Sunday, February 1, 2015

164. Al Sharpton: Rabble Rouser or Champion of His People?

     New Yorkers have to face the dismaying fact that their mayor, Bill de Blasio, and their police force are at loggerheads.  At the recent funerals of two policemen shot in their patrol car and killed by a black assailant who then committed suicide, many of New York’s Finest turned their backs on the Mayor when he spoke.  And the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association asserted at a press conference that the Mayor, having incited violence on the streets in the guise of protest over the recent police killing of an unarmed black man on Staten Island, had blood on his hands.  The grievances of New York’s Finest against the Mayor are many, among them his warning to his biracial son to be careful during police encounters.  But what they especially resent are his public appearances with the Reverend Al Sharpton, who is, and for many years has been, one of the most controversial public figures in the city.  So who is Al Sharpton? 

     Al Sharpton is a Brooklyn-born African-American civil rights activist who has led many protest marches and demonstrations challenging the white power structure on behalf of African Americans.  He is also a Baptist minister, a talk show host, and a White House adviser consulted by President Barack Obama, who has called him “the voice of the voiceless and a champion of the downtrodden.”  But he has also been called an inflammatory black radical, a demagogue, a rabble rouser, a fraud, and much more, and his career has been marked by controversy.

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Al Sharpton (center) leading a march in Bensonhurst in 1989.
christian razukas

     It was his eagerness to lead protest marches and demonstrations on behalf of African Americans, often with shouts of “No justice, no peace,” that first vaulted him into fame ... or notoriety.  Indeed, what controversy involving race and racism in this city has he not been involved in, often in a track suit, obviously overweight, his dark hair down to his shoulders, with a thin black mustache curled snakelike over his upper lip.  Examples of his activism include:

·      Marches protesting the outcome of the trial of Bernhard Goetz, a white man who shot four young African Americans on a subway train in 1984 – a case that electrified and divided the crime-ridden city.    Goetz was cleared of all charges except carrying an unlicensed firearm.  A federal investigation concluded that the shooting was the result of an attempted robbery, not racism.
·      A march of 1200 demonstrators through Howard Beach, a mostly white neighborhood in Queens, following the assault there in 1986 of three African Americans by a mob of white men, resulting in the death of one of the victims who, when fleeing, was hit by a passing motorist.  During the march the white residents screamed racial insults at the black marchers.
·      Marches through Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to protest the attack on four African-American teenagers by a mob of white Italian-American youths in 1989, during which one of those attacked was shot and killed.  Residents shouted “Niggers go home!” at the marching protesters and would have assaulted them, had the police not intervened.  In 1991 the attackers received light sentences, and when Sharpton prepared to lead another protest march, a neighborhood resident stabbed him in the chest.  Sharpton recovered and asked the judge for leniency when his assailant was sentenced, but sued the city, alleging that the police had failed to protect him, and got a settlement of $200,000.
·      A march in 1991 through Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where West Indians and African Americans live in perilous proximity with Hasidic Jews.  Four days of race riots erupted following the accidental killing of a seven-year-old Guyanese boy, when a car driven by a Jew was struck by another vehicle and forced onto the sidewalk.  Black youths looted stores and beat Jews in the street, and a visiting Jewish student from Australia was stabbed and killed, while rioters chanted “Kill the Jew!” and “Get the Jews out!”  Sharpton’s march, on the third day of riots, had a distinctly anti-Semitic tone.
·      A 1999 protest over the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea shot to death by police officers who thought he was drawing a gun.  Diallo’s family later got $3 million in a wrongful death suit filed against the city.
·      Peaceful protests in 2008 when three detectives were found not guilty in the shooting of Sean Bell in a hail of 50 bullets on the morning of his wedding in 2006.  Bell had been accosted by detectives outside a strip club in Queens, and was allegedly trying to flee in his car when he was shot.  The protests blocked traffic at bridges and tunnels giving access to the city, and Sharpton and 200 others were arrested.
·      Peaceful protests on Staten Island, the city’s whitest borough, in July and August 2014, following the death of Eric Garner when an officer put him in a chokehold, a strangling hold that is prohibited.  Garner was evidently selling illegal cigarettes and may have resisted arrest.  Captured on video, his repeated cry of “I can’t breathe!” became a rallying cry of protesters.  His death was ruled a homicide, but on December 3, 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who had administered the chokehold, prompting protests nationwide.  When two police officers were shot and killed in their patrol car on December 20, the assailant, who then committed suicide, was motivated by two recent police shootings: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island.

