Ground Hog

Jesse Jackson Raids the Graveyard—On Al Sharpton’s Watch

Sharpton says that none of his previous visits to strife-torn regions in Africa and Haiti prepared him for what he saw at Ground Zero. "I went to the killing fields of Rwanda, witnessed slavery in Sudan, and saw abject poverty in the slums of Haiti, but there was something haunting about Ground Zero," he remembers. "I never thought I would see something like this. It is an eerie feeling that you cannot get out of you."

As Sharpton stared at the twisted remains of the once majestic twin towers, he remarked in the presence of a high-ranking white NYPD cop that he had been to Ground Zero before, the Ground Zero that some refer to as the African Burial Ground. "Three hundred years ago my ancestors went to Ground Zero, and we've been fighting for a final resting place, an African burial ground, for years," he explained to the mystified cop. "No one cares that they are still under that rubble. No one hears their cry. We can't even reclaim their bones. Three hundred years later, the government is doing to us what they did to my ancestors: They're trying to make us invisible in lower Manhattan."

The next morning, a shaken Sharpton called Secretary of State Colin Powell. During their 10-minute conversation, Sharpton expressed reservations about the Bush administration's warmongering. "I told him I was concerned about the war, but that I felt that terrorism must be fought at all costs, and that I was willing to lead a fact-finding trip to Israel and Palestine," Sharpton says. Powell, he claims, promised to give him a full briefing on the Middle East, similar to the one he got before visiting the Sudan. But he warned Sharpton to be extremely careful in that region.

Later that day, Sharpton contacted Governor George Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. "I called them to object to calls for the Democratic primary to be postponed," says Sharpton, who rebuffed suggestions from aides that he ask Pataki to escort him to Ground Zero. "I could have asked the governor to take me there in front of all the cameras, but I didn't," he says. If he had, that's where the New York Post's Steve Dunleavy—combing "through white-hot shock, tears of mourning, and steel anger of revenge"—might have found him. Instead he later asked, "Where the hell is our great community leader, the Rev. Al Sharpton?"

"I'd been all over the place," Sharpton declares. "The media ignored the black presence and now condemns us for being ignored." Unlike Jackson, Sharpton refused to upstage top black state and city officials for a photo op. "I felt that Carl McCall and C. Virginia Fields should be respected."

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