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By defiantly embracing Rudy Giuliani in the throes of a popular movement led by some activists who have compared the mayor to Hitler, Reverend Calvin Butts has joined the ranks of black accommodationists, or "Uncle Toms," who are accused of bartering the lives of those they profess to protect for their own political gain.
Last year, Butts, who, as pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, is considered one of the city's most influential black leaders, created a stir by calling Giuliani a racist. Last Tuesday, during a "reconciliation" service organized by John Cardinal O'Connor at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Buttsin what seemed to be a prearranged gesturecalled Giuliani to the altar. The two met halfway, Butts coming from the pulpit and Giuliani from the front pew. They hugged warmly and spoke quietly for several seconds. "Now I'm all for unity, but enough is enough!" said Reverend Al Sharpton, who had organized daily protests outside police headquarters demanding the arrest of four white officers involved in the killing of unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo.
"Everybody that want to come to town and take a shot at me takes a shot at me [but] you got these Uncle Remuses running around, selling out the movement, and nobody will say nothing," Sharpton told a cheering crowd at a rally in Brooklyn following the St. Patrick's service, from which he had been conspicuously absent. "I'll be damned if I'll sit here and allow them to turn around the work that we've done in New York City." Giuliani, Sharpton sneered, is entitled to hug whomever he wants, but "we're gonna fight until these four cops is hugging a pillow in jail for the rest of their [lives]."
Sharpton hammered Butts relentlessly his embrace of the mayor. "This is absolutely ridiculous!" he said. "One minute you call a man racist, then all of a sudden he ain't a racist? Explain to me what he did, that all of a sudden he ain't no racist no more. They [the Giuliani administration] just admitted yesterday that only 3 percent of the Street Crime Unit is black. That was worse than the percentage of blacks in the armed forces in South Africa under apartheid. And 24 hours later, you gonna hug them for that?"
Butts did not return Voice calls for comment.
As condemnation rained down on the maverick minister in the wake of his audacious alliance with Giuliani, organizers of the nonviolent civil disobedience protests moved swiftly to assure concerned black leaders that political pressure on City Hall would not subside.
Some, like Charles Barron, view the so-called reconciliation as "a clear attempt by Giuliani and Butts to undermine the black liberation struggle," which has been reinvigorated by the public outcry following the Diallo shooting of more than two months ago.
"They are trying to create alternatives to the progressive black leadership that is involved with this movement," charges Barron, an adviser to the family of Patrick Bailey, who was shot to death in Brooklyn in 1997 by one of the four cops involved in the Diallo killing. (That officer, Kenneth Boss, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing last month by Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes.)
With the mayor's approval rating plummeting to new lows, Barron asserts that Giuliani will "do anything to divert attention from the real issue, which is our demand that he advocate the severest punishment for police officers who murder or brutalize our people."
Before hugging Butts, Barron claims, Giuliani had been scrambling to find a political strategy that would embarrass leaders of the movement and black politicians who support them. He notes that the mayor's tactics seemed to change after advisers warned that his isolation of almost all of New York's black leaders might shore up the perception of him as a racist, and thus harm his almost certain bid for the U.S. Senate.
Eventually, Giuliani was forced to meet with Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields, whom he had shunned since her 1997 election, despite her persistent requests for a sit-down. Giuliani also finally met with state comptroller Carl McCall, whom he had avoided since 1994, and followed up by meeting with several black and Latino members of the City Council.
The call for an end to the angry exchange of words between Butts and the mayor came five days after Giuliani tried to discredit thousands of protesters who had marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in one of the largest anti police brutality demonstrations of the mayor's tenure. Giuliani suggested that signs carried by some protesters, depicting him as Hitler or Satan and comparing the NYPD to Nazis, may have alienated potential demonstrators, causing a low turnout.
"I think it's foolish to allow Giuliani to back you into talking about signs when people are dying," the activist declared. "He fell for an old trickdiversion. If Eric Adams wants to come to demonstrations to monitor signs, let him go ahead and do that. This movement is not about signs." Adams emphasized to the Voice that his criticism of the protesters should not be construed as support for Giuliani or the mayor's alleged plan to sow dissension among the movement's leadership.