Amadou Diallo

In February 1999, four plain-clothes New York City cops shot and killed 23 year-old African immigrant Amadou Diallo more than 40 times in the doorway of his own home. Diallo was unarmed. The cops were acquitted of second degree murder.

The cops subsequently claimed that Diallo resembled a suspect who had remained unidentified for a year or so. They also insisted that Diallo ignored, failed, or refused to comply with their instructions. But statements from people who knew Diallo indicated that the adequacy of Diallo’s English comprehension was questionable and that perhaps he had not understood either the words spoken by the police or the accents with which they spoke.

Standing on the stoop of his apartment, perhaps alarmed by seeing four men abruptly exit an unmarked Ford Taurus and approach him, Diallo took out his wallet. Whether Diallo was attempting to retrieve a key or to produce identification will never be known, but upon seeing Diallo remove an object, an eager-beaver cop yelled “gun” and all four cops emptied their weapons.

A certain quantity of the media reporting at the time focused on Diallo’s language proficiency (either to understand, to respond, or both), the peculiarity of his mannerisms, and his skin color. In arguably the most diverse city in the world, it is hard to understand how police could presume that all darker-skinned individuals understood English. It is equally hard to understand what normative behavioral standard could exist in such a diverse city.

I am reminded of Amadou Diallo’s case as I reflected on an idiot that gave a talk at a 2012 conference on teaching languages for specific purposes. She claimed that police could be adequately taught to use memorized Spanish commands without needing to actually understand Spanish itself. She based her idea on “Total Physical Response” (“TPR”) which is to say, comprehension is confirmed by body movement. If a teacher tells a child to sit, and the child sits, the child understood the command.

But I ask, what if the child doesn’t sit? The teacher must ascertain whether the child does not understand, or understands but does not sit. 

There are a number of other explanations as to why the child might not sit: the child child could be hearing impaired, the child could be experiencing cataplexy, the child could have soiled himself and is terrified of moving, the child could be mentally processing a cognitive conflict between parents’ general instructions and teacher’s specific instructions (i.e., parents might have told child not to sit on the floor in her white dress). These are just a few possible explanations why a child’s compliance and non-compliance indicates nothing about comprehension or intent.

To assume that a proper command produces a proper response is ridiculous and teaching police language commands without teaching them language is stupid. There is a difference between teaching “soy policía” and “no se mueva.” The first is an “I” statement and carries no expectation of an objectively “proper” response; the second is a “you” statement that demands a subjectively “proper” response.

There are myriad reasons why a darker-skinned person might not respond according to the coded expectations of the police. For starters, not all “Hispanics” speak Spanish; roughly a third of the Latin-American population resides in Brazil (where they speak [Brazilian] Portuguese). Many other Latin-Americans speak native Indian languages and speak little or no Spanish at all (which is not too hard to understand given that many Americans in Miami and Los Angeles can be born, raised, and educated in the U.S.A. without ever becoming proficient in English). And yes, there are many non-Spanish-speaking aliens crossing to the US. Hispanics can also be hearing-impaired, autistic, or intoxicated. And most unthinkable of all—they could be adopted with no memory of their genetic heritage.

The TPR that this idiot espoused could only work if police were taught the same commands in many languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Creole, Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, etc, etc. Even if police recited commands in all these languages, their actions would still be predicated on skin profiling and population normativization. Police are likely to jump to inappropriate interpretations and incorrect conclusions based on the person’s response (or non-response). And these same police are likely to shoot first and ask questions later. Just like with Amadou Diallo.

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