At Each Other's Throats

Political retribution in Harlem in the wake of the Million Youth March

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.

"I said, 'Then what is it about?' She said, 'You got the brother arrested and you got people hurt.' "Ford was referring to Shaheed Muhammad, a member of the organizing committee who was arrested for allegedly punching a police officer in the face. Shaheed, also known as James Washington, surrendered to police a few days later following a manhunt. Prosecutors now admit that Shaheed is not on the police videos that have been released to the media, but say a camera caught the activist in the area where the injured officer was moments after the alleged attack. (Ford did not return Voice phone calls for comment.)

Paterson says he was puzzled by Ford's accusation that he is responsible for Shaheed's arrest and injuries suffered by about 15 cops and five civilians. "I really couldn't get that. And she said [I was] working with Giuliani and the police! I said, 'Well, neither Giuliani nor the police have been willing to talk to me through this whole thing. But while we're on that subject neither have you.' She says, 'I reached out to you. ' And I said, 'Erica, I've never met you before in my life until today.' " Ford then pointed to Paterson's aide, Joe Haslip, insisting that she had reached out to him but got no response.

Haslip recalls that he had been contacted by Ford, but adds that he told her to make an appointment to see Paterson. "You never came in, but we can talk now," Haslip told Ford. Haslip, Paterson, and other witnesses said they heard Ford shout, "Fuck you! I don't wanna talk now!"

Ford's enraged supporters yelled obscenities at Paterson, calling him a "sellout," and threatened to run him out of office. Viola Plummer, a senior member of the December 12th Movement, whose leadership dominates the New York Black Power Organizing Committee, finally intervened. "She came over and told me she could explain because Erica was, like, insane," Paterson says. "They had to, like, take her away." (Plummer did not respond to Voice queries.)

According to Paterson, Plummer said organizers had been upset with him for "contradicting" Ford when she appeared on Open Line, a controversial black talk show on KISS-FM, prior to the march. "I said, 'When I was on KISS, Erica came on and said most of our youth are on drugs and in prison.' I said, 'I would expect Rudolph Giuliani to say that. But I'm not gonna allow that to be said about young people in my district by Giuliani or Erica or you or anyone else.' "

The sidewalk squabble shifted to City Hall's alleged control of black politicians in Harlem. Roger Wareham, an attorney and member of the New York Black Power Organizing Committee, had charged that Giuliani checks the pulses of elected officials before making statements they all seem to back. "Giuliani doesn't check anyone's pulse before he does what he's gonna do," Paterson opines. "That's what part of this whole fight is about. The city never cooperates with anybody. You could be a radical or a Tom, or whatever. As long as you're black and live in Harlem, Giuliani doesn't talk to anybody. They seem to have it in their minds that there was some kind of tacit approval [between black politicians and Giuliani] before Harlem got turned into an armed camp. But that's not the Rudy Giuliani I know."

According to Paterson, Plummer concluded that although they espouse opposite political views, both show respect for others who disagree with them. "She said, 'When I open my mouth in public I don't insult people and use profanity and try to get a whole lotta people killed.' " Paterson believes that remark was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Khallid Muhammad's choleric temper and racist taunts.

The fallout over the Million Youth March--shaping up as an angry backlash against what one militant refers to as the "malignant Tomism that hurt blacks"--will weigh heavily in the reelection campaigns of David Paterson, Charles Rangel, C. Virginia Fields, and Bill Perkins in 2001. At the end of Khallid's speech, he singled out and then lampooned the key targets of an insurgent throw-the-bums-out movement.

"I know ole bootlickin' Charlie Rangel is somewhere out in the crowd peeing in his pants," poked the racial raconteur. "I know ole Bill Perkins is out there, scared to death. I know ole David Paterson is out there, scared to death, because you're bootlickin', butt-naked, buckdancin', bamboozled, half-baked, half-fried, sissyfied, punkified, pasteurized, homogenized niggaz! Let us get them out of office and put new, young, black leadership in office."

Most susceptible is Perkins, the freshman councilman whose vocal opposition to Khallid and the rally won him both pats on the back and a menacing display of clenched fists. At the march, Khallid's trusted adviser, attorney Malik Z. Shabazz, introduced Conrad Muhammad as "the future replacement for Bill Perkins."

The political lowdown uptown is that if the Reverend Al Sharpton runs for mayor, Conrad will challenge Perkins on a Sharpton ticket. Perkins would have to reluctantly align himself with Sharpton nemesis and mayoral hopeful Alan Hevesi. The city comptroller had vowed during the 1997 mayoral race that he would not support Sharpton even if he won the Democratic primary.

