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.
Mayor Giuliani’s response to the issue has only amplified their anger. He didn’t go to the Bronx, he didn’t meet with black leaders, and he didn’t bother to take an evenhanded position by saying the cops were cleared by the jury but he understood that people have a right to disagree and seek redress through the system. He simply said, yet again, that New York’s Police Department shoots fewer people than many other American big-city departments.
“I have no argument with the mayor about those numbers,” says Walcott, “but there’s a lot more to building relationships than facts and figures.”
The mayor simply refuses – even if just for the sake of appearances – to send any signal or take any action that shows he is sensitive to what people are feeling. He doesn’t show any respect for the possibility that there is another side to the story and people can hold legitimate views that differ from his.
“I don’t know why he is the way he is,” says Butts, whose church now holds classes in how to react when stopped by the police, “but he’s hopeless. This has nothing to do with politics. People are frustrated that the leader of this city, the leader of the police, refuses to acknowledge there’s a problem.”
The mayor also refuses to recognize the value of trying to bring people together. Not everyone who questions the circumstances and the number of bullets fired in the shooting of Amadou Diallo is a cop-basher. Not everyone who asks if it’s time for the department to throttle back a little given the enormous reductions in crime is an idiot or worse.
“It’s almost like no matter what you do, he’s gonna insult you and demonize you,” says Sharpton. “And for what? For asking why an innocent man was killed by 19 bullets? Even my worst critic would have to say we’ve built one of the most multi-racial movements the city has seen in years. How can he call us divisive?”
In fact, Giuliani’s unwillingness to give any ground, to acknowledge that the police can make a mistake – to acknowledge that an innocent man’s being killed by the police is by definition an injustice – serves to undermine his and the NYPD’s historic achievement. There is no question that the city is a far better place than it was seven years ago, but it’s difficult to celebrate the change fully when there are large numbers of people who continue to be afraid of the police.
“With something as egregious as this case, when 41 shots are fired,” says Walcott, “it makes people who’ve always been trying to work inside the system to get reform obsolete. Because it gives justification to those who say no matter what you do, the criminal-justice system doesn’t work for us.”
The other tragedy of the Diallo case is that the mayor, if he so chose, could lead the city out of its current impasse.
“There is a wall between the black community and the mayor,” says Walcott. “He needs to show that ‘I really, really do understand what you’re saying and what you’re going through. I may see it a certain way, but I understand where you’re coming from, and this is what I’m gonna try to do to respond to that.’ “
On the policing front, it is time for a quality-of-life initiative. In the same way that the department began to take back the streets by first focusing on small signs of disorder – quality-of-life crimes – it is now time for a similar program within the department. Change attitudes by starting with the small things: not just the number of people who are killed, but how many are roughed up needlessly, insulted, or subjected to a petty reign of terror.
“We all have a responsibility,” says Walcott, “if we believe in the city, to approach this from an optimistic point of view and to do everything we can to try and bridge this divide.”
Butts is no less hopeful but believes there’ll be little substantive change in the city until there’s a change in City Hall. I asked him if he was sorry that he injected politics into his sermon by appearing to endorse Hillary Clinton – if it didn’t undermine the impact of what he said by enabling the mayor to simply dismiss his remarks as partisan politics as usual.
“First of all,” he told me, “I don’t care what he says at this point. Second of all, I was not trying to endorse Hillary, who I’m not that crazy about, either. I just wanted the people to understand that the only way he’s gonna get the depth of how we feel is to defeat him at the polls.”