By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
Morris Powell, the black activist some say was the mastermind behind the boycott that sparked the firebombing and mass murder-suicide at Freddy's Fashion Mart three years ago, has emerged at the center of a new campaign employing alleged "Nazi-type tactics" to force Fred Harari, the Jewish owner of the store, out of Harlem for good.
In fact Harari's lawyer, Robert L. Rimberg, argues in court papers that "Powell, if permitted to continue [the current protest], is setting the stage for another tragedy" at the store, which is located at 272 West 125th Street. It has been renovated and renamed Uptown Jeans.
But the Voice has learned that a secret deal is being cut between Harari and Powell, which may bring an end to the racially divisive protest.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, who apologized for calling Harari "a white interloper" during demonstrations at the height of the boycott, confirmed that Harari asked him to mediate the ongoing dispute with Powell, a street vendor who heads the Buy Black Committee at Sharpton's National Action Network. Sharpton said that he, Powell, Harari, and Rimberg met two weeks ago in the Manhattan office of attorney Michael A. Hardy, who represents Powell and Sharpton.
It was the first face-to-face meeting between Harari and Powell since the so-called "Harlem massacre." Eight people, including a gunman, died on December 8, 1995, in what Rimberg describes as "one of the worst racist attacks in New York history."
Sharpton says the two men are trying to broker an agreement in which Harari will appear at a "town hall meeting" to give his account of the tragic events, since many Harlem residents hold him partly responsible for what occurred.
"At the meeting, Morris said he felt that Freddy shouldn't just come back into the community without atoning for his past sins," says Sharpton, who added that he explained to Harari why he had used the racial code word interloperto describe him.
"I told him some of his workers had come to me complaining that he was underpaying them off the books and that they were afraid something terrible would happen with all those fire-code violations in the store," the reverend recalls. "I told him that he had a bad image in the Harlem community."
According to Sharpton, Harari "dealt forthrightly with the accusations," insisting that he no longer pays his employees off the books, and that the fire-safety violations have been corrected.
Asked about the deal with Powell, Rimberg says, "We are discussing it." But Rimberg denies Harari admitted to gouging his workers and paying their wages illegally. "He has never paid people off the books," the attorney insists.
On December 4, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Harold Tompkins issued a temporary restraining order, barring Powell from "protesting, demonstrating, picketing, congregating or otherwise gathering" within 350 feet of Uptown Jeans and Showtime, another of Harari's stores, located at 216 West 125th Street. Now protesters chant slogans from behind police barricades set up across the street near the Apollo Theater, where striking stagehands were picketing the storied showplace this summer.
"The thing is over with now," Rimberg asserts. But Michael Hardy, Powell's attorney, says that nothing has been finalized. Powell has agreed in principle to end the boycott, pending the outcome of a legal settlement with Harari. "It is still in the process of being resolved," Hardy says.
For the past three months, Morris Powell and several other black ultranationalists have been roaming 125th Street, urging bargain seekers along the historic commercial strip to "return fire" because "Freddy's not dead."
But it wasn't until Powell and members of a group called Concerned Citizens of Harlem began picketing four days before Thanksgiving that some realized he was referring to Harari.
The businessman's store allegedly was turned into a fiery tomb by Abugunde Mulocko, a reputed member of the Black Liberation Army, who believed that Harari did not employ blacks and was involved in a scheme with the landlord of a predominantly black church to evict the Record Shack, a black-owned store next door. After local officials refused to help Sikhulu Shange, who runs the Shack, Shange turned to Sharpton and Powell.
Police say Mulocko, also known as Roland J. Smith Jr., stormed into Freddy's and shot and wounded four people, all of them white, before setting the place on fire. Seven employees died of smoke inhalation. Mulocko then allegedly turned the gun on himself.
Powell maintains that Uptown Jeans is Freddy's incarnate, and urges blacks not to shop at "that store that we have unfinished business with."
Outside the store on a breezy Saturday morning last month, Powell stuffed flyers into the shopping bags of people browsing at a discount clothing rack. One included the rap "Freddy's Not Dead."
"It's a poetic situation, you know, because everybody else is dead but Freddy," lamented Powell. He then recited, "He's still alive and kicking and the black community is taking a licking/Have you heard? Freddy's where the massacre occurred."
Robert Moore, a passerby, grabbed a flyer, perused it, and confronted the activist.
"They got black people working here!" Moore protested. "I don't get that, yo."
"This is a white-owned store!" Powell shot back.
"Yo, whites been dominating us for years, yo," Moore argued. "You gotta git your own business and stop worrying about the white man. Git your own shit!"
"You don't even know the truth, you don't even know they record," Powell asserted.
But Moore insisted, "You git your own shit and don't worry about these white people!"
