Father of the Movement

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

 April 6, 1999

It has been six hours since the Reverend Al Sharpton orchestrated the largest multi-ethnic sit-in of his 15-day campaign of civil disobedience in front of the New York Police Department headquarters.

On this evening of March 26, Sharpton's mentor, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and 215 other people have been arrested protesting the police killing of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, and booked and released. The throng of New Yorkers— choked with rage built up from the antiapartheid movement of the 1980s— pushed the number of demonstrators who already have been charged with blocking the building's entrance over the 1000 mark.

Sharpton, wide-eyed and restless, is on an emotional high, pacing the second-floor office of his Harlem-based National Action Network, flipping channels and pumping his fists at reports highlighting the NYPD's double standard for blacks and whites. The news is all good; it is beyond anything the man who is being propelled to the leadership of a growing civil disobedience movement had imagined could be possible.

There, on NY1, is the somber-faced Police Commissioner Howard Safir, grudgingly conceding that his predominantly white Street Crime Unit— four of whose members were expected to be arraigned this week on charges that they murdered Diallo in a hail of gunfire last month— perhaps had become a law unto itself and had to be corralled.

Sharpton's phone rang consistently during an interview with the Voice. He took some calls and dismissed others. But when an aide announced that union leader Dennis Rivera was on the line, Sharpton grabbed the phone. Rivera and former deputy mayor Bill Lynch were on a conference call, congratulating Sharpton for bringing the hard-hearted Safir and Mayor Rudy Giuliani to their knees.

Consider what you have accomplished, Sharpton says they urged him: How was this pesky political pariah able to convince an ex-mayor, an Oscar-winning actress, scores of council members, congressional representatives, lawyers, students, academicians, blacks, whites, Jews, gays, lesbians, and antiwar activists to join his crusade?

Hadn't Sharpton realized by now that his movement had a lot to do with Giuliani's approval rating plummeting to an all-time low? Who could have forced the imperial mayor to rescind his racist policy of not meeting with black leaders he had not handpicked? Should Lynch and Rivera sponsor a resolution at a leadership meeting, calling on Giuliani to meet with his arch-nemesis?

"I don't want a resolution," Sharpton shot back in the presence of the Voice reporter. While he appreciated the proposed gesture, the last thing he wanted was for them to appear to be rallying around Al Sharpton, the personality.

"Giuliani is on the run," Sharpton asserted. "If he can make this a personality fight between me and him, he gets away. I don't want him to get away with this."

Sharpton's rejection of the resolution was a testament to how far he has matured in New York City politics. At 44, he seems to have finally attained what was denied him throughout a career as one of the nation's most controversial civil rights activists: RESPECT. Gone are the tight-fitting jogging suits, dangling bronze medallion, incendiary sound bites, and alleged publicity stunts that sometimes landed him in jail for tying up traffic and disrupting subway service. Al Sharpton, in the opinion of a growing number of people, has evolved from "racial arsonist" to statesman.

After he got off the phone with Lynch and Rivera, Sharpton called Bobo Diallo, one of Amadou's uncles, who had been waiting patiently among the throng of camera crews and reporters, into his office. He told Bobo that all the adulation meant nothing to him if Bobo did not get to Brussels by the weekend to finalize arrangements for Amadou's mother to return to the United States.

A Bronx grand jury reportedly had indicted the four officers on second-degree murder charges, and Sharpton has learned that Bronx district attorney Robert Johnson will unseal the indictments this week. Earlier last week, Sharpton and Kadiadou Diallo had talked about plans for her to return. Sharpton suggested that this time Amadou's teenage sister and two brothers should accompany their mother.

The last time he had seen the Diallo family was at Amadou's burial in Guinea, when they were traumatized, not fully aware of what had happened. Sharpton told Mrs. Diallo that he would take them to the Wheeler Avenue apartment building where the cops had gunned down Amadou. "I can't explain it," he says. "They have to see for themselves, feel it. People need to hug and embrace them. They must understand the impact of their brother's death and what it started."

That, Sharpton says, was his "secret agreement" with Mrs. Diallo. In addition, Sharpton made her a promise.

"I promised her that these cops would be arrested," he recalls. "I promised to take her and her family to the courtroom on that day. All I want is when those four cops walk out there and are indicted for second-degree murder, they are looking into the faces of African parents who believed in America and allowed their son to come here to chase the American dream that turned into a nightmare. I want them to go to sleep at night seeing Mrs. Diallo's face. I want them to be haunted by the faces of his brothers and sister. I want them to come face-to-face with the reality of what they did to a human family."

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