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It’s been 17 years since Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 23-year-old Liberian-born student, was gunned down by law enforcement officials as he stood in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building.

Diallo’s story has become a common narrative for men of color in America. Several years, lives, and hashtags later, the tarnished relationship between police officers and the communities they serve remains a lingering issue in our country. On Thursday, Amadou’s mother Kadiatou Diallo, civil rights activists, local community leaders, and the mothers of men who have lost their lives at the hands of police gathered at The Riverside Church in New York City’s Harlem community to commemorate Diallo’s legacy.

Dubbed “Heal our Communities,” the event was hosted by The Amadou Diallo Foundation, an initiative launched by his mother to focus on racial healing through education. Some of Amadou’s last words to his mother before he was killed were, “Mom, I’m going to college.”

The number 41 was a common thread throughout the evening; symbol of both life and death. On September 29 of this year, Diallo would have celebrated his 41st birthday. On the fateful day in 1999, four NYPD officers fired 41 bullets at Diallo, immediately killing him.

Kadiatou Diallo spoke before the crowd about the pain she endures each year that her son’s birthday comes around. “Tonight is very special. How do we mark a child’s birthday when he’s not here? After 17 years of commemorating my son’s death, I wanted to do this event because every birthday is painful,” she said.

Despite the pain, she finds comfort in connecting with other women who have experienced the same type of loss: “I have relationships with moms. We have this connection. From our loss, we gained each other. From our loss, we have learned how to bond. We have learned how to talk about our children. We have learned how to heal.”

The mothers of Eric Garner—a Staten Island man who died after being put in a chokehold by an officer during an arrest—and Mohamed Bah—a man who was shot and killed by law enforcement officials at his Harlem apartment—both shared that officers and communities of color need to find a common ground in efforts to make an effective change.

“We have to get the community together with the police. One should respect the other,” said Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother. “The police should know who they are policing. I think that they should get out and meet the community. Once the neighborhood starts respecting the police and the police start respecting the neighborhood, we can begin healing.”

Hawa Bah echoed Carr’s sentiments. “I want to see fellowship between the police and the people. I would appreciate it if everyone sees each other as human beings instead of as animals,” she said.

Civil rights activist and New York Daily News writer Shaun King brought an interesting perspective to the discussion, delving into how social media contributes to dehumanizing the context of incidents related to police brutality. “Part of the struggle that I think we’re having as a country is that when we see a hashtag on Twitter or even a headline on social media it lacks the human depth,” said King.

He also stated that the key to healing is justice—something that is very rare for families that find themselves in the same shoes as Diallo, Carr, and Bah: “It’s a hard thing to heal when there’s no justice. The system is so tilted, so banked, so rigged in the favor of law enforcement that even in some of the most egregious cases we are left to celebrate indictments without convictions. As we begin to understand the depth of people’s pain, I hope that more of us in the room will make a life commitment to fight for justice and to change the system.”

Throughout the evening, elected officials and community leaders who played an integral role in fighting for justice for Diallo, including former New York City mayor David Dinkins, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., recounted their experiences surrounding the incident. They recalled the protests that took place at 1 Police Plaza back in 1999 that resulted in hundreds of arrests.

“We began a movement of civil disobedience and disruption with the Diallo case,” said Rev. Sharpton. He also spoke about the character of Kadiatou Diallo, and how her strength and resilience is what has kept Amadou’s legacy alive. “She could have gone back and lived a comfortable life after her settlement. She stayed here where her son shed blood to turn that into water that would fertilize seas of those that would excel and go way beyond any of the expectations they could’ve had.” 

Graham Weatherspoon, Retired NY Police Detective; Gabriel M. Vonleh, President, CEO of Morris Heights Health Center; and Dr. Thomas A. Isekenegbe, President of Bronx Community College, also contributed remarks.

One of The Amadou Diallo Foundation’s missions is to further the education of students who have immigrated to the United States from Africa, like Diallo, by providing them with scholarships. A recipient of the scholarship, Fatou Camara, shared her gratitude and spoke about how it will prolong Amadou’s legacy. “When I got this scholarship I was beyond thrilled,” said Camara. “Through this scholarship, I realized that Mrs. Diallo is giving back to the community. She’s using the foundation to give something back that she wanted for her son.”

The Amadou Diallo Foundation has awarded 27 scholarships to students since 2000.

The ceremony concluded with 41 attendees, some of whom stood alongside Kadiatou Diallo, holding flameless candles symbolizing each year of her son’s life.



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