Not only will Bill Perkins constantly be harangued by his constituents over his bitter opposition to the Million Youth March, he will be repudiated for his alliance with Alan Hevesi, who marched behind a racist float in a Labor Day parade in the remote island community of Beach Channel, Queens. A group of white men, including two city firefighters and a police officer, wore blackface and Afro-style and dreadlock wigs on the float that featured a banner reading, "Black to the Future 2098." (Hevesi later denied he was aware that the float was part of the parade.)Some of the participants were caught on videotape mocking the dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Texas, last June.

"I think there will be a lot of talk about changing a lot of people, but it will come down to Bill Perkins," says a black political analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.

C. Virginia Fields could also be harmed by vengeful insurgents and an unforgiving black electorate. Some speculate that Fields, who won a contentious Democratic primary against Deborah Glick, will be challenged by another progressive white candidate for the borough presidency. Without maximum black turnout she'll lose.

"If Conrad Muhammad and Al Sharpton and others keep their word to mount a massive voter registration drive that will translate into an electoral movement, there is no way that Bill Perkins and C. Virginia Fields would not pay a penalty," the analyst says.

The inevitable questions about Sharpton's role in the drive to mobilize black voters to pick new representatives for the millennium were not long in coming. Less than 48 hours after the violent end to the march, the self-styled "mayor of New York in exile" rounded up battered politicians like Paterson, Fields, and Perkins, who seemed eager to alert their constituents that things were back to normal. One Sharpton aide says that the politicians, particularly Paterson, had nowhere to turn but to the city's major civil rights leader.

"That's why they ran up here and posed with Al Sharpton for the cameras," says the aide. "Why would you have such an adamant position against the march, call for Khallid's arrest--and then overnight you're sitting up in the House of Justice with Al Sharpton asif you hadn't realized that the wrath of the community was coming down on you?"

Another political observer not affiliated with the Sharpton camp intimated that Sharpton's stewardship only proved that the minister was trying to defend Khallid's conduct at the march. "Sharpton tried to use the politicians to take the heat off of Khallid Muhammad and they tried to use Sharpton to take the heat off of them," the operative says.

Some assert that Sharpton may be doing what any savvy politico in his position would do: keeping his options open by coalescing with the beleaguered black elected officials. Ultimately, others say, he will realize that none of those politicians will support him for mayor, and he must reproach them.

"It's only a matter of time before Al Sharpton says, 'All right, we're together. I'm running for mayor, will you endorse me?' " one analyst predicts. "When Bill Perkins and C. Virginia Fields say, 'I can't,' Sharpton then puts his machinery behind Conrad Muhammad. Ultimately, Al Sharpton will do what's in his interest. How can he be with Bill Perkins and C.Virginia Fields when they are not going to be with him?"

The imbroglio gets more nasty when political watchdogs eye Sharpton's ties to David Paterson. Is Sharpton protecting Paterson?

"Sharpton and Paterson are using each other," a critic of Sharpton contends. "Paterson is trying to regain credibility by associating himself with Sharpton. Sharpton asked Paterson not to push for the arrest of Khallid."

Paterson, the deputy minority leader of the senate, who is running unopposed in the November elections, knows that Sharpton could have a tremendous impact on his reelection campaign in 2001. If, as one Sharpton aide put it, a credible candidate emerges against the senator and "took the right positions," Sharpton would be hard-pressed to support Paterson because members of his grassroots network would rebel. "In the end, Sharpton is providing comfort for comfort."

And what about Sharpton's tenuous relationship with Charlie Rangel? One aide to the minister put it this way: "Reverend Sharpton has helped Rangel with the Apollo Theatre controversy. Rangel has helped Sharpton with Tawana Brawley. But there is nothing Rangel could do to hurt Sharpton. It's the other way around. Sharpton sits and waits. Rangel, who did not support Sharpton for mayor the last time, and may not support him in 2001, has to try to make overtures to Sharpton."

Rangel and other old guard lawmakers in Harlem also may be compelled to make overtures to "Generation neXt" politicians like Conrad Muhammad, who has embarked on what he touts as a "one million black and Latino, urban youth, hip hop, voters registration drive." With that kind of power, Conrad boasts that the "hip hop generation can influence the political process like never before."

At the rally for CHHANGE, Conrad announced that his group will run a slate of rapper candidates in local races "because I know [they] won't sell out in the city council." He has floated the idea of recruiting "young, strong brothers like Onyx [for] the Democratic Party" and also is negotiating with KRS One. "We're talking to him," he said. "We need to get him to run . . . so hip hop can be represented in the city council."

Conrad is even thinking about transforming the screaming revolutionary, Erica Ford, into one of his warrior legislators.

"We need to put Erica Ford in the city council--85 seats come up in 2000," he noted. "Hell, I would even support, if he chose to, which I doubt if he would, the fiery and controversial Khallid Muhammad to run for Congress--to make some of those fiery speeches on the floor of the Congress. . . . We in the 'hood making fiery speeches, which is good 'cause you gotta educate the community. But I'm saying, 'Let's take it inside the House! Upset the House if need be!' "

Research: W. Michelle Beckles

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