"Black people ain't got no businesses out here where you can make money," Powell said. "They sufferin'. They're going outta business."
An associate of Powell, an unidentified woman with dreadlocks, pleaded with him to end the argument with the stranger. "Never mind," Powell said, turning his back on Moore, "they're gonna close down!"
Continuing to denounce the boycott, Moore walked over to a reporter. "I'm against it because even though they're white, the man that owns the United Church of Prayer is black," he said. "He rented to the white people. And the white man hired black people."
The woman with dreadlocks interrupted, claiming that Moore had been planted by Harari to disrupt the boycott. "He probably work for him," she speculated.
As he departed, Moore examined one of the flyers that claimed that Mulocko, the arsonist, had "a long history of . . . protesting economic terrorism on 125th Street" and that he "demonstrated a real regard for the lives of people of color."
"I was right there when the fire happened," Moore said. "It was fucked up! But a white man didn't go in there and burn it down. A black man went up there and burn that shit down." Much of Morris Powell's "unfinished business" with Fred Harari revolves around his contention that a sloppy police investigation as well as political and media posturing may have buried "the facts we need to know" about the tragedy that occurred at the store.
He dismisses as "a cold-blooded lie" rumors that he planned the attack on Freddy's.
William Bratton, the police commissioner at the time, told reporters that nine days before the incident, a store security guard had overheard a protester say, "We're going to come back with 20 niggers and loot and burn the Jew." Police said that Mulocko had taken part in at least one demonstration, but acknowledged that he was not the one who threatened to "loot and burn."
On the day of the fire, according to police, Mulocko burst into Freddy's with a gun in one hand and a flammable liquid in the other. Declaring, "It's on now!" he allegedly shouted for all the blacks to get out, began shooting, and splashed the liquid over racks of clothes, setting them afire.
At the time, Powell and other leaders of the boycott denied knowing Mulocko. But today Mulocko is revered as a martyr.
"We can never disrespect the honor of a Black Man who struggled for his people to be free based on the hearsay of a racist press, racist police, racist mayor and sell-out politicians," Powell wrote in one of the "fact sheets" he hands out to shoppers.
In Powell's version of what happened, "Eyewitnesses have said that they saw police lay down outside the store and fire [into it] with their 9mms. Have you [seen] a ballistics report on the bullets fired?"
But if Abugunde Mulocko did not start the fire, who did?
Says Powell, "Eyewitnesses have said the police fired tear gas into the clothing store. To date, the only real witnesses reporting what happened in the store worked for Freddy's or the police."
And there are questions for which Powell believes he may never get straight answers. For example, "How did the owner and bookkeeper (who are white) escape from the basement of Freddy's?" Powell claims that they got out through "a hole in the back of their office" and "coulda saved the other seven people" but they didn't.
"It's totally ridiculous," says Rimberg, brushing aside Powell's concerns about the fairness of the investigation. "The facts of the fire were investigated by the police department and their conclusions are what their conclusions are."
In court papers stating why the temporary restraining order should be granted, Rimberg contends there is "a very real danger that a repeat of the 1995 incident could occur." He alleges that on November 30, demonstrators warned that "someone will be killed this week in Uptown Jeans"; that they "threatened to burn down" the store; and that shoppers were menaced, abused with racial slurs, and that one demonstrator spat on a shopper.
Steve Brodsky, the manager of the store, says that the current protests "came as a surprise." Harari, he claims, recognizes the black community's growing economic clout and has worked hard to win back his customers. He notes that Harari has donated scholarships to Rice High School, a Catholic school for boys, and sponsored numerous sporting events in Harlem.
He points to a framed letter prominently displayed at the checkout counter. It was written by Dante Blum to Harari, thanking him for his financial support of the Harlem Junior Tennis Program.
"I think that the community knows that we honor and respect them," Brodsky asserts."They come like family."
"Can he bring back those eight lives that was lost in there because of the crimes and violations he committed?" asks Powell. "We're gonna take our money back from the enemy," the activist vows.
the boycott of uptown jeans comes in the wake of a new survey by the Anti-Defamation League, which finds that blacks are four times as likely as whites to hold prejudiced views of Jews. Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, blames Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and others for promoting anti-Semitism.
Powell says he revived the protest partly because stores like Uptown Jeans and Showtime remained open on the day of the Million Youth March in defiance of its leader, Khallid Abdul Muhammad, who called Jews "bloodsuckers" of the black community.
"How's it that these Jews are able to come back and do business around here, come back stronger, with two or three stores?" Powell rages.
"I cannot help the fact that I am Jewish," says Brodsky. "It hurts me a little bit that some people in the community don't feel we're doing the right thing."
Research: W. Michelle Beckles