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, Butts—in what seemed to be a prearranged gesture—called 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.
Allies of the movement, like Eric Adams, the outspoken leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, joined the mayor in denouncing the signs. Barron lashed out at Adams.
“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 trick—diversion. 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.
Butts, long shunned by civil rights activists for his close ties to right-wing Republicans, is one of the few black leaders who did not join the civil disobedience protests led by Sharpton.
Butts’s decision to remain on the outside came as no surprise to some. Even the pro-Giuliani New York Post noticed the Abyssinian minister’s absence and asked, “Is Butts jealous of fellow clergyman-activist Al Sharpton’s hogging of the media spotlight?”
While the Sharpton coalition recruited celebrities, politicians, and other ministers to engage in daily acts of civil disobedience, Butts tried for a second time to start a citywide black consumer boycott of the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn and the 34th Street shopping corridor. Both attempts ended in failure.
“Of the many publicity stunts staged in the wake of the Amadou Diallo shooting, surely the most bizarre was Rev. Calvin Butts’ call for blacks to boycott shopping centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn last weekend,” the Post declared in an April 6 editorial. “There’s little indication anyone listened to Butts’ proposal. Even those New Yorkers who feel the need ‘to do something’ in response to the Diallo incident seem to have understood that Butts’ boycott was an exercise in self-aggrandizement that could accomplish absolutely nothing.”
Relations between Butts and the city’s frontline black activists worsened after activists refused to back Butts’s assertion that Giuliani was a racist. The activists had been upset with the minister’s earlier support for the mayor, Republican governor George Pataki, and perennial presidential candidate Ross Perot.
“[Butts’s] partner, George Pataki, [is] building jails all over the state,” Sharpton said at last Tuesday’s rally. “[And if] that’s not bad enough [Giuliani is] taking people on welfare and putting them in slavery, making them clean up parks with no rights as workers. The closest thing to slavery in modern times is his workfare program. On top of that, this police brutality, telling us we ought to be happy we’re alive, and you gonna get up and hug him?”
“There were a lot of questions about Reverend Butts when he called the mayor a racist,” says Sharpton, “and now those activists’ suspicions of him have been vindicated. Here we are a year later and he not only reconciles with the mayor but he apologizes for calling him a racist.”
Sharpton contends that the reconciliation service was designed to exclude him and other leaders of the civil disobedience movement. He said that two weeks before the event Cardinal O’Connor notified him and the Diallo family during a meeting at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Sharpton said he asked the cardinal for a list of names of those who would be attending.
“I ain’t going to no meeting that I don’t know what I’m going to,” he declared during the rally, “because they [would have had] us sitting in an audience like we agree with what’s going on on the stage, just because we’re sitting there. [They’ll] have everybody on the program on one side, and then flash us in the audience and say that everybody was healed.”
The cardinal faxed the program to Sharpton. “Nobody on the program had anything to do with the movement against police brutality,” he complained. “Forget about Al Sharpton. How do you not have [Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker]? How do you not have Reverend Gary Simpson? He went to jail. How do you not have Reverend James Forbes? How are you gonna have healing when the people leading the movement are not brought into the room?”
According to Sharpton, organizers of the service then reached out to Reverend Calvin Marshall, who was scheduled to deliver the opening prayer but canceled his appearance after he realized the list of speakers included no other protest leaders, said Sharpton. “Reverend Marshall said, ‘I’ll pray at home’ and refused to go,” Sharpton remembers. “The reason that they invited him to do the prayer is so he can’t say nothing….Lo and behold, in the middle of the program, Reverend Butts, the only well-known preacher in town that didn’t come to One Police Plaza, didn’t march with us, never been to one meeting, gets up and apologizes to the mayor, and hugs the mayor. Some of you seen this on TV, didn’t ya? In fact…what he did was…in the middle of his statement he stepped down off the pulpit, and the mayor met him halfway, and they fell in each other’s arms.”
In a separate interview with the Voice, Sharpton contended that Giuliani-Butts “unity” dance appeared to have been well choreographed. “The mayor met him halfway,” he points out. “How did the mayor know he was going to make this gesture? Do you really believe Giuliani would have been in that church with Calvin Butts if he thought Butts was going to continue calling him a racist? Do you think Giuliani would have come if they told him I would be speaking?” At the rally, Sharpton said that Kadiadou Diallo, Amadou’s mother, lamented that Butts had hugged the man she holds partly responsible for the killing of her son. “She says, ‘I don’t know who this preacher is. I’ve never heard of him. But how can he heal for me, when I’m here? I’m the mother that lost her child. He hugged the mayor and never hugged me.’ Can you imagine if I called a healing session for Yugoslavia, and the [Kosovo] Albanians wasn’t invited? Have you and I lost so much self-respect that they can take any negro they want, and just throw them out there like they represent us, and think we ain’t gonna say nothing about it?”
Referring directly to Butts, Sharpton said, “If you are not going to stand for nothing, you should sit down and shut up. If you are afraid, stay home! But I’m not afraid of Giuliani; I don’t care what he comes with. It’s ridiculous!” he added. “It’s an insult to our ancestors. And for me to sit in that room today and look at the pain while Mrs. Diallo watched [the reconciliation] is an insult to our people all over the world. How do we look in Guinea tonight? How do we look all over this country tonight? A bunch of shameless, back-biting people!”
The mayor continues to refuse to meet with Sharpton, who responded to the snub by saying he would meet with Giuliani “only if he called me and told me he is going to resign.” Sharpton says he is more concerned about promoting a list of 10 reforms that would help avert police brutality. They include forming a civilian review board to oversee the NYPD; the appointment of a special prosecutor to monitor police corruption, brutality, and misconduct; and a demand that the police department better reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the communities it serves.
“Personally, I don’t care if Giuliani never reaches out to Sharpton,” Charles Barron says. “I hope he doesn’t. This is not about hugs and kisses.”
Additional reporting by Karen Mahabir