The Resilient Rev
November 22, 2010
Say it ain’t so, Ray. Say it was a mistake, that the media got it wrong, that you didn’t hold a news conference pushing gun control with The Rev. Al Sharpton last Friday at One Police Plaza.
On the other hand, perhaps you and Mayor Bloomberg deserve credit for declawing the city’s premier racial rabble-rouser and penultimate opportunist.
Two decades after Tawana Brawley, Crown Heights, and Howard Beach; a decade after Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, the scourge of Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch is making nice with you, Mayor Mike and the NYPD.
Or, as the News’s Adam Lisberg deliciously put it after Sharpton denied he could be bought despite accepting a secret $110,000 grant from Bloomberg in return for the Rev’s silence about Mayor’s Mike’s changing the two-term limit law: “But taking a dive on term limits showed Bloomberg that he [Sharpton] might be able to be rented.”
We’re all familiar with how Sharpton burst upon the firmament more than two decades ago by championing Brawley, the upstate, 15-year-old black girl who falsely claimed she’d been raped and beaten by a group of white men. Ordered to pay his share of $345,000 in damages for libeling Dutchess County prosecutor Steven Pagones, Sharpton refused to pay and still refuses to apologize.
We’re still appalled by his anti-Semitic remarks during the 1991 Crown Heights riots, sparked when a car in a Hasidic rabbi’s motorcade sped through a red light and accidentally struck and killed an eight-year-old black boy, leading to the fatal stabbing of a Jewish rabbinical student in retaliation.
Said Sharpton at the time: “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.”
When Giuliani became mayor three years later, he tried to marginalize The Rev. It didn’t work.
During Giuliani’s first week in office, a near riot erupted at Harlem’s Nation of Islam Mosque Number 7 on 125th Street. To de-flame tensions, Giuliani and his new police commissioner, Bill Bratton, arranged a meeting with two Nation of Islam imams at Police Plaza. When Sharpton tried to crash the meeting, Giuliani cancelled it.
That Christmas, after a black church asked the Jewish owner of Freddie’s Fashion Mart in Harlem to evict a black sub-tenant, Sharpton led protesters against the eviction, saying, “We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business.”
Shortly afterwards, a protestor shot several customers inside the store and set it on fire, causing the death of seven employees. Sharpton expressed regret for his “white interloper” remark but denied responsibility for provoking the violence.
Then in 1997 came the case of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was sodomized with a broomstick inside the 70th precinct in Brooklyn by police officer Justin Volpe.
Sharpton rushed to the forefront, leading protest marches, including one across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall.
A few months later, he announced he’d run for mayor, and nearly upset the favored Ruth Messinger in the Democratic primary.
In discussing who he might select as police commissioner, Sharpton mentioned “someone like Ray Kelly,” then serving in Washington as a Treasury under secretary in the Clinton Administration.
“In view of the Louima case and systemic problems of police brutality, we don’t need to sacrifice someone tough on crime to deal with brutality,” he said. “A Ray Kelly has the perfect balance. He’ll keep crime down and keep abuse to a minimum.”
Two years later, after the unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was killed by the police in a 41-bullet barrage, Sharpton appeared to reach the pinnacle of his influence.
He led protest marches and staged arrests by leading black figures, himself included, outside Police Plaza every day for a month.
Those protests drove then Police Commissioner Howard Safir virtually underground and no doubt hastened his departure a year later.
With the election of Mayor Bloomberg, Sharpton’s relations with City Hall took a new direction.
Perhaps it was Bloomberg’s financial largesse.
Perhaps it was Kelly, whose spokesman Paul Browne — known to readers of this column as “Mr. Truth” — put out the bizarre tale that Kelly had befriended Sharpton when Kelly had walked a beat in Upper Manhattan. That would have been the mid-1960s when Sharpton, who was born in 1954 and grew up in Brooklyn, was something like a 12-year-old schoolboy. Browne has never explained what the 12-year-old Rev was doing at that time in Upper Manhattan while apparently playing hooky.
Whatever the reason for Sharpton’s behavioral change under Kelly and Mayor Mike, The Rev now resembles a poster child for responsible citizenship.
He’s become so respectable that Vice President Biden addressed the Rev’s National Action Network.
Such behavior has had rewards for Kelly and the NYPD.
Following the fatal police shooting of Ousmane Zongo, another unarmed African immigrant, Sharpton met with the Zongo family and provided legal services. He also arranged a meeting between Zongo’s widow and Kelly at Kelly’s office at Police Plaza.
Kelly acknowledged “very troubling questions about the shooting,” and Sharpton told reporters Kelly had promised a full departmental investigation of why and how an undercover officer fired at Zongo inside a Chelsea warehouse.
But if there has been an investigation, Kelly hasn’t informed the public about it.
If he informed Sharpton, the Rev hasn’t said anything either.
Then there’s the fatal police shooting of Sean Bell, another unarmed black man who died in a hail of 50 police bullets while out celebrating at a Queens strip joint on the eve of his wedding.
Kelly is also yet to offer an explanation of all that went wrong there. Instead he commissioned a study by the Rand Corporation, which advised the increased use of Taser guns.
And what’s the Rev — who, at least on the surface, supported the Bell family — had to say about Kelly’s lack of disclosure? Not very much.
Still, you have to admire the Rev’s resilience.
Many of his old allies, rivals and enemies have floundered over the years. Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason from his Brawley and Howard Beach days lost their law licenses. Nobody knows anymore from Ruth Messinger. Rudy Giuliani seems to increasingly resemble a mad Rumpelstiltskin.
Yet The Rev endures.
If he has an Achilles heel, it is his taxes.
The Associated Press reported in 2008 that Sharpton and his business owed almost $1.5 million in taxes and penalties, including 366,000 clams to New York City.
Two months ago, the Detroit News reported that the Internal Revenue Service had filed a notice of federal tax lien against Sharpton in New York City for over $538,000.
While Sharpton’s attorneys have disputed these numbers, the message is surely not lost on Mayor Mike: best to keep those grants coming.
Copyright © 2010 Leonard Levitt