The Truth, Mainly - 03/06/2000

Imagine a race, role reversal
by Leon Satterfield

Four white New York City police officers were acquitted of all charges Friday in the killing of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo…. -Associated Press, Feb. 26, 2000.

Now that you're all hooked up to this Imaginometer, let's go ahead and test the limits of your imagination. Ready?

First we want to establish a baseline. Imagine that the law of gravity has been repealed. OK. Now imagine the sun coming up in the west. Fine. Your imagination has extraordinary tolerance for the unlikely. The Imaginometer needle hardly moved.

Now imagine this: Four New York City police officers, members of the Street Crime Unit-whose motto is "We own the night"-are patrolling the mean streets of Central Park West. You know, where John Lennon was killed.

OK with that? Now imagine this:

The four officers are African-Americans.

And as members of the Street Crime Unit, they're in civilian clothes, driving an unmarked car.

Good. The Imaginometer shows you're well within your limits.

Now imagine these four hypothetical African-American police officers are heavily armed and looking for trouble. They find it in Torvald Hovstad, an imaginary recent immigrant from Norway. His English isn't good and he's very, very white.

Let us suppose that the four hypothetical African-American officers see Torvald outside one of those Central Park West apartment buildings and decide he's up to no good. So they jump out of their unmarked car, pull their guns, and tell Torvald to freeze.

Torvald freezes. Catatonic with fear, maybe, thinking he's being robbed. Or perhaps he's been told by relatives that the Street Crime Unit doesn't wear uniforms and he's hoping the four guys yelling at him are police officers instead of murderous thugs.

Now, this is the important part. Imagine very carefully this scene:

Torvald goes for his wallet, either to give the muggers his money or to show the officers his ID-to prove to them that he lives inside this Central Park West apartment building. But when he pulls out his wallet, one of the hypothetical police officers yells "Gun!"

And imagine this: all four officers begin shooting Torvald. They shoot him for quite a while.

They shoot 41 hypothetical bullets, 19 of which hit him. They hit him in various parts of his anatomy. Some even hit him on the bottoms of his feet. They make a terrible mess and Torvald Hovstad dies in the bloody—but imaginary —vestibule of the apartment building where he lives.

No, that's normal. The Imaginometer needle often jumps like that.

Now imagine this: A year later, the four officers-African-Americans, you remember-are brought to trial, charged with second-degree murder of an innocent white man.

OK, now we're going to test your imagination a little more strenuously. You may feel some discomfort.

Imagine that defense attorneys argue that Torvald's death was his own Norwegian fault. He should have known better than to go for his wallet. Police officers with drawn guns feel threatened when recent immigrants of other races go for their wallets.

Don't worry. The Imaginometer often makes noises like that.

And imagine that our defense attorney points out that Torvald behaved suspiciously when he "peered" out the vestibule, then went "slinking" back in. So of course it was a terrible accident, imagine the jury being told, but it wasn't really the fault of the African-American officers. Their racial profiling training had taught them to zero in on very, very white guys with funny accents. So if Torvald hadn't fit the profile, imagine the attorney saying, it wouldn't have been necessary for the African-American officers to shoot 41 bullets at him.

Yes, I believe there is a bit of smoke coming from the Imaginometer, but it will cool down when you imagine what Torvald's mother said: that police were suspicious of her son "because he was standing outside his home, breathing."

See? It's not smoking any more.

We're nearly finished. There's just one more thing I want you to imagine:

That the four hypothetical African-American police officers who have killed an innocent white man in Central Park West are found not guilty.

Certainly I'll repeat that. I'm asking you—who can imagine without difficulty the repeal of the law of gravity and the sun rising in the west—to imagine that African-American officers who admit killing an innocent white man in Central Park West are acquitted of all charges.

That's funny. I've never seen this model of the Imaginometer burst into flames. You didn't get burned, did you?


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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