On February 4th, 1999, Amadou Diallo was approaching his Bronx apartment when four plain-clothed police officers confronted him. Ordered to show his hands, Diallo reached for his pocket to pull out his wallet, but the police mistook it for a gun and opened fire. Forty-one shots later, Diallo lay dead in front of his home. The police department’s internal investigation declared the police had acted reasonably.
Community unrest ensued, including organized prayer vigils and protests where the chanting of “41 shots” became a kind of ritual. A month after the shooting, a New York grand jury charged the four officers with second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. By then, the case had received national news coverage, with protestors and well-known New Yorkers facing off against the city’s tough-on-crime mayor Rudy Giuliani.
We have since become accustomed to such high-profile cases of police violence put on trial, but that kind of national attention was rare at the time. The Diallo case became a national story primarily because of the incendiary politics of race and immigration. For one, the victim—Amadou Diallo—was an immigrant from Guinea who came to New York only three years prior. Giuliani’s drastic steps to reduce New York City crime and his plain-clothed police squad known as the “Street Crime Unit” had already earned national attention. Protesters invited civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton to organize rallies at which hundreds of protestors were arrested, including the city’s previous mayor. With cameras in the courtroom, the trial of the four police officers became a crime and legal drama covered daily by broadcast and cable networks in a manner reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson case just a few years before. In the end, all four were acquitted of the charges.
The 2020 Netflix documentary series Trial by Media revisits the details of the case through the lens of its considerable media coverage. An hour-long episode directed by Garrett Bradley examined both the shooting and the trial, featuring interviews with the reporters who covered the case as well as Sharpton, a lawyer for one of the police officers, and Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou. The jury’s decision to acquit all four officers, while contextualized by explanations from jurists themselves, still offers a harrowing end to the episode. And Kadiatou’s narration of the events magnifies the deep sense of tragedy and injustice.
One of the culminating lines of the documentary was delivered by New York Post writer Frankie Edozien who covered the case firsthand: “I don’t know how you can prove racism in the court of law.” While this statement could be interpreted in several ways, it serves as an indictment of the documentary itself and of myself, the documentary viewer. Having become immersed in the narrative, characters, and driving soundtrack accompanying each twist and turn, I found it easy to view the Diallo case as a standard morality play of heroes and villains, with the courtroom serving as the setting of the final, climatic moment. The only satisfying solution to this story is a guilty verdict.
Yet real life events are not nearly so tidy. Justice did not seem to be served; certainly not all was made right. Diallo’s mother was left distraught, while the police officers walked away free, never answering for those forty-one shots fired at an unarmed man.
As in this case and many others, courtroom drama easily misleads. Media executives have honed the craft of attracting national interest to flare-ups and clashes over school board proceedings, controversial small business practices, or, more recently, police misconduct. It’s one thing for media attention to generate needed transparency, calls for change, or energies to organize and mobilize resources. Media is at its best when performing these functions. But for the majority of news viewers, these events are tailored not for activists but “audiences.”
Media critic Neil Postman’s 1992 book How to Watch TV News reminds us there is a reason our news appears on “shows”: It is always carefully curated by some news “producer” whose job depends on incorporating the best practices of theatrical production. The biggest news events—generally wars or tragedies—even get their own theme songs and compete for Emmys alongside other television programming. Other episodes in Trial by Media capture several firsts in profit-driven media subsumption of high-interest court cases, recounting the first nationally televised trial, the launch of Court TV, and the rise of 24-hour cable news as a central means of airing cases long beyond the primetime news hour.
But the proliferation of made-for-TV justice in many ways meets a growing demand for very particular type of programming in an age of political polarization. It is a phenomenon that is tightly linked to the partisan tribalism of our political culture. Executives and producers are good at “personalizing” events with appeals to particular affinities and political attachments of audiences: This event really is about you and affects your values and way of life. And the trick works. Local events, with all of their gritty particularity, are transformed into national news. This corrosive admixture of for-profit media and political-cultural identities ensures that highly publicized legal decisions draw an audience of loyal viewers.
As Edozien observes of the Diallo case, these conditions encourage the false hope that some particular development or ruling might deliver not only a conviction against racism itself but also a punishment proportional to the charges under consideration. The problem is that it is unlikely a single court case can yield such an outcome. No decision reached by twelve jurors in Albany, New York—or, for that matter, Kenosha County, Wisconsin or Brunswick, Georgia—will ever be capable of undoing the long history of racial violence against and the deep-seated dehumanization of minorities in the United States.