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Protesters at a rally called by Sharpton in August 2014 to protest the death of Eric Garner and others.
Thomas Altfather Good
    And these are only some of the protests Al Sharpton has been involved in.  Former mayor Ed Koch, once a foe of Sharpton’s, has said that Sharpton deserves the respect he enjoys among African Americans: “He is willing to go to jail for them, and he is there when they need him.”  So why is he so controversial?  Recently, when I mentioned Sharpton by name to two friends with long memories, both immediately said, “Tawana Brawley.”  Yes, Sharpton’s name is irrevocably linked to that of Tawana Brawley, and this explains much of the feeling against him.  So who is – or was – Tawana Brawley?

Tawana Brawley at a press conference.
    Tawana Brawley was a 15-year-old African American who had been missing from her home in Wappinger Falls, New York, for four days when, on November 28, 1987, she was found lying in a garbage bag and smeared with feces, her clothing torn and burned, and with “KKK,” “nigger,” and “bitch” written on her body with charcoal.  Interrogated at the hospital, she was verbally uncommunicative, but through gestures and writing claimed that she had been assaulted and raped by three white men, at least one of them a police officer.  She gave no names or descriptions of her attackers, and forensic tests found no evidence of a sexual assault, nor was there any evidence of exposure to elements such as would have occurred in a victim held for several days in the woods.

     Tawana Brawley’s story captured headlines nationwide and aroused great shock and sympathy, and money was raised for a legal fund.  Al Sharpton and black attorneys Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason joined forces to champion her cause, which became a media sensation.  The trio of activists claimed that officials all the way up to the government in Albany were trying to protect the white attackers, and named Steven Pagones, an Assistant District Attorney in Dutchess County, as one of the rapists. 

     The case went to a grand jury that heard 180 witnesses and saw 250 exhibits, and then on October 6, 1988, released a 170-page report noting many discrepancies in her story and citing “overwhelming evidence” that Brawley had not been abducted, assaulted, and raped, and that the allegations against Pagones were false.  But why would she have concocted such a story?  Based on the testimony of witnesses, she might have done it to avoid violent punishment from her mother and stepfather, who had abused her in the past. 

     Steven Pagones sued Brawley’s three advisers for defamation of character and in 1998 was awarded $345,000.  He also sued Brawley, who did not appear at the trial and was ordered to pay Pagones $186,000.  Just where she was supposed to get such a sum wasn’t clear, but in 2013 – yes, the case’s aftermath lasted that long -- a court ordered her wages garnished.  Sharpton failed to pay the sum required, claiming he lacked the funds, but his supporters paid it in 2001.

     Sharpton never recanted, and to this day Brawley, her mother, and her stepfather insist that the attack did indeed take place.  Brawley herself now lives in Virginia under an assumed name and works there as a nurse.  White people doubted her story from the outset, but there are still blacks who believe it.  My own take on the affair is this: a rebellious but frightened teenager, having been absent from home for four days and fearing more abuse at home, invented a wild story to bring her sympathy, having no idea what the consequences might be; having lied, she had to stick to her lies through thick and thin.  As for Sharpton, his vigorous defense of her shows a grievous lack of judgment, one that his many critics will never fail to cite.

     A curious twist in Sharpton’s story came to light when he admitted to having informed for the government in the 1980s, so as to stem the flow of crack cocaine into black neighborhoods.  But he denied having ever informed on black civil rights leaders.  More detailed reports have since emerged of Sharpton’s working as a paid informant for the FBI, helping the government bring charges against the mobsters flooding the ghettos with drugs.

     In 2009 Sharpton became an honorary member of Phi Beta Sigma, an African American Greek-letter fraternity whose mission is to promote brotherhood, scholarship, and service.  Members have included foreign heads of state, scientists, musicians, athletes, and activists, a feisty mix of notables ranging from George Washington Carver, Harry Belafonte, and ex-President Bill Clinton to Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.

     Sharpton’s name has a way of popping up often in the news, but not always as a champion of his people.  In 2005 he agreed to repay $100,000 in public funds he had received from the federal government for an unsuccessful Presidential campaign in 2004.  And in 2008 it came to light that he and his businesses owed close to $1.5 million in unpaid taxes and penalties.  It was also reported that several major corporations had donated large sums to Sharpton’s National Action Network, an organization founded by him to increase voter education, provide services to the poor, and support community small businesses.  The donations were allegedly made to avoid boycotts or rallies against them, which Sharpton has vigorously denied.  And as of November 2014 Sharpton and his businesses reportedly owed $4.5 million in state and federal taxes.  To put it mildly, his finances are a mess.

     He is still addressed as Reverend, though he has obviously spent more time in the streets than in the pulpit.  Yet he is said to have preached his first sermon at the age of four (what pearls of wisdom must have issued from his lips!), and he was licensed to be a minister at nine.  Yet for all his commitment to politics, he still preaches in the U.S. and abroad, and insists that his religious convictions are the basis for his life.

