Father of the Movement

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

After Sharpton had checked Mrs. Diallo and her relatives into the Rihga Royal Hotel on West 54th Street, she reminded the reverend that her estranged husband was arriving that night. "You must meet him and warn him so that they don't trick him," she reportedly said.

The battle for the Diallo family began all over again.

"Me and Mohamed Jalloh go out to the airport that night," Sharpton recalls. "The father lands. The city is there. They are inside Customs. We can't go in. We're unauthorized."

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.

Suddenly, an attaché at the Guinean counsel general's office emerged from Customs and spied Sharpton and Jalloh, whom he ushered into the restricted area. Jalloh greeted Saikou Diallo and conversed with him in Fulani (the language of the Fulani tribe). Sharpton, not understanding one bit of what was said, kept nodding.

"The father looks at me and the cops and keeps on talking," Sharpton recalls. "Finally, the father tells the police, 'Thank you very much. I go with them'— and he walked out with us. The press went crazy. Now both the mother and the father was with Al Sharpton."

Reverend Sharpton harbors no illusions that he's finally won the approval of his critics. It is clear that he has become a threat to powerful lobbies, such as the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which took out full-page ads in the city's dailies on Monday, declaring that his crusade for justice was meant "to destroy the mayor politically and to railroad into jail unfortunate New York City police officers whose only motivation was to fight crime, protect the public and get home safely."

Isn't the bottom line of Al Sharpton's argument that it was those very police officers who never gave Amadou Diallo the chance to return home safely? Sharpton, like many African Americans, believes that the PBA protects killer cops. The cop union's media campaign, they insist, is a waste of money. It is because of Al Sharpton, supporters maintain, that the police siege of New York City appears to be finally lifting.

"Clearly, the demonization of Al Sharpton isn't over," says the father of the new movement, "but I am proud that I was able to achieve a level of acceptance without selling my soul. We united New Yorkers on our own terms."

Additional reporting by Karen Mahabir

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