When people speak to Doudou Diène, they know they are being heard. It’s the way the Senegalese lawyer focuses; his body turned squarely toward the person telling him what he needs to know, locking his eyes with the other person’s and holding that gaze with care and gravity. He doesn’t distract, doesn’t glance off to the side to see who is walking by, doesn’t check his watch, doesn’t fidget. All of him is listening. Occasionally one of his translators whispers quietly into his ear. Every once in a while he takes notes with a broad, fluid stroke, the letters sharp and blocky. Perhaps some might call his visage stern, but none can deny the power of his presence.
Diène, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, did a lot of listening during the first day of his three-day fact finding visit to Los Angeles. For example, he heard the stories of homeless people who spend each day wondering how to get through each night. He talked to victims of police abuse who told him all of the ways officers find to remind them of how difficult it can be “living while black or brown” in this city. Young people told him how they help the disenfranchised learn how to use a computer to find a job or an affordable place to live. Activists who feed, clothe and shelter the men, women and children who live on the streets spoke to him about the tectonic stratification separating the city’s very rich from its poor on largely racial grounds. These kinds of first-hand stories will complement his visits to government agencies and Congressional members and staff, and add to his analysis of racism and discrimination in the United States.
Los Angeles is one of several cities Diène will visit during his mission, and he did not spend much of his time in board rooms studying thick stacks of paper covered with dry statistics. He went into the streets and communities, talking to residents. His questions were few but precise, and no matter how long the answer, he listened to it all.
When Diène compiles his final report for the United Nations Human Rights Council, perhaps others will listen, too.