By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Johnnie Cochran continues his "Journey to Justice" on a ghetto pass to New York. Some among the city's frontline black activist leadership, who 10 months ago sanctioned Cochran's arrival, now believe the flamboyant California attorney muscled his way into the Abner Louima police brutality case like a trespassing junkyard dog. They claim that Cochranwho is representing three of the shooting victims in the New Jersey Turnpike racial-profiling scandalis on a mission to hijack high-profile cases from them and steal the limelight as New York's top black advocate for racial justice. As Cochran assumes greater importance here, and attempts to ingratiate himself with black community leaders and victims of alleged police misconduct, tensions have mounted.
Currently, a debate is raging over whether this Johnnie come lately's so-called ghetto pass, which allows him access to the black community, should be revoked. The dispute has evolved into a massive quarrel inside the Harlem-based National Action Network, the city's most active civil rights organization. Some associates of the Reverend Al Sharpton, the group's leader, say bitter animosities have arisen over Sharpton's close rapport with Cochran.
The infighting erupted after Cochran and two white members of the O. J. Simpson "dream team"--Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld--apparently maneuvered their way into the Turnpike caseand convinced one of the victims to desert Brooklyn attorney Carl W. Thomas. Cochran and Thomas, whom many black activists regard as a hero of the Abner Louima affair,had argued publicly about Cochran's sudden intervention into the case last fall.
In January, Thomas, Brian Figeroux, and Casilda Roper-Simpson quit the Louima legal team over what they described as "professional and ethical differences" with Cochran, Scheck, and Neufeld. Thomas, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, accused Cochran and company of ignoring minority concerns about cops and of isolating the case from the larger movement against police brutality. Hetold one reporter that Cochran "has a significant amount of baggage" stemming from the Simpson case, including the "perception that he was, in some ways, dishonest."
Louima's retraction of his initialstatement that police officers had invoked Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's name during the attack on him helped to spark the angry exodusof Thomas and his partners, who were the first lawyers Louima hired. Thomas's group charged that Cochran and his team had accused Figeroux of making up the phrase "It's Giuliani time," which they vehemently denied. Their departure resulted in Cochran becoming the lead attorney on the Louima team.
According to a Sharpton aide who wished to remain anonymous, one faction in the Sharpton camp wants the minister to "tell Johnnie Cochran off.
"Has Johnnie Cochran been formally introduced to the black community in New York?" he sneered. "Have they been accorded the opportunity to hear why he is really among us? Why does he have two white men [Scheck and Neufeld] fronting for him? Ghetto passes expire, and it maybe time for Johnnie to pack up and leave before the black community declares him persona non grata."
Cochran did not return numerous calls placed to his New York and California law offices.
Reverend Sharpton's advisers have discussed the possibility that the minister's role as the key player in the city's civil rights movement could be threatened by Cochran's ambitious plans. Despite such concerns, an aide says Sharpton adopted a "wait and see attitude" toward Cochran afterCochranco-hosted a June 5 fundraiser at Sharpton's Flatbush home for Louima's cousin Samuel Nicolas, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in Brooklyn's 42nd Assembly District.
Sharpton, the disgruntled aide lamented, prefers to present a unified front even after some members of his inner circle have pointed out Cochran's penchant for being AWOL when it comes to "marching for our civil rights in hot sun and cold weather.
"Where's Johnnie when we're absorbing the 'nigger-go-home' taunts and other abuses from white people?" the aide fumed. Sharpton, he added, refused to criticize Cochran for failing to join in a protest march through Bensonhurst the day after the fundraiser. Sharpton was protesting the release from prison of the leader of a white mob that attacked and killed 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins in the predominantly Italian American neighborhood nine years ago.
Following the march, the aide noted, Cochran stood up Sharpton and nearly 300 people who had packed the gymnasium at Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton for a rally in support of the Turnpike shooting victims. East Orange patrolman DeLacy Davis, president of Black Cops Against Police Brutality, said that Cochran had planned to meet Sharpton in Trenton and may have gotten lost en route.
The aide said Sharpton may have forgiven Cochran because of his ringing defenses of the activist recently in response to queriesabout the raucous Poughkeepsie defamation trial in which Sharpton is a defendant. Former prosecutor Steven Pagones has claimed that Sharpton and activist attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason acted with malice and recklessness when, as advisers to Tawana Brawley, they accused him and other white men of attacking and raping her in 1987. Cochran has been telling reporters that Sharpton acted on the best information available to him when he stood up for the 15-year-old girl.
"Johnnie has re-strategized," a member of Sharpton's inner circle asserted, while acknowledging the internal dispute. "I think at first he thought he could come in and take it all, but what he realizes now is that he's gonna have to cooperate with people like Reverend Sharpton if he wants to be the lawyer."