Date: Wed, 14 Apr 1999 22:36:39 -0500 (CDT)
From Louis Proyect, 14 April 1999
One of the defining characteristics of dogmatic Marxism is its refusal to see the class struggle as it is, rather than as it should be. It is always looking for the leaders of mass movements fighting against capitalist rule to come from central casting rather than real life. They search for unblemished heroes such as Trotsky or Mao, whereas social reality continuously fails to meet their expectations.
It would be difficult to come up with a figure more apt to disappoint purists than Reverend Al Sharpton who first burst upon the scene in 1985 around protests against gunman Bernard Goetz, who shot black teenagers on a subway car because he thought they intended to mug him. He became a hero to white racist New Yorkers while a significant protest movement in the black community responded to what they considered his vigilante action. Sharpton became the leader of this movement and a lightning rod to white racists. A comic villain based on Sharpton figures prominently in rightwing novelist Tom Wolfe's dissection of NYC's racial tensions, "Bonfire of the Vanities."
Andrew Cooper, publisher of The City Sun, a weekly black newspaper explained in 1988 why many whites found him easy to hold in contempt. "He's fat, he has show business hair, a gold medal, a jump suit and Reeboks. He's a perfect stereotype of a pork chop preacher."
Sharpton used black radio stations, especially WLIB to rally the masses. On his regular Sunday show 'Sharp Talk', he remarked the other night that AM black talk radio and the Internet represent ways in which the radical movement can get the truth out without interference. He is correct.
The next important struggle took place in 1986, when a black teenager Michael Griffith was chased into high speed traffic by a mob of white racists in Howard Beach. He was struck by a car and died instantly. Griffith had made the mistake of stopping for a slice of pizza in a racist neighborhood where he vocally objected to being called a 'nigger.'
It was also discovered around this time that Sharpton had been an FBI informant. He tried to defend himself by stating that he only informed on gangsters, but the 'snitch' accusation did heavy damage to his reputation nonetheless.
His reputation continued to sink in his next big campaign, which was around the Tawana Brawley case in 1988. Brawley was an upstate teenager who claimed that she was abducted and raped by white men, including the local assistant district attorney. It turned out that Brawley made up the story to use as an alibi in some typical teenager's squabble with her parents, but in the racially polarized period, the tale captured the public's imagination both pro and con. Sharpton and two prominent black attorneys were sued successfully by the assistant DA. If not for the vacuum of militant leadership in the black community, it is quite likely that this incident would have damaged Sharpton permanently.
As it turned out, the racist oppression of black people over the next decade dictated Sharpton's fate more than any PR blunder he made or the unfashionable image he cultivated. . While the furor over Brawley continued, another event took place which recaptured the headlines. A sixteen year old black youth Yusef Hawkins was in Bensonhurst in 1989, a white neighborhood filled with racists, to look at a car that he saw an ad for. A gang of drunken whites mistook him for a youth who they had fought earlier in the evening and shot him down in cold blood.
Sharpton organized demonstrations in Bensonhurst demanding that the killers of Yusef Hawkins be convicted. They were met by mobs of white racists who behaved identically to those in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960s. They threw watermelon at the demonstrators and chanted "niggers, go home." On one demonstration in January 1991, Sharpton was stabbed in the stomach and nearly died from the wounds.
In the summer of 1991, the biggest racial confrontation in recent history took place in the mixed neighborhood of Crown Heights, where Chasidic Jews live side by side with mostly Caribbean immigrants. A motorcade was returning from the cemetery where the wife of the head rabbi was buried, and the lead car accidentally ran down and killed a black youngster. Riots broke out immediately and hundreds of cops were dispatched to the neighborhood to keep order. The Jews claimed that the cops refused to get tough with the blacks because David Dinkins, NYC's black mayor, was prejudiced against them. This commonly held but mistaken belief was one of the main contributing factors to the election of Republican Rudolph Giuliani, who is now reeling from the impact of demonstrations organized by Al Sharpton around the Amadou Diallo case. During the Crown Heights unrest, Sharpton spoke frequently to angry crowds denouncing what he and they considered preferential treatment toward the Chasids. He was correct. It is well-documented that the Jews in this neighborhood have been able to secure public housing more easily than blacks. They use bloc voting to make sure that local politicians cater to their needs. The black community historically has voted in much fewer numbers and is less likely to vote as a bloc.
In 1992 Sharpton made another major PR blunder. He decided to make an alliance with the New Alliance Party in his bid in the Senate primaries. They would supply cash and volunteers in exchange for gaining legitimacy. The NAP was a shadowy cult that emerged from Lyndon Larouche's movement, with a peculiar blend of leftish demagogy and psychotherapeutic brainwashing techniques. They have not been heard from in recent years, a hopeful sign.
Just as the bourgeois media was attempting to discredit and bury Sharpton once and for all for his dubious bloc with the NAP, the racist system provided him once again with an escape valve. Racist cops had placed a fatal chokehold on Anthony Baez, a Puerto Rican youth who made the mistake of glancing off their patrol car during a touch football game. His parents enlisted Sharpton as an adviser and he organized demonstrations to bring the cops to justice. This was the beginning of a series of confrontations with the new mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who had the reputation of being pro-cop and anti-minority. White New Yorkers, many of them liberal, did not seem to mind that Giuliani took this stance because they were tired of muggings and lesser nuisances such as street beggars and squeegee men, who accosted autos in traffic, the butt of David Letterman's atrocious monologues. Giuliani was perceived as somebody who would clean New York up, like an upscale version of the psychotic Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver.'
