Semiosis of the Diallo Murder Trial

Category: World Affairs Topics: Crime And Justice

With or without awareness, we communicate and understand our world through signs. Accordingly, its makes more sense to read the "semiosis" or signification of the Amadou Diallo murder trial. This means reading the trial of the Diallo killers as a sign having implications for the ethos of the United States as a democracy and the American Muslims as a community.

Semiosis is a concept in semiotics, the study of signs and their meanings. Charles Sanders Peirce, the 19th century philosopher who founded the study of modern semiotics in the U.S., defined semiosis as a relationship among a sign, an object (referent), and a meaning (thought). The sign designates something other than itself, and meaning is the link between the object, or referent, and the sign. A sense perception of the sign creates in our mind an image of the object it refers to. Depending on our experience, that image creates a meaning for us. Anything -- a word, an artifact, a gesture -- can be a sign, having meanings derived from human experience. Some signs carry more powerful meanings than others for specific communities. Consider, for example, the meanings of (the signs) "Hiroshima" for the Japanese, "Crusade" for Muslims, "Holocaust" for the Jews, "Communists" for the Vietnamese, or "Russian army" for the Chechens.

As a sign, the trial of the Diallo killers in New York's Albany criminal court resonates our experience of the Rodney King trial early in this decade. Like the cops who beat Rodney King, the four policemen who gunned down the unarmed and innocent Diallo at the doorway of his residence were farcically acquitted of any wrongdoing. They got away with the murder just by saying that they mistook Diallo's wallet to be a gun and that they thought he was wearing a bulletproof vest.

Following the Rodney King trial, there had to be riots in order for justice to resume its course. In the case of Diallo, however, the protests have been mild, even though it has more strongly shocked the consciousness of most Americans. A federal retrial is unlikely to take place despite calls for the same from the victim's family and the civil rights groups.

The U.S. government remains strategically ambiguous about the issue. The Justice Department has conferred with Diallo's parents and some civil rights activists but promised little. In the meantime, the heavyweight opinion manufacturer The New Republic has announced, "Because there is no reason to believe that the state court jury ignored the evidence or that a civil remedy in state court would be inadequate, the Justice Department should stay its hand." A former NYPD commissioner even said cops should not have been charged in Diallo case. Some newspaper editorials even blamed the victim.

Politicians are also playing it safe. Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, has predictably defended the police. His political rival candidate for the New York senate post, Hillary Clinton, has issued her habitual, bland, noncommittal response. Finally, President Clinton has announced, "The jury rendered a verdict and it is the verdict," while showing sympathy for the victim's family in a meeting Thursday (March 9) with 150 various religious and civil rights leaders.

If the Diallo case does not go to a federal retrial, then Diallo's murder trial will become a permanent sign of injustice in our collective memory of meanings. Our progeny will use it as any other sign -- such as the snake, the Crusade, the Holocaust, the Oklahoma City bombing, and so forth. Our progeny will probably cluster this sign with the "Spanish Inquisition," "White racism," "slavery," "racial profiling," and "secret evidence." President Clinton himself validated this interpretation of the sign when he said that Diallo might not have been shot if he had been a white man in a white neighborhood.

As a sign, the Diallo murder trial is also significant for the American Muslim community. Relatives and friends described Diallo as a devout Muslim who prayed five times a day and was quiet and hard working. Obviously, his color of skin, and not his Muslim identity, made him the target of the shooting, and rightly, his racial identity has figured prominently in the post-trial protests. Yet, this does not obviate the need for American Muslims to reclaim him as their brother in faith and protest his mistrial.

American Muslims are concerned with justice for all people in general and Muslims in particular. Organizations and leaders of American Muslims, therefore, must give voice to the community whenever and wherever this kind of injustice is done. Lack of Muslim leadership in venting their frustration in this case will make most common Muslims feel let down, betrayed, or discriminated against.

The outcome of the Diallo trial has outraged most common Americans and Muslims because it contradicts common sense and rationality -- qualities that we share as humans. A federal retrial of the murderers is, thus, in the best interest of both the U.S. as a bulwark of justice and the American Muslim community as a community for justice.

Mohammad A. Auwal is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and is a regular columnist for iviews.com


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