There is no doubt in my mind that Police Commissioner Howard Safir and Khallid Muhammad were accomplices in provoking violence at the end of the Million Youth March on September 5.
There was no necessity for hordes of cops in riot gear to storm the stage as the rally was ending. Until then, the only violence was in the ferocious rhetoric of some of the speakers. But those were words. And words, however inciting, are protected by the First Amendment. There is one fundamental exception, however, and we’ll get to that after focusing on Safir and his forces.
When the cops stormed the stage, they shoved aside everyone in their way. If you have ever been shoved by a cop, you know what it is to be assaulted. And that experience may inflame you. It did inflame a lot of people at that site in Harlem on September 5.
Moreover, the entire Giuliani-created atmosphere preceding the march–as well as during those four hours–was demeaning and insulting to the people of Harlem. The closing of streets, the penning up of people by barricades within the site of the march so that they couldn’t move from one place to another, as if they were in stockades. “We were penned in like animals,” one woman said.
And then there were the police helicopters which, at three minutes after four (when Giuliani had ordered the march to end), flew down to just a few hundred feet from the crowd.
In the Daily News (September 6), Jim Dwyer quoted an enraged onlooker: “This was a paramilitary tactic with the helicopters… These are civilians. These are legitimate people on the street.”
At risk of injury from one of those helicopters were children as well as adults. And police on the ground could have been injured. A mother, holding her hands over her daughter’s ears, screamed, “What’s that for?”
Howard Safir should be fired, not only for mishandling the end of this rally but also for his continued, contemptuous cover-up of police brutality. Of course, he will not be fired. But at least Rudolph Giuliani’s reign over this city will end at the millennium because of term limits.
However, Safir and Giuliani were right in saying that Khallid Muhammad should be charged criminally with inciting to riot.
Sure, Muhammad, seeing those cops in riot gear–advancing on the crowd as if Martians had just arrived to enslave everyone in sight–was provoked. And, with the crowd already justifiably angry, this is what Muhammad shouted to them:
“If anyone attacks you, already decide who will be the ones [among you] to disconnect the railing where you are and beat the hell out of them with the railing where you are. If they attack you, take their guns away, and use their guns in self-defense…
“You take their nightsticks away, and the way they did to Abner Louima, run it up their behinds.” And so on.
Khallid Muhammad is clever. I’ve known quite a few adroit con men. He describes himself as a black nationalist, but he is to black nationalism as practiced by the early Malcolm X as Geraldo Rivera is to journalism. Muhammad has no program. At least Elijah Muhammad–the founder of the Nation of Islam–enabled the creation of businesses and opened Muslim schools for the children of his followers. But Khallid Muhammad desperately wants to be a leader, and the only way he knows how to do that is to be a rabble-rouser.
A telling indication of his courage is that as soon as he had urged the crowd to use violence against the cops, he slipped away. Also, as Dan Barry reported in The New York Times, so did Malik Zulu Shabazz, the National Youth Organizer of the Million Youth March. Mr. Shabazz, Dan Barry noted, was “carrying a plastic bucket of cash contributions from the crowd.” More of Mr. Shabazz in my next column.
But doesn’t the First Amendment protect Khallid Muhammad’s inciting words before he slipped away? After all, he did roar: “We have a constitutional right to defend ourselves against anyone who attacks us.”
What Mr. Muhammad may have missed in his scholarly research on the Constitution is a 1969 unanimous Supreme Court decision, Brandenburg v. Ohio. It had to do with a Ku Klux Klan rally in Ohio at which the Grand Dragon told 12 hooded followers that on the next Fourth of July, they would march on Congress.
At the time, the Grand Dragon was speaking at a farm in Ohio. The march, he said, was to make it plain to “our President, our Congress, our Supreme Court that if they continue to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it’s possible that there have to be some revengeance taken.” Violent “revengeance.”
The Grand Dragon was arrested and convicted by the Ohio Supreme Court because, the court said, “advocating violent means to effect political and economic change involves such danger to the security of the State that the State may outlaw it.”
The Supreme Court of the United States, however, reversed that decision, and the Grand Dragon went free.
In that Brandenburg decision, the Court made a crucial distinction between advocacy of violence that is protected by the First Amendment and advocacy of violence that can be punished.
If someone is urging imminent violence–“Let’s crack heads right now”–and he is talking to people who are ready and willing to commit acts of violence, those words at that particular time are not protected speech, said the Supreme Court.
And that is why Senator David Paterson, a Democrat representing Harlem, has urged that Khallid Abdul Muhammad be arrested for “exhorting young people to violence” right then and there as the police bashed their way through the crowd.
But Khallid Muhammad talked of his constitutional right to self-defense. The order to release these riot-clad cops into the crowd was wrong and indefensible. But Muhammad’s inciting the crowd to shoot and beat those cops is exactly what the Brandenburg decision was all about.
In the highly inflammatory context of the Million Youth March, the police, under their chain of command, had to do what they were told. And to urge people at that time and place to shoot the police was to go beyond free speech into blood on the streets.
In Ohio, the Grand Dragon had urged that the violence must come at another place at another time. In Harlem, Khallid Abdul Muhammad threw a match into gasoline, and then slid away.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 22, 1998