By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"Wanted" posters masquerading as banner headlines in last Thursday's Post And Daily News
Last Wednesday afternoon, as Reverend Al Sharpton prepared to introduce reporters to two new victims of the "wild out" in Central Park, Bill O'Reilly, the alarmist host of the trash-tv talk show The O'Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel, simultaneously began taping an interview about the incident for broadcast that evening. That interview would come to symbolize the exploitation of the hysteria and racial politics surrounding the alleged sex attacks.
It would not have mattered to O'Reilly that Sharptonwhom he's repeatedly criticized for not speaking out about crimes committed by African Americans and Latinoshad rallied to the side of Josina Lawrence and Ashanna Cover, two New Jersey college students, both 21 and black, who claimed that attackers surrounded them, stripped off their blouses, and put their hands in their shorts. O'Reilly launched into another vicious attack on the favorite whipping boy of the extremist right, suggesting that the civil rights activist, who brought to the federal government's attention alleged abuses of blacks and Latinos by the NYPD in the wake of the Amadou Diallo shooting, was largely responsible for unleashing the assailants who moved about the park in, as one news report put it, "a wild, roving pack"stripping, fondling, and robbing scores of girls and women.
It was as if O'Reilly had sensed that Sharpton would align himself only with those victims who charged that cops rebuffed them when they asked for help. At Sharpton's news conference, Lawrence and Cover said they planned to sue the city for $5 million each because police had failed to protect them. Sharpton, O'Reilly would imply, tied cops' hands.
"In the 'Impact' segment tonight," O'Reilly intoned in his set-up piece, "the tragedy of Amadou Diallo is now being compounded over and over. As I told you a few months ago, the pressure brought by Al Sharpton and others in the aftermath of the killing of Mr. Diallo has resulted in a less aggressive police force here in New York City, and other cities, like Los Angeles, and Louisville, Kentucky, [that] have similar problems. Now, you may have seen this terrible tape of dozens of thugs sexually assaulting young women in Central Park in broad daylight. Some of the victims say they pleaded with police to help, and some officers refused to do anything. NYPD officials deny it, but the rise in violent crime in the city after the Diallo shooting and the kind of terrible display in Central Park point to a far less aggressive police department. And where is Al Sharpton? Isn't he outraged over all this?"
O'Reilly's guest that evening was Eli Silverman, a professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who was hawking his book NYPD Battles Crime: Innovative Strategies in Policing. But for the most part, O'Reilly, whose phony "objectivity" highlights the unfair and unbalanced reporting at Fox, tried to keep the subject on Sharpton.
"You know what . . . you know what angers me?" fumed O'Reilly. "You have a demagogue like Al Sharpton who almost single-handedly, with the help of some Hollywood people like Susan Sarandon and other high-profile peopleyou have this man coming out selectively, in selective casesand I feel bad for Amadou Diallo's family, believe meputting pressure on the whole police department, and destroying aggressive policing in the city. And we see what is happening now."
Silverman initially refused to jump on O'Reilly's anti-Sharpton bandwagon, contending instead that there is a decline in morale among cops because "their pay is abysmally low." O'Reilly went on to pander to white New Yorkers' fears that crime may be on the rise once again in the city Rudy Giuliani had rescued from members of a suspect class. "[I]sn't it interesting that right after the Diallo situation, violent crime starts to rise?" he asked. "Murder's up 22 percent, the cabbies are getting knocked off like crazy, and this Central Park thing, in my opinion, never would have happened before the Amadou Diallo situation becaue most of the men involved in sexually assaulting these women in Central Park, in broad daylight, are minorities. They are minorities. And the cops surrounding the park knew something was going on, yet failed to stop it. Explain that to me."
To Silverman's credit, he corrected O'Reilly's trumped-up crime statistics, pointing out that homicides have gone up only "7 percent this [year] compared to the same [time] last year." O'Reilly's race-baiting quickly gave way to his yearning for the return of the Street Crimes Unit, the rogue undercover force to which the four acquitted white cops who blew Diallo away in a barrage of 41 bullets were assigned. "[F]or people who don't live in New York, what they had was a unit called the Street Crimes Unit, which were plainclothes guys who would go out and confront suspicious people in the streets, and pat them down for weapons. . . ." he said. "That's gone. That's gone."
"Right," Silverman acknowledged.
"So the aggressive policing, which some people call racial profiling, all right, is over," lamented O'Reilly. "Now, how long did it take for the thugs to figure out that the streets are now a lot safer for them? What? About 15 minutes?"
The suspects in the Central Park attacks clearly had gotten under O'Reilly's American skin. "[T]hat thing in Central Park bothers me," he sneered. "That thing bothers me."
"I think it's one of the worst events we've had in many years, and it destroys the hard work and the image of New York City and what people have done," Silverman chimed in. "What we need to do is get the police and the community on the same page. . . . "
"That's never going to happen with guys like Al Sharpton, because he whips it up," O'Reilly declared. "Us against them. Us against them." Never mind that, Silverman argued, there are many untold stories about harmony between cops and minorities.
