Measuring John Ashcroft

By Hugh B. Price


National Urban League

Many Americans, undoubtedly, won't think to connect the name of the new United States Attorney General, John Ashcroft, with the name of a hardworking immigrant from Black Africa, Amadou Diallo.

But I think many African Americans will.

This past week African Americans, along with the rest of the country, learned the expected: that the former Senator from Missouri will be their next Attorney General.

And this past week African Americans learned that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan had decided not to bring federal civil rights charges against the four white New York City police officers who shot Amadou Diallo to death in the hallway of his apartment building in a furious, overwhelming hail of bullets.

Justice Department officials said the decision was made after concluding that the officers did not fire at Diallo "with the specific intent to use unreasonable force," adding that without evidence of intent, no federal civil rights charges could be brought.

The decision of the U.S. Attorney's Office means that the criminal justice system has now twice effectively declared that the death of Amadou Diallo, an innocent man who came to America in search of opportunity, was no one's fault but his own.

That was the meaning of the jury acquittal handed up in the state criminal trial of the four officers, too—a trial which before it began was moved from its proper location in New York City's multi-ethnic borough of The Bronx to Albany, N.Y. in order to place it in the hands of a white judge and a predominantly white jury.

So, behind all the by-now practiced declarations that Diallo's death was a "tragic mistake," what this means is that the criminal justice system has accepted the argument of the police officers: That it was the behavior of Amadou Diallo, who was not armed when he was shot to death, had never been in trouble with the law, and was not about to commit any crime, which made the four officers draw their weapons and turn his apartment building's narrow hallway into a shooting gallery.

What most African Americans know is that Amadou Diallo could have been any one of us, and that under those same circumstances our deaths, too, would have been written off as a "tragic mistake."

Amadou Diallo's death, two years ago this month, was at the center of an extraordinary moment in the history of the relationship between black Americans and the American criminal justice system.

It was a moment which revealed that the complaints black Americans had been raising for years of a deeply-rooted racial bias in the criminal justice system were valid.

The Amadou Diallo case symbolized in stark, tragic—and yes, here the word is appropriate—terms, what criminal justice expert Christopher E. Stone referred to as the crux of the harsh "paradox" African Americans face in regard to crime and the criminal justice system.

Writing in the National Urban League's The State Of Black America 1996, Stone said that "(a)s a group, African Americans suffer severely from crime in their communities. Yet, they have learned, justifiably, to mistrust the governmental institutions charged with fighting crime."

As Attorney General, John Ashcroft assumes the federal responsibility to reform the criminal justice system's relationship with people of color—to continue the effort to make it truly a system of justice; and also, of course, to uphold the law on a host of other issues, including protecting the lawful right of choice on abortion, election reform, AIDS, and ensuring the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans.

The National Urban League made no secret of its view that Mr. Ashcroft was not the right choice for this critical post because of the rigidly doctrinaire conservative positions he has expressed on a wide range of issues and the actions he has taken while serving as, first, governor of, and then, senator from Missouri.

Neither did more than 200 liberal groups of all sorts and, tellingly, 42 Democratic members of the U.S. Senate. Their vote against John Ashcroft was the largest tally against a presidential Cabinet nominee since 1925.

The Washington Post last week editorialized that now Attorney General Ashcroft, who "affected" a "remarkable transformation" into a moderate during his turbulent confirmation hearings "bears a considerable burden to demonstrate that he will be the attorney general of his testimony."

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was even more specific.

"If Mr. Ashcroft lives up to his pledge," it stated, "he will not water down voting rights enforcement. He will not veto judicial candidates just because they believe in abortion rights. He will tell President George W. Bush that Congress' partial birth abortion bill is unconstitutional. He will not dismantle affirmative action and will appoint a civil rights litigator to head the Civil Rights Division."

Will the new Attorney General of the United States pass the judgment of the pledges he gave during his confirmation hearings? Will he live up to the measuring rod his own words have provided?

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