     Sharpton has evolved from agitator to insider, being consulted by Barack Obama’s White House in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, following which the local black community exploded into protests that were sometimes violent.  Obama needed a spokesman with credibility in the black community, both in Ferguson and nationally, and Sharpton was the guy.  Which doesn’t sit well with former mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has asserted on TV that the President’s association with Sharpton proves that he’s against the police.  “He has had Al Sharpton to the White House 85 times.  Often when he’s talking about police issues he has Al Sharpton sitting next to him.” 

     But is the Sharpton of today the same as the Sharpton of the marches and protests, a Sharpton noted for his fiery rhetoric?  “I’ve grown to appreciate different roles and different people,” Sharpton told an interviewer recently, “and I weigh words a little more now.  I’ve learned to measure what I say.”  And he’s shed 150 pounds, giving the new Al Sharpton a slimmer look further enhanced by his appearing in a tailored suit, his gray hair neatly trimmed; in fact, he looks like he belongs not on the streets but in a boardroom.  When he encounters criticism from some in the black community for playing the role of “house negro,” he dismisses such comments as irrelevant.  Now sixty, he is hailed as a civil rights icon by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the President – a heady experience for the street agitator of yore.

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Sharpton signing a book in 2008.   Note the pin-striped suit and the flashy tie.
Azim thomas

      So how are Mayor de Blasio and the Reverend Sharpton getting along  today, given the sharp criticism of the Mayor by the police, who are vehemently critical of Sharpton?  On January 20, for the first time since the killing of the two police officers and the controversy that followed, the mayor and Sharpton found themselves appearing together at an annual event celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday sponsored by Sharpton’s National Action Network in Harlem.  Speaking at a podium bearing the words NO  JUSTICE  NO  PEACE, de Blasio advocated respect for the police: “If you’re saying something vicious and vile to a police officer, you’re not making change.”  And Sharpton praised him for showing grace and dignity in the face of “venomous, unfair stuff” in the last few weeks, and it’s obvious whose “stuff” he’s referring to.  But he also insisted that he and his community are not anti-police.

     Will this joint plea for civility damp down the police’s sharp criticism of the Mayor?  Don’t count on it.  And what do I think of the slim and trim Al Sharpton of today, tailored suits and all?  Like Ed Koch, I have to admit, albeit gudgingly, that he’s always been there for his people, even risking his life.  I just wish he would pay his taxes.

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Sharpton in 2007.
David Shankbone

     Notes from viewers on BIG:  Two viewers have given me interesting comments on post #162.5, which discussed Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, and a possible real estate bubble in the city.

·      One, a resident of the Upper East Side, says that she met Jamie Dimon once at a book party at his apartment when he first became head of Chase.  She found him “totally unimpressive” and not as handsome as in his photos.  This surprises me, since those photos show a good-looking older man, immaculately groomed, who looks like he’s in command of the world.

·      The other viewer, a resident of Jersey City, reports that Mayor Fulop has BIG plans for development around Journal Square, namely a 95-story residential tower that will help give the city a “world-class skyline” and be the tallest building in the state.  Jersey City is now experiencing the greatest construction boom in its history, thanks to Mayor Fulop, according to Mayor Fulop.  Currently the tallest building in the state is the Goldman Sachs tower (there they are again -- see post #158!), also on Journal Square.  Personally, I can’t complain about such construction, since my memories of some years back register Journal Square as the most uninspired hodgepodge of a square that I ever had the misfortune to behold.  So hurrah for this drastic change; Journal Square can use a facelift.  But does this quest of BIG BIGGER BIGGEST suggest a bubble over there too?  Time will tell.

·      The resident of Jersey City also informs me that the current administration of the city of Paris is working with architects and developers to bring “innovative architecture” to the city, which means three new high rises on the city’s periphery, controversial renovations of landmark locations, and a competition for 23 city-owned sites.  So where is Paris heading?  Acclaimed by many as the most beautiful city in the world, Paris, unlike Jersey City, has a lot to lose.  This crisis – for I would term it such – is of concern to a newly created organization, Americans for the Preservation of Paris.  Jersey City belongs to Jersey City, but Paris belongs to the world.

     Coming soon:  Great Hotels of the Past and Present.  Which hotel was the first to install a “vertical screw railway,” which we today would call an elevator?  Which one hosted the Beatles in 1964 and vowed never to do so again?  Which one housed not only an ex-President and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but also mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano?  Which one locked The Who out of their room, prompting the British rock group to blast the door open with a cherry bomb, so they could get their luggage?  And which one is the current favorite for would-be suicides, and why is that a mistake?  Never a dull moment in the great hotels of New York.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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