By Guest Blogger Roy Splansky
In the early 90’s I was driving on a highway in Los Angeles and was pulled over by California Highway Patrol on a motorcycle. I made two awful mistakes right after I stopped the car on the shoulder: First, I got out of the car and second, I reached into my back pocket for my wallet. The officer pulled her gun, pointed it at me and ordered me to freeze.
Luckily, it was not a fatal mistake.
On February 4, 1999, Amadou Diallo reached for his wallet in a vestibule after four, white NY police officers in plain clothes ordered him to stop and show his hands. The officers believed he was holding a gun and proceeded to fire 41 shots, striking Diallo 19 times.
The California highway was dark the night I was pulled over. Amadou’s vestibule was dark when the officers approached him.
I have often thought about that night on the highway. Would the officer fire her weapon if I was a black man who reached in my back pocket?
“Is it a gun, is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life.”
These are lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin (41 shots) which debuted 20 years ago on June 4, 2000 at a concert in Atlanta. Bruce was inspired by the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo.
The repetition of Bruce singing 41 shots is haunting. Each time as if another shot was fired. 41 times.
Shortly after the Atlanta concert and right before Bruce’s upcoming concerts at Madison Square Garden, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in New York City posted the following letter:
“41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says, “On these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”
I have always viewed these words as encouraging cooperation and respect to and for the police. An African American mother begging her son to play by the rules. She knows the rules are stacked against her son.
On February 4, 1999 Amadou Diallo was killed just for living in his American skin. 41 shots.
On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was killed just for living in his American skin. 526 seconds.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed this song in Tampa in 2012 in tribute to Trayvon Martin who was killed just for living in his American skin. The total time of this live version is 519 seconds.
I was at Springsteen’s concert in Chicago on August 28, 2016 when he performed this song. It was particularly moving given the racism that plagued the Chicago police department at the time. Jake Clemons held his hands high for the entire song. Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.
Bruce was live on Sirius XM just recently hosting From His Home to Yours series on E Street Radio. He started the show with American Skin (41 Shots) and then said the following:
“Eight minutes. That song is almost eight minutes long. That’s how long it took George Floyd to die with a Minneapolis officer’s knee buried into his neck. That’s a long time. That’s how long he begged for help and said he couldn’t breathe. The arresting officer’s response was nothing but silence and weight. Then he had no pulse. And still it went on…May he rest in peace.”
It is time for real change in America.