"I know there's good policemen," snorted O'Reilly. "Then why when Sharpton gets out there, as buffoonish and as demagoguish as he isyou know it and I know itdoes he get such a big crowd?" Silverman maintained that it's "because anyone who speaks very extremely will get attention by others and the media."
One New Yorker who may have watched The O'Reilly Factor last week writes, in Silverman's words, "very extremely" about the Central Park incident in the context of race, crime, and black activist politics. In an unsigned letter to me, Anonymous, who I assume is white, has the suspects tried and convicted. "The Black and Hispanic men went on a rampage and attacked all of these women," the faceless accuser charges. "Why isn't this a bias crime? Now there is outrage that the police did nothing. Could you imagine if the police tried to help? I'm sure there would be brutality claims then, and there would be more marches."
In analyzing the letter, I found that the only difference between Anonymous's extremist views surrounding the Central Park "rampage" and black criminality and Bill O'Reilly's is that the writer is overtly racist while O'Reilly presents himself as a reasonable racist. "Due to all of the utter nonsense, the racial climate in the United States will never change," Anonymous asserts. "Blacks will always be treated like criminals until they get their act together. When you behave like humans you will be treated like humans."
It seems that my sin is that I had declared in the April 11 Voice that in the wake of recent shootings of unarmed black men, if a cop unjustifiably killed my son, I would kill that cop. Anonymous had seen me on NY1 debating New York Posteditorial writer Robert George, who is black. "You and the rest of the famous liberal minorities are outraged over the couple of incidents where black men were killed," writes Anonymous. "Never mind that the numbers are much lower than when Dinkins the incompetent jerk was in charge. There was no outrage then. Why?. . . . Since you appeared on NY1, we have had an explosion of attacks on livery cab drivers. All of the victims were minorities, and all of the assailants were minorities. Why no outrage?
"The Wendy's massacre. All minorities again. No outrage? The two killers were black men. Is that really a surprise to anyone? If the police did not pick them up as quickly as they did, and they had to look for the killers, they would have had to stop black men and question them. How else would they find the killers? Just like in the other incidents, the police were looking for criminals based on solid descriptions. It is not their fault that the criminals are always black. Incidentally, the families of the victims now want the death penalty. I'm sure they did not want the death penalty before members of their families were killed."
Anonymous chose to ignore the unbridled outrage in African American and Latino communities over the livery cabbie murders, the massacre at Wendy's, and the assaults in Central Park. It was Reverend Herbert Daughtry, the prominent black activist pastor of Brooklyn's House of the Lord Pentecostal Church, who appealed to blacks and Latinos in all of the cases not to protect those who are responsible.
Reverend Daughtry condemned what occurred in Central Park as "inexcusable and savage," adding that the women should be supported and protected. But in the same breath, he blasted songs and rap music laced with profanity and references to anal intercourse and ejaculation. "We are saturated with sex songs and stimulants by rappers who sing of 'whores' and 'bitches,' " said the minister. "Most disturbing is when young ladies start shaking and grinding to their own humiliation. I believe that our young people see our hypocrisy and they manifest the extreme acts of that hypocrisy. Adults may not go wildin' in Central Park, but they will make a million dollars enticing a woman to take her clothes off in the movies."
Anonymous's opinions, which are shared by many whites in this city, only shore up the argument that there is still a great racial divide on the vexing issue of criminal justice. "A football player [Reggie Lewis] and O.J. are free, yet poor Justin Volpe [the cop who confessed to beating and sodomizing Abner Louima] is in jail," notes Anonymous. "That is a crying shame. By the way, the Haitian community disregarded the family's plea for calm at the Dorismond funeral and they went on a rampage. Twenty-three cops were injured. If they cannot even respect the members of the Haitian community, how do you expect them to respect a white man in a uniform?"
In solidarity with police officers, who, as the Post reported, are saying they feel "caught in a catch-22 every daydamned if they do and damned if they don't take action," Anonymous signed off with a fantasy. "If I were a cop, I would carry an extra gun. I would kill every suspect and plant a gun on him. Hopefully they will start doing that and the thugs will get the message."
Among the white-hot rumors that might wind up on The O'Reilly Factoras events unfold in the Central Park fiasco is that Rudy Giuliani, who anticipated a new round of condemnation from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (which released its final report last Friday, accusing the NYPD of practicing racial profiling), had ordered the department not to harass revelers at the Puerto Rican Day Parade. The thinking among some Giuliani supporters is that in keeping with the "new Rudy" image, the mayor did not want to appear to be insensitive to an ethnic group that has been a target of his overly aggressive law-and-order campaigns.
But that's not how some hard-line critics of the Giuliani administration view such a scenario. They believe that the Central Park suspects walked into a classic Giuliani trap: The mayor, they hypothesize, lowered his guard in order to justify a crackdown and the reinstatement of some of his more ruthless policing tactics, shelved after the Diallo shooting. In any event, some Giuliani backers contend, the mayor will reap political rewards for having devised a master plan plan to make Giuliani Land safe again. "Wanted" posters of the suspects, masquerading as banner headlines in the Postand the Daily News, more than hinted that such a plan should be immediately implemented.
Additional reporting: Amanda Ward