The next big series of protests would take place around the cop torture of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant. Arrested at a dancehall in Brooklyn, he was taken to the local precinct, sodomized with a toilet plunger and beaten severely. The cops taunted him, "Dinkins is out. Now it's Giuliani time!"
)From his leadership of the Louima protests and a series of unexpectedly high vote totals for his various electoral bids, Sharpton was now seen as a major player in NYC politics. He was treated respectfully by reporters and was seen in the company of Jesse Jackson and other powerful black politicians. His image also became more respectable as he traded in his jogging clothes for a 3 piece suit, while losing 30 pounds or so. He kept the James Brown hairdo, however, since this was in homage to the great soul singer who he had known since the 1960s. Howard Kurtz reported in the Washington Post on July 14, 1988:
"'In 1969, the teen-age Sharpton caught the eye of a young Chicago minister named Jesse Jackson, who made him youth director of his group, Operation Breadbasket. It was around this time that Sharpton grew close to singer James Brown, whose son, a friend of Sharpton's, had been killed in a car accident. 'He sort of adopted me,' Sharpton says.
"Sharpton went on the road with the soul singer and began handling some of his business affairs. While promoting a 1974 Brown concert in Zaire in connection with the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman title fight, Sharpton met boxing promoter Don King. Soon Reverend Al was showing up ringside at major prize fights. When King was indicted on tax evasion charges a decade later, Sharpton marched on the federal courthouse in Manhattan and denounced the charges as a frame-up. (King was later acquitted.)"
However, there was a qualitative change upwards in Sharpton's image this year. Amadou Diallo, a 19 year old street vendor from Guinea, was shot down by cops in the Bronx for no apparent reason other than he was black. 41 bullets were fired and 19 hit their target. Diallo's parents took Sharpton on as their adviser and powerful demonstrations were mounted on behalf of racial justice. In an unprecedented move, the cops have been indicted for murder. The most significant aspect of the protests is that they began to involve mainstream white and black politicians and celebrities who volunteered to be arrested as a form of civil disobedience, including Edward Koch, the mayor who preceded Dinkins and something of a racist himself.
The significance of all this can not be underestimated. Until recently, Giuliani was considered senatorial or presidential material. His 'success' in NYC was something that would be put forward as a national solution. Now his popularity is at an all-time low and reporters liken him to Richard Nixon during the Watergate hearings: isolated, paranoid and failed. If it had not been for the boorish, in-your-face tactics of Al Sharpton, none of this would be the case.
Underneath all of Sharpton's showboating, there is a solid understanding of his debt to the historic black struggle. He consciously tries to emulate both Martin Luther King Jr. AND Malcolm X. He is an advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience and mass marches in the SCLC mold, but also rallies people in the black community around nationalist themes. From NY Times reporter Catherine S. Manegold in the January 24, 1993 edition:
"'Hey,' he shouted to the packed auditorium at the John Marshall High School in Rochester on a cloudy afternoon. 'There is nothing hip or slick about being ignorant. And there is nothing hip or slick about going around killing each other for no good reason.'
"The kids shouted back. Connected. He was right. They knew it. They were jumping in their seats, locked onto every word, driving the school monitors a little wild as they cruised the aisles. It was a losing battle. Kids who later would sit listlessly in classrooms were spinning and twisting, clapping each other on the back, interrupting 'the Rev' with little spurts of glee and agreement.
"Sharpton rocked back and forth, leaning toward the thousand or so faces, drawing them to him like a magnet. He pulled them all in talking about Malcolm X, today's repolished hero, and about how 'an X on your cap' means nothing 'if you've got zero in your brain.' He admonished, cajoled and shared his life. 'Everything I always tried to do -- they laughed at,' he boomed in a baritone swept by the cadences of Pentecostal preaching. 'That laughter made me harder. You have to believe in yourself and stand by yourself and trust yourself. Ignorance is easy. It's easy to talk bad. The hard thing is to try to lift yourself up.'"
It is of enormous significance that a new upsurge in the black struggle might be taking place, especially in the northern cities. It should be remembered that the civil rights movement was one of major sparks behind the student movement, but the labor movement as well, in the 1960s. The legacy of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. are not really at odds with each other and there is ample evidence that the two were edging toward an open alliance in the year of Malcolm's death.
While Al Sharpton might have the image of a buffoon, there is little doubt that he is trying to pick up where these two left off before they were both assassinated. The one thing that we might do to help give life to this new movement is to participate directly. A major demonstration has been called for this Thursday across the Brooklyn Bridge, demanding justice for Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. It will start off at 3pm in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, near the bridge, and head across the river to City Hall for a 5pm rally. I received a postcard notice of the march/rally which is a sign that it is being heavily promoted. I have never received anything in my mailbox promoting an Al Sharpton march and rally before, nor had I participated in one. This will be my first time and I hope other New Yorkers will join me.