Father of the Movement

How Al Sharpton rose from 'racial arsonist' to racial healer, and changed New York City

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."

Manhattan, 1999: Sharpton, with Jewish support, leads a multi-ethnic sit-in against police brutality.
Andrew Lichtenstein
Manhattan, 1999: Sharpton, with Jewish support, leads a multi-ethnic sit-in against police brutality.

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.

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