When Amadou Diallo died in a hail of police gunfire in his New York apartment building's vestibule while reaching for his wallet, there was widespread public outrage. Many New Yorkers believed Diallo's death was an egregious example of police negligence or criminal misconduct aimed at poor and minority communities. Others, including then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the police leadership, suggested the killing was a tragic yet unavoidable accident in the dangerous job of policing the city's mean streets. Despite differing accounts of police actions and motives, one thing was certain: the young Amadou, a West African studying in the U.S., was guilty of nothing more than coming home at the same moment a squad from the NYPD's Street Crimes Unit happened to be passing his building.
Diallo was a casualty in America's intensifying "war" on crime. While some citizens of New York City felt outrage, and others sympathized with the officers who had pulled the triggers, all had to face a larger and disturbing reality. As documented in Every Mother's Son, a new film having its premiering nationally on public television's POV series, Diallo's killing in 1999 was only the most publicized example of an alarming trend in the city and nation.
In the early 1990s, police forces throughout the U.S. began employing more aggressive and militarized tactics. Whatever the reasons for this trend, one result has been a rise in the number of citizen complaints about police brutality in many American towns and cities. Every Mother's Son recounts three cases of unjustified or questionable police killings in New York and tells of the victims' three mothers who came together to demand justice and accountability. Are such killings acceptable or necessary trade-offs for public safety? In reply, the mothers have their own question: What if it were your child?
In 1994, five years before Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez, of a religious young man, was slain. One minute Baez, who was about to begin training to become a police officer, was tossing a football with his brothers in front of their Bronx home; the next minute he was lying on the ground, choked to death by officer Francis Livoti after the football bounced off Livoti's squad car. Baez's death launched his mother, Iris, who had never been an activist, on a quest to find justice in what appeared a clear-cut case of police misconduct. But Iris quickly ran into the NYPD's infamous "Blue Wall of Silence." Despite Anthony's death being declared a homicide by the medical examiner and a Grand Jury indictment, Livoti's case was dismissed after a typographical error was discovered on the indictment. Iris led a sit-in at the Bronx District Attorney's office, and Livoti was re-indicted, but he was acquitted by a judge despite the judge's own declaration that police testimony in the trial was "a nest of perjury."
Every Mother's Son alleges that such killings result not only from aggressive police tactics, but also from public policy set at the highest levels. In the case of New York City, Mayor Giuliani had declared certain neighborhoods drug-prone criminal areas, giving police the go-ahead, in the eyes of many, to stop and search citizens aggressively at will effectively suspending Fourth-Amendment protections.
Every Mother's Son provides graphic illustration that such police tactics extend beyond poor or high-crime neighborhoods. Gary (Gidone) Busch was a Hasidic Jew and dean's list computer student who lived in Boro Park, Brooklyn a middle-class Jewish neighborhood that had good relations with the police and supported Mayor Giuliani. Six months after Amadou Diallo was killed, police responding to a disturbance complaint rang Gary's doorbell, interrupting his prayers. Gary came to the door wearing a prayer shawl and holding a small ceremonial hammer with religious inscriptions. The police pepper-sprayed Gary in the face and then, after he ran screaming in pain and confusion, shot him 12 times, fatally.
And so another mother, Doris Busch Boskey, was left with unaccountable grief and mounting frustration in the face of unresponsive officials. Instead of investigating a likely miscarriage of justice, the administration and police declared without an investigation that the shooting was justified self-defense by the police, citing the hammer and Busch's history of mental illness. But too many Boro Park residents had witnessed the killing to let that story stand unchallenged, and the city soon faced another public crisis of confidence in its law enforcement establishment.
It was Iris Baez, who had become a veteran activist since Anthony's death in 1994, who approached Amadou's mother, Kadiatou, and Gary's mother, Doris, after their sons were killed. As a Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, a West African woman who relocated to New York, and a Jewish woman from Long Island, they made an unlikely team. But together they formed a powerful collective voice on behalf of all victims of police violence. The grassroots movement they inspired in New York is challenging the militarization of law enforcement and the erosions of constitutional protections. Whenever police kill someone under suspicious circumstances, the mothers assemble to help the family deal with its grief and to seek the truth and accountability. The mothers have also become advocates for police reforms, including better training and more citizen oversight, and have connected to a larger national movement against police brutality.
Every Mother's Son is a tragic account of police power gone awry. It is also a heartening and intimate portrait of three women who would not stand by silently when their sons had been unjustly silenced forever.
"When Amadou Diallo was killed, Kelly [Anderson] and I felt we had to get out there with our camera and talk to people about what happened, just for our own sanity," says co-producer/director Tami Gold. "We felt like the film chose us." "We were concerned that the issue of police brutality remain visible after the first flush of media attention," adds partner Kelly Anderson. "The challenge was to find an angle that was fresh. When we met the three mothers, Iris, Kadi, and Doris, we knew we had it; these women were building bridges out of their own grief between tragedy and social change. It's a tragic but also inspiring story."