’s Rudy’s,” says consultant Norman Adler, who works with both Democrats and Republicans around the state. “When November rolls around, and the people against him start ticking off one, two, three, four things they don’t like about him, one of them is going to be Diallo.”

True enough; Adler mentions a conversation he had last week with a black assemblywoman who told him that she plans on working to make sure the memory of the acquittal lingers through November. Zoom the lens out: Picture black and Latino elected officials and preachers and community leaders all over New York (State – there are black voters in Buffalo and Rochester, too) invoking Amadou Diallo’s name from pulpits and lecterns and street corners as Election Day nears. Anger over the verdict itself will have dissipated by then; fear of Giuliani’s reaching higher office, on the other hand, may well not have.

This kind of anti-Giuliani agitation will happen beneath the radar of the major media, which don’t pay much attention to what State Assembly members do. The other question – and the more important one, since the “reality” most of us react to is the one the media create – is this: Is anyone capable of making a public and moral case against the mayor around the Diallo tragedy? Anyone who can argue credibly and to a broad audience that Giuliani bears such a degree of blame for the behavior of his Police Department in some of these cases that he is somehow unfit for the Senate? Those are tough questions, because Giuliani’s answer will always be, “This city is safer than it’s been in 30 years.” And that’s not an easy response to trump.

A liberal version of McCain would have found a way to be politically adroit and still say something he actually felt, something that carried an emotional charge.

Al Sharpton can’t do it. Constituency’s too narrow. Calvin Butts – sometimes, when he finds the right balance between anger and moral outrage. David Dinkins? Too much personal bitterness in what he says about Giuliani. Mark Green? Too much against Rudy, on everything, for his words to pack a huge punch.

One person who can do this, if he chooses to, is Bill Bratton. True, Bratton detests Rudy. But on the subjects of crime reduction and police procedure, he can certainly speak with authority. He happens to have agreed with the Diallo verdict: “I didn’t see this as a crime,” he told me. “I saw it as a tragedy.” And he has some very interesting things to say about the way the mayor has failed with regard to race relations. Two weeks ago on New York 1, he said the idea that someone with Giuliani’s record on race could win higher office is “mind-boggling,” and in a conversation with me after the verdict, he expanded on that theme.

“New York, more than any other city, had the chance to solve not only the crime problem but the race problem,” he said. “Imagine – Giuliani could have been running now not only on crime reduction but on race-relation improvements … After the Louima case, while he was seeking re-election, he attempted for a short period of time. But the election’s over, the Louima report comes out, and what does he do? Ignores it. The bridges were destroyed. Instead, we have enemies lists.”

Rudy missed his chances by being Rudy, and by refusing to talk to anyone who doesn’t see the world Rudy’s way. In doing so, he’s created an opportunity for Hillary. What’s she doing with it?

Not much yet. Her post-verdict remarks were, as usual, completely flat. I asked both Adler and Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant, how they would be advising her to respond if they were on her team, and both agreed she was right to stick with the bromides. “She has to do nothing,” Sheinkopf said. “Allow the pols supporting her to do the work for her.” Well, they’re the political pros, not me. But I doubt John McCain – who provided sharp contrast to Rudy’s jury-has-spoken shtick and Hillary’s vacillations when he delivered his amazing religious-right speech in Virginia Beach a few days later – would have accepted such advice. A liberal version of McCain would have found a way to be politically adroit and still say something he actually felt, something that carried an emotional charge. The leading liberals either said next to nothing (Hillary and Al Gore) or said something but said it from Seattle (Bill Bradley).

I was in Rochester following Mrs. Clinton around on the day Wayne Barrett’s story came out in The Village Voice about Giuliani’s fund-raising letter decrying her “hostility” to religious tradition. Her aides called a press conference at the hotel that morning. When she appeared, she was clearly quaking with rage. Oh, boy, I thought. Here it finally comes. When she started talking, though, the language was lifeless. No personal testimony about her religious convictions, which are real; nothing that could remotely offend anyone. People who want to support her keep thinking, well, when such-and-such happens, she’ll come out of her shell. But then such-and-such happens, and still she’s on autopilot.

There’s an upside to offending some people, which is that when you actually take a stand and say something that ruffles feathers, other people will feel compelled to rally to your defense. Race, and the mayor’s record on it, would seem to offer ample opportunity to do exactly that. One suspects there are many voters who would like to hear Hillary say, with whatever qualifiers she likes, that people have good reason to be angry when an unarmed black man is killed for standing outside his house, and that the mayor has done nothing to show any sympathy for that anger. The chant “Fuck Giuliani,” which I heard as I approached the corner of Boynton and Watson Avenues last Wednesday night in the Bronx after the Malcolm Ferguson shooting, may be just rage. But while chanting on a street corner is something powerless people do, turning rage into political action is something leaders are supposed to do. Tragedies can be exploited to good ends, too, even by politicians.


The Sounds of Silence