New York

Father of the Movement

How Al Sharpton Rose from ‘Racial Arsonist' to Racial Healer, and Changed New York City


It has been six hours since the Reverend Al Sharpton orchestrated the largest multi-ethnic sit-in of his 15-day campaign of civil disobedience in front of the New York Police Department headquarters.

On this evening of March 26, Sharpton’s mentor, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and 215 other people have been arrested protesting the police killing of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, and booked and released. The throng of New Yorkers— choked with rage built up from the antiapartheid movement of the 1980s— pushed the number of demonstrators who already have been charged with blocking the building’s entrance over the 1000 mark.

Sharpton, wide-eyed and restless, is on an emotional high, pacing the second-floor office of his Harlem-based National Action Network, flipping channels and pumping his fists at reports highlighting the NYPD’s double standard for blacks and whites. The news is all good; it is beyond anything the man who is being propelled to the leadership of a growing civil disobedience movement had imagined could be possible.

There, on NY1, is the somber-faced Police Commissioner Howard Safir, grudgingly conceding that his predominantly white Street Crime Unit— four of whose members were expected to be arraigned this week on charges that they murdered Diallo in a hail of gunfire last month— perhaps had become a law unto itself and had to be corralled.

Sharpton’s phone rang consistently during an interview with the Voice. He took some calls and dismissed others. But when an aide announced that union leader Dennis Rivera was on the line, Sharpton grabbed the phone. Rivera and former deputy mayor Bill Lynch were on a conference call, congratulating Sharpton for bringing the hard-hearted Safir and Mayor Rudy Giuliani to their knees.

Consider what you have accomplished, Sharpton says they urged him: How was this pesky political pariah able to convince an ex-mayor, an Oscar-winning actress, scores of council members, congressional representatives, lawyers, students, academicians, blacks, whites, Jews, gays, lesbians, and antiwar activists to join his crusade?

Hadn’t Sharpton realized by now that his movement had a lot to do with Giuliani’s approval rating plummeting to an all-time low? Who could have forced the imperial mayor to rescind his racist policy of not meeting with black leaders he had not handpicked? Should Lynch and Rivera sponsor a resolution at a leadership meeting, calling on Giuliani to meet with his arch-nemesis?

“I don’t want a resolution,” Sharpton shot back in the presence of the Voice reporter. While he appreciated the proposed gesture, the last thing he wanted was for them to appear to be rallying around Al Sharpton, the personality.

“Giuliani is on the run,” Sharpton asserted. “If he can make this a personality fight between me and him, he gets away. I don’t want him to get away with this.”

Sharpton’s rejection of the resolution was a testament to how far he has matured in New York City politics. At 44, he seems to have finally attained what was denied him throughout a career as one of the nation’s most controversial civil rights activists: RESPECT. Gone are the tight-fitting jogging suits, dangling bronze medallion, incendiary sound bites, and alleged publicity stunts that sometimes landed him in jail for tying up traffic and disrupting subway service. Al Sharpton, in the opinion of a growing number of people, has evolved from “racial arsonist” to statesman.

After he got off the phone with Lynch and Rivera, Sharpton called Bobo Diallo, one of Amadou’s uncles, who had been waiting patiently among the throng of camera crews and reporters, into his office. He told Bobo that all the adulation meant nothing to him if Bobo did not get to Brussels by the weekend to finalize arrangements for Amadou’s mother to return to the United States.

A Bronx grand jury reportedly had indicted the four officers on second-degree murder charges, and Sharpton has learned that Bronx district attorney Robert Johnson will unseal the indictments this week. Earlier last week, Sharpton and Kadiadou Diallo had talked about plans for her to return. Sharpton suggested that this time Amadou’s teenage sister and two brothers should accompany their mother.

The last time he had seen the Diallo family was at Amadou’s burial in Guinea, when they were traumatized, not fully aware of what had happened. Sharpton told Mrs. Diallo that he would take them to the Wheeler Avenue apartment building where the cops had gunned down Amadou. “I can’t explain it,” he says. “They have to see for themselves, feel it. People need to hug and embrace them. They must understand the impact of their brother’s death and what it started.”

That, Sharpton says, was his “secret agreement” with Mrs. Diallo. In addition, Sharpton made her a promise.

“I promised her that these cops would be arrested,” he recalls. “I promised to take her and her family to the courtroom on that day. All I want is when those four cops walk out there and are indicted for second-degree murder, they are looking into the faces of African parents who believed in America and allowed their son to come here to chase the American dream that turned into a nightmare. I want them to go to sleep at night seeing Mrs. Diallo’s face. I want them to be haunted by the faces of his brothers and sister. I want them to come face-to-face with the reality of what they did to a human family.”

Nine months before the death of Amadou Diallo spawned the city’s most successful anti-police-brutality movement, Al Sharpton realized he could not exploit popular outrage over alleged police abuses all by himself. With prominent activists like attorney Alton Maddox, the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, and Charles Barron firmly behind him, Sharpton tried to reach out to whites. “Some would go so far, but none wanted to be seen with me in public,” he laments. “Privately, they said, ‘Al is cool.’ ”

Norman Siegel, the vociferous civil libertarian, noticed a change in Sharpton’s tactics and rallied to his side.

