There were never any wanted signs outside the police academy or candlelight vigils in suburbia. The four police officers who shot and killed Amadou Diallo in his doorway 21 years ago were acquitted. One of them, Kenneth Boss, eventually got his gun back and earned a promotion.
That’s the reality at the center of “41 to ’99: A Photo Essay,” by photographer Steven Irby. It’s the first work to emerge from Ava DuVernay’s Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP), which the director started in June, weeks after seeing the video of George Floyd’s death. The $3 million program, which includes contributions from screenwriter-producer Ryan Murphy and the Ford Foundation, will fund 25 projects – including film, theater, photography, poetry, music, sculpture and dance – over the next two years through DuVernay’s Array Alliance nonprofit. Starting with Irby, the projects will appear once a month.
“I wanted to make sure that we launched with a case that was a deep wound that had never healed,” DuVernay said by phone recently during a break from preproduction for the Netflix series she’s creating about former quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“That case created so much harm beyond the death of our brother because of the secrecy and the years-long lack of visibility into what was going on then,” she says. “No one was truly held accountable in the way that many feel should have been.”
Diallo, 23, was shot 19 times in the doorway of his Bronx apartment on the morning of Feb. 4, 1999, after four plain-clothed New York City police officers – Boss, Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy and Edward McMellon – mistook him for a rape suspect. They began shooting, they said later in court, because they thought a wallet Diallo held to offer identification was a gun. The officers fired 41 shots in total at the unarmed man. The killing inspired a protest song by Bruce Springsteen, but the officers, who had been charged with second-degree murder, were acquitted. LEAP, DuVernay says, is meant to not just remind people of past cases, but also to name the police officers involved in the shootings of Black people and hold them accountable.
Mercedes Cooper, Array’s director of programming, says the Diallo shooting, which happened before social media and when photographer Irby was just 12, was an intriguing place to launch LEAP.
“There’s something to be said for creating from a place where you might not have the full awareness of the world yet,” Cooper says. “You have your memory of what that event was, but as an adult, you’re able to look at it from a new perspective.”
DuVernay, Cooper and Irby, who grew up in Queens, recently spoke about some of the images in “41 to ’99,” which can be seen at 41to99.org.
– Diallo’s doorway
Irby: The reason I chose to have the sun kind of glaring by the doors and being a little bit brighter kind of shows the duality of the neighborhood. I didn’t want to shoot it looking dark and grimy. This is not different from where anybody else lives. You’re only three steps away from your house and 10 steps away from the train station.
Cooper: It’s just a doorway, but to think that Diallo was shot standing in the doorway of his home – just the normalcy of it. People still live there. People still walk in and out of that doorway every day. It could be anyone’s doorway of anyone’s home.
– Switching the narrative
Irby: I always looked at it as kind of odd that every time we watched the news or social media, whether it’s George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Emmett Till, they always show the worst images to reflect on the victims. These people are the victims. The real point of this project is to switch this narrative. If we can’t charge you for murdering somebody, let’s charge you with being accountable for your actions. On top of wanted posters, they usually have a serial number for the inmate or criminal. What I did instead is the number of people killed by the police this year. To show that this is a revolving kind of conversation.
DuVernay: There never were wanted posters. Those officers were never considered criminals. Irby is inserting a new layer of the narrative that is in some places wish fulfillment. Being able to render something artistically that should have happened but never did.
– Left to tell the story
Irby: My original plan was to get 41 people to pull up, but then I started to realize you can’t do that now. I had to figure out a more impactful way to tell the story. That’s when the candles came in. These people are Bronx residents who were all aware of Amadou Diallo’s story and were affected by it. These are the people who were pretty much left behind to tell the story.
– A white picket fence
DuVernay: One of the things I look at as a piece of art are the objects he inserts into the spaces. To claim the space and put a stamp on the space. The illumination of the darkness of this case is something we talked about. But, also, it’s standard vigil paraphernalia.
Irby: That was actually in Babylon (where Carroll, one of the officers, lived at the time of the shooting). You have these white picket fences and a Pleasantville kind of theme, and you have these candles representing that somebody who lived in this town horrifically killed somebody. Each of those candles shows the numbers of times he shot at this individual. The white picket fence, that’s kind of like my own little Easter egg – that the white picket fence isn’t the safety net you think it is.