What, then, can the law achieve? Consider civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation that the law was a necessary but not exhaustive solution to racism: “Let us never succumb to the temptation of believing that legislation and judicial decrees play only minor roles in solving problem,” he said in one sermon. “Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”
King saw the “ultimate solution” to racial injustices resided in the “willingness of men to obey the unenforceable.” King worked closely with Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin, who mapped out a more holistic approach to change that made social, political, and economic institutions the “ultimate molders of collective sentiments.” The specific actions of a trial, prosecutor, or jury can make incremental gains but ultimately fall short of the institutional reform Rustin saw as necessary. Meanwhile, the mediation of these events by partisan news sources now lessens the likelihood that these events will substantively move public opinion. Given such circumstances, actors within the justice system are charged only to fulfill the provisional tasks assigned to their jurisdiction by the justice system, generally related to the particular case under consideration. These provisional roles are often of far less interest to national news audiences.
Rulings can certainly take on added symbolism and cultural meanings, particularly in signifying substantive steps toward righting historic wrongs. But this reveals the law's inescapable interdependence upon a wider realm of cultural meanings. Not all are keen to accept this view. In an aptly titled piece “The Law Wishes to Have a Formal Existence,” literary theorist Stanley Fish attacked popular notions that law occupies a position above the fray of interpretation, culture, and morality. But the law contains no “self-executing” procedures, he writes, that can yield formal meanings and applications independent of an agent performing interpretations or subjective judgments. Fish essentially dismisses the justice system’s self-proclaimed ability to apply “formal,” value-neutral criteria of judgment, instead bringing to the foreground the inescapable historical, moral, or context-bounded contingencies.
Fish’s critique of a supposedly value-neutral law helps us see the truth of Edozien’s commentary. The law—construed here as particular criminal court cases—is severely constrained in its ability to renounce or transcend the larger web of social and cultural conditions in which it operates. This does not mean legal judgments are merely subjective interpretations or parochial interests: Fish’s arguments do not require accepting the view that law is merely “politics all the way down.” Fish’s legal realism instead allows for a more tempered view of the law that resembles King’s. Law, courts, and policing still play a vital role in establishing and protecting a just order, but legal rulings have a limited ability to decisively resolve social deeper problems. It is here that larger questions of social change hinge on getting bad actors to assent to particular norms or, in King’s words, “obey the unenforceable.”
Escaping the media-created view of justice allows us to revisit the tactics of the civil rights movement. The key actors were not disembodied talking heads or disembodied theories of justice. The real instigators were instead members of particular communities and local networks—ministers, activists, sharecroppers, business owners, and local politicians. As Georgetown law professor Gary Peller has put it, these leaders served as the “organic intellectuals” able to bridge abstract political ideals and local practices by speaking to organic communities “held together by bonds of a particular racial culture and history.”
There’s a surprising parallel between the observations of Peller—who is at times associated with the now-well known (and in some circles, infamous) school of thought known as critical race theory—and an earlier conservative view of the law. Conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet also saw the irresolvable relationship between a just social order and local institutions and actors. Echoing the arguments of many on the left today, Nisbet rejected notions of political power that claim to arbitrate among interests as “something either independent of or antithetical to moral tradition and social authority.” Nisbet’s more communitarian approach to authority, while not directly attuned to racialized distortions of power, placed its faith in human actors more deeply embedded within particular social relations and places. Many early civil rights movement leaders possessed precisely these credentials and drew on the authority acceded to them as longstanding members of a particular community. Their writings and speeches often locked horns with liberal politicians and intellectuals clinging to a more idealistic vision of gradually unfolding equality and rights, which members of local communities could see was failing to materialize.
But rooting out social ills like racism is complex: an all-hands-on-deck approach is certainly warranted, one that sees the justice system and even the media as productively operating alongside other forces and actors. The Diallo story again proves an instructive case, and Trial By Media, as long-form journalism working to place the events in a larger context, deserves credit in capturing how different forces can work together. Diallo's story did not in fact end with the courtroom ruling. The outrage generated by multiple cases of police violence eventually led to the disbanding of the Street Crimes Unit in 2002. At the end of the documentary, Trial by Media highlight the life and work of Amadou’s mother, Kadiatou, as she has continued to promote Amadou’s story. Kadiatou today speaks out against racial injustice and police violence while leading a foundation that seeks to promote racial healing and support educational opportunities for students of African descent. Kadiatou works alongside many other actors—teachers, religious clergy, parents, and community organizers—who draw on local goodwill and respect.
Such work certainly incorporates tactics of publicity that bring needed attention to social injustices and institutional failures. But the real work of justice is precisely what takes place in these local communities long after the national eye of the media has moved on to the next ratings-generating flashpoint.