“We had some conversations, and it seemed to me that he was evolving,” recalls Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Before they embarked on joint projects, however, Siegel says he felt compelled to clear his conscience. “I told him I think Tawana Brawley was a hoax. I think he made a mistake with Freddie’s. I think he made a mistake in Crown Heights.”

Putting their troubling disagreements aside, Siegel and Sharpton forged a formidable alliance. On Christmas Day, for the past two years, Siegel has traveled uptown to the headquarters of the National Action Network to assist Sharpton in feeding the homeless.

“I watched how he reacted and interacted with the homeless people when there were cameras around, but also when there weren’t cameras,” Siegal points out. “I mean, when you see that [people like Sharpton] empathize with people who are powerless, that’s important to me.”

Sharpton began to pick his battles more carefully. He surprised everyone when he testified on behalf of Joseph Locurto, a white cop who was fired from the NYPD after participating in a skit that mocked the white supremacist dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Texas.

“I thought he fully understood the issue of an off-duty police officer’s right to engage in First Amendment expression,” Siegel says. Sharpton continued to jump on the issues that generated headlines. When Governor George Pataki and Safir advocated DNA testing of felons for a criminal-justice database, Sharpton and Siegel screamed.

“We decided we would work together on that,” says Siegel, adding that he “took a lot of hell from people in my community.”

After Diallo was killed and Sharpton began to call for the arrest of the police officers involved in the shooting, Siegel publicly differed with his activist comrade.

“I still think it’s a mistake for him to call for the arrest of the officers [without due process],” Siegel explains.

However, as the movement grew around the Diallo killing, Siegel’s newfound faith in Sharpton seemed to be justified. Last week, Siegel listened intently as Sharpton told supporters that the movement should not be built around one person or group.

“One of the conversations I had with Sharpton in the last couple of weeks was over the concept of sharing,” Siegel remembers. “If you’re gonna build a movement, it can’t be one person riding on the horse; we learned that when they killed Dr. King. Sharpton told me over and over again he is into sharing.”

According to Siegel, “We gotta keep the egos checked at the door, and so far that’s been pretty good [in Sharpton’s camp].” He adds, “What I like about Sharpton in the last few days is that he has not allowed the attention that has been focused on him to go to his head. He has his feet on the ground.”

Even Siegel confessed to “flying high” after the protests attracted international attention and shook the political foundations of the Giuliani administration. “The scenes I have always dreamed of have become reality in New York City,” says the advocate, who has had flashbacks of himself as a young lawyer defending civil rights demonstrators in the South.

“Back then, I kept hoping that some day in my hometown of New York we would show that kind of strength. I was buoyed by the participation of Jewish and Asian students, everyone coming together and singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ”

Sharpton has warmed to the idea of recruiting civil rights activists from the South to buttress the front lines of the fledgling civil disobedience movement. “We have been joking about it,” Siegel says in a moment of levity. “We said, ‘If they think Al Sharpton is a rogue, wait till they see Josea Williams and James Bevel.’ ”

Siegel praised Sharpton for helping to assure white New Yorkers that the daily protests outside of One Police Plaza would be nonviolent. “There is a lack of real civil disobedience tension here because everything is orchestrated,” he notes. “This is 1999, and you have to recognize that you can’t repeat what happened 40 years ago.”

He said that as a result of Sharpton’s novel approach in the Diallo case, a whole new generation of activists is being better educated about the power of civil disobedience based on the nonviolent tactics of Gandhi and King.

“If you create a climate like we have been able to create in the last few days,” he declares, “everybody will want to play a role.”

Al Sharpton’s role in turning the tide of public opinion against Rudy Giuliani and the rogue cops seemed clearly defined from the outset of the political fallout in the aftermath of the brutal slaying of Amadou Diallo.

Since the reverend no longer “injects himself” into every potentially high-profile case that reaches his headquarters daily, he was wary of the February 5 phone call an aide received from Mohamed S. Jalloh, the head of the Harlem-based Guinean Community Association. Jalloh, according to Sharpton, told Moses Stewart, the head of the Network’s crisis-intervention center, that police were trying to cover up the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Diallo, and that this was a perfect case for Sharpton.

In the course of Stewart’s inquiry, a detective from the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau allegedly called Sharpton to assure him that the department would leave no stone unturned in its investigation, and that the reverend should convey that message to the African American community.

“They never call me,” Sharpton sneers. “That got me suspicious.” Sharpton felt himself being sucked into the maelstrom that now was swirling around the incident. He organized a vigil at the site where Diallo was killed and, after a minor uproar within the Guinean Community Association over Sharpton’s role, he got the green light to act as an adviser to the family.

On Monday, February 8, when it was reported that Mayor Giuliani had contacted Amadou’s father in Vietnam, and that he was on a plane to New York, Sharpton feared that City Hall would try to upstage him. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, the father may be persuaded by the mayor.’ ” He subsequently learned that Amadou’s mother also was headed to America. “Oh God, what are they trying to do here?” Sharpton asked an aide.

