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Sensing discontent about his ill-timed call for the arrest of Khallid Abdul Muhammad for allegedly inciting teenagers to riot and kill cops at the Million Youth March, state senator David Paterson recently ambled into a jam-packed auditorium at the National Black Theatre in Harlem appearing more contrite than combative.
If Paterson felt he had found a middle ground to brood over his embarrassing blunder, and shelter from an outbreak of political vengeance that raged uptown one week after the controversial march, his calculations were way off. He had wandered into New Jack power-broker Conrad Muhammad's debut summit of raptivists, black nationalists, gangbangers, and Afrocentrists eager to work for CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), a political and cultural movement Conrad founded for black youth.
Jeers, boos, and catcalls greeted the 44-year-old senator, who has become the favorite whipping boy of the Marxist-influenced New York Black Power Organizing Committee. The group was the principal sponsor ofthe four-hour rally, which was peaceful until police in riot gear stormed the stage as Khallid wrapped up a vitriolic speech that inveighed against the NYPD, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Jews, and moderate black politicians.
To some, like Erica Ford, the committee's coordinator and acid-tongued agitator, who were among the hecklers at the CHHANGE rally, Paterson had contributed to the tense atmosphere that led to the violence. In the weeks leading up to the September 5 event, Paterson, Congressman Charles Rangel, Councilman Bill Perkins, and Borough President C. Virginia Fields condemned Khallid's past racist and anti-Semitic views, and speculated that the Black Panther and Muslim leader would incite young blacks to riot. They then, critics charged, "buckdanced" (equivocated) on their support for the event.
Shortly after protesters scuffled with cops--some say at Khallid's urging to "beat the hell out of them" in self-defense--Paterson told reporters that Khallid's words "were like yelling fire at a movie theater; it was dangerous and it showed no respect for life." But after the dust settled and criticism turned on the Giuliani administration's alleged mishandling of the affair, Paterson retracted his demand for Khallid's arrest. That political screwup, as well as the attacks on Khallid by Rangel, Perkins, and Fields, is as hot a topic in Harlem as the presidential sex scandal.
As Conrad Muhammad gauged his audience's reaction to Paterson, his speech focused on "mostly negro politicians" and the fact that "a strong one" like Paterson had the courage to show his face. Conrad's announcement that Paterson would be accorded an opportunity to speak provoked applause as well as a chantdown.
"No!" someone shouted.
"He's a good brother!" asserted Conrad, the baby-faced, erstwhile Nation of Islam minister who recently resigned from the black separatist theocracy to lead CHHANGE.
"Don't do that, Conrad!" Erica Ford pleaded, her voice thundering above the angry colloquy. She repeated her charge that Paterson had sicced the cops on protesters.
"He's a racist!" a man shouted.
Now it was Conrad searching for middle ground between the far right and extreme left of black angst. "Wherever you see a black politician that's weak [and] you need to call him [an] 'Uncle Tom,' a 'handkerchief head,' [or] a 'negro,' stay on his case," he said. "But he is ours. They belong to us. And we gotta stop, brothers and sisters, being ideologues. Yes, brother Khallid is ours, and that's why I was with him at the Million Youth March [and]will stand for his right to say what he said. But it's not an either-or proposition. I'm gon' stand with Charlie Rangel, and where I don't agree with him I'm gon' wear him out. But he's mine. He's ours."
When his audience seemed to miss or ignore the point about embracing political pariahs, Conrad dropped "this bomb on Sister Erica" that she and other blacks refuse to acknowledge. "We don't talk about it much in the black community, but we really benefited from ole Uncle Tom," he offered. "See," he added, "a lot of negroes don't talk about the good that Uncle Tom did: Uncle Tom didn't always sell us out. Sometime he would let the field negro know what was about to come down from the house."
David Paterson is no Uncle Tom--not by anyone's definition. Despite his post-march faux pas, he remains a counterbalance to the argument that outspoken black politicians are easily intimidated by uptown militants or downtown neo-fascists. Again, Conrad praised Paterson for wading into unfriendly fire, declaring that his presence was "a good sign; because at least . . . you can talk" to politicians like him.
But after the rally, the anti-Paterson sentiments filtered onto the sidewalk outside the theater. Paterson, wanting to talk, walked over to Ford, who was with a group of about 10 members of her committee and key supporters.
"Erica Ford started yelling and screaming at me about something," Paterson recalls. "So I started to explain to her about my misstating about Khallid. And she said, 'It's not about that motherfuckin' Khallid Muhammad!' She referred to him twice as a 'motherfucker,' which I thought was interesting. We just looked at each other when she said that. Now I don't know if that was just her way of being mad, because every three words out of her mouth was a cuss word, or whether she actually has a problem with Khallid.
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