Sharpton devised a plan to wrest control of the distraught mother from Giuliani. “You and other members of the Association need to go to the airport and explain to the mother the politics of what’s happening because the city is gonna try to separate us,” he told Jalloh during a rally at Foley Square. That’s the plan, Sharpton insisted. If Giuliani gets hold of Mrs. Diallo, it will be a public-relations victory. Jalloh delivered his remarks and left promptly for the airport.

About an hour later, he called Sharpton on his cell phone. “They took the mother off the plane,” Sharpton recalls Jalloh saying nervously. “We can’t talk to her! The police have her!”

“My heart sunk in my shoes,” Sharpton says. “I went back to my office and waited for the other shoe to drop. I turned on the TV and there she was. Amadou’s mother had been taken to Wheeler Avenue by the police. TV captured her collapsing. I’m sitting there saying, ‘Well, they got them now.’ I don’t think the Diallo family is going to understand this picture; the city will feed them its version of the killing of their son.”

Around 5:30 p.m., Jalloh and Dr. Delois Blakely, the African American community’s “ambassador to Africa,” walked into Sharpton’s office. They said that Mrs. Diallo wanted to meet Sharpton. Miffed by what he viewed as Giuliani’s attempt to control Mrs. Diallo, the reverend snapped, “About what?”

“We don’t know,” Jalloh responded. Sharpton paused. Either Mrs. Diallo was summoning him to tell him to butt out of the investigation or to ask him to help her seek justice for Amadou. Sharpton accompanied the emissaries to the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue, where the city had put Mrs. Diallo.

He was greeted by a phalanx of cops and Karl Waters, an attorney who had represented Amadou. “The ranking officer looked at his men and said, ‘That’s Al Sharpton, should we let him in?’ ” Waters vouched for Sharpton and he was allowed past the cops. On seeing Sharpton, Mrs. Diallo reportedly pleaded, “Reverend Sharpton, I know who you are and what you do; would you please get these police away from me? They killed my son!”

“My heart came back to my chest and that’s when I knew she was with us,” Sharpton recalls.

For the next three hours, Sharpton consoled Mrs. Diallo, offering to move her out of the hotel, take care of her financial needs, and defray the cost of flying Amadou’s remains back to Guinea. Sharpton reached out to Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker and Frank Mercado-Valdez, two members of his board, asking them to raise money.

At about 11:30 that night, Mrs. Diallo called Sharpton at home. “Reverend Sharpton? Madame Diallo,” he remembered her saying. “I changed my mind.”

Sharpton’s heart sank again.

“I thought the city got to her,” he says.

But Mrs. Diallo wanted no part of Rudy Giuliani. “I don’t want to move tomorrow,” she cried. “I want to move tonight! Get me out of here! Now!”

Sharpton pleaded with Mrs. Diallo to spend the night at the Stanhope at the mayor’s expense; he still had not raised the money. “She was determined to leave then,” he remembers. The next morning, the reverend escorted Mrs. Diallo out of the hotel in the full glare of the cameras, denying Rudy Giuliani the photo op he was hoping for to diffuse mounting anger in the African American community, and the chance to send a message that Amadou’s mother had accepted his explanation of how her son was killed.

After Sharpton had checked Mrs. Diallo and her relatives into the Rihga Royal Hotel on West 54th Street, she reminded the reverend that her estranged husband was arriving that night. “You must meet him and warn him so that they don’t trick him,” she reportedly said.

The battle for the Diallo family began all over again.

“Me and Mohamed Jalloh go out to the airport that night,” Sharpton recalls. “The father lands. The city is there. They are inside Customs. We can’t go in. We’re unauthorized.”

Suddenly, an attaché at the Guinean counsel general’s office emerged from Customs and spied Sharpton and Jalloh, whom he ushered into the restricted area. Jalloh greeted Saikou Diallo and conversed with him in Fulani (the language of the Fulani tribe). Sharpton, not understanding one bit of what was said, kept nodding.

“The father looks at me and the cops and keeps on talking,” Sharpton recalls. “Finally, the father tells the police, ‘Thank you very much. I go with them’— and he walked out with us. The press went crazy. Now both the mother and the father was with Al Sharpton.”

Reverend Sharpton harbors no illusions that he’s finally won the approval of his critics. It is clear that he has become a threat to powerful lobbies, such as the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which took out full-page ads in the city’s dailies on Monday, declaring that his crusade for justice was meant “to destroy the mayor politically and to railroad into jail unfortunate New York City police officers whose only motivation was to fight crime, protect the public and get home safely.”

Isn’t the bottom line of Al Sharpton’s argument that it was those very police officers who never gave Amadou Diallo the chance to return home safely? Sharpton, like many African Americans, believes that the PBA protects killer cops. The cop union’s media campaign, they insist, is a waste of money. It is because of Al Sharpton, supporters maintain, that the police siege of New York City appears to be finally lifting.

“Clearly, the demonization of Al Sharpton isn’t over,” says the father of the new movement, “but I am proud that I was able to achieve a level of acceptance without selling my soul. We united New Yorkers on our own terms.”

Additional reporting by Karen Mahabir

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 30, 1999

Archive Highlights