It is an Indian summer afternoon, September 7, 1999—eight days after Gideon Busch, wearing a prayer shawl and tefillin, was gunned down by cops in the orthodox Jewish community of Borough Park. At 46th Street and Sixteenth Avenue, an angry crowd of Hasidic men and boys has swooped down on a burgundy Windstar minivan carrying reverend Al Sharpton, Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and me.
What followed was 45 minutes of high tension that would have ignited a racial powder keg had Detective William J. Jackson Jr. not put his life on the line to save ours. Last December, Jackson, 62, a troubleshooter for the New York Police Department, retired after nearly 35 years of peacemaking among “the gorgeous mosaic.” During the late ’80s and ’90s, he was a key behind-the-scenes figure, cooling tempers at several “Day of Outrage” protests against racial violence.
This unrivaled mediator leaves the department at a time when it is in dire need of cops with people skills—as opposed to those who resort to the “continuum of force,” which allows police to increase the level of their response as circumstances escalate. “Terrible! Terrible! Never should have happened!” was a typical Jackson response to accusations of excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language by cops, which tarnished the image of his beloved NYPD. “Respect is a two-way street, though,” he also would remind hotheaded militants who harass the police.
“Bill had proven to the department that he was unsurpassed in his ability to mediate and bring about peace and understanding between the community he loved and served and the police department he believed in,” says Sergeant Vanessa Ferro, who is putting the finishing touches on a bio she and other colleagues will read on March 1 at a dinner honoring the veteran detective.
Jackson, who joined the department in 1966 at the height of America’s racial tumult, has thwarted more classic confrontations between “the blacks and the blues” than he cares to acknowledge. In 1989, while assigned to the chief of department’s Liaison Unit, Jackson helped quell a violent outburst after police closed off the Brooklyn Bridge to 15,000 demonstrators who had marched through Brooklyn in protest of the racially motivated killing of Yusef Hawkins in predominantly white Bensonhurst. More than 50 cops and an undetermined number of protesters were injured during the melee, which could have been far worse had it not been for Jackson’s backdoor negotiations with the top echelon of the city’s black activist movement.
“It’s a pressure cooker!” the detective would announce over his walkie-talkie or declare to his superiors as he assessed large protest marches. Invariably, he then would seek out the firebrand activists and gung ho cops who were bringing tensions to a boil, and squeeze the peace out of them.
On the afternoon of September 7, 1999, the pressure cooker is Borough Park. The tightly knit Hasidic community, which had exploded in rage over the fatal shooting of Gideon Busch by police officers, is on the verge of erupting again because Al Sharpton, many Jews charge, has come to exploit simmering tensions. Several young men wearing the traditional black suits and hats of the Orthodox faith, brush up against the Windstar, peering into its darkly tinted windows.
I switch on my tape recorder as Sharpton grabs the car phone on the first ring. On the other end is his top aide, Anthony Charles. He and Andrew Stetner of Jews for Economic and Racial Justice had been sent ahead to conduct surveillance. Borough Park is a neighborhood openly sympathetic to Kahane Chai, followers of slain extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. The group has been declared a terrorist organization in the United States.
“What does Andrew think?” asks Sharpton. “I’ll do whatever he says.”
Seven months earlier, 125 members of Stetner’s group had been arrested in front of 1 Police Plaza with Sharpton, protesting the killing of Amadou Diallo by four white undercover cops. Now Sharpton is returning the favor by making this bold foray into unfriendly territory to “unify black/Jewish outrage” over the Busch slaying. Charles tells Sharpton that Stetner has identified “Meir Kahane guys” who are part of a cabal chanting anti-Sharpton slogans. They are madly asserting that Sharpton has no business in Borough Park. I am thinking, maybe we should turn back.
“I’ve been screamed at before!” snaps Sharpton as he levels the volume on a CD deck playing James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” He shoots down suggestions by Charles and Stetner that perhaps he ought to rethink this one.
“Anti-Semite! Go to hell!” shouts a small boy, who then spits at the van. But when the boy tries to break through, a hand reaches out of the mob and pulls him back.
“No! No! No!” warns a stentorian voice. “Don’t go there, young man!” It is the voice of “the peacemaker,” Detective First Grade William Jackson. An elder whisks the boy away.
“I don’t like the flavor of this,” Jackson tells Sharpton as the van, inching slowly to the spot where the NYPD alleges Busch attacked officers with a hammer, is ringed by more demonstrators. “They don’t have a detail,” he adds, sounding skeptical about whether the clearly outnumbered cops will be able to control the surging crowd. “They’re supposed to have a detail out here, okay? They don’t have a detail out here.” Jackson stares at Sharpton, half expecting an answer, half praying that the Baptist minister will agree to cut and run.
“Al! Get out of here!” one protester shouts.
“Let me out!” demands Ron Daniels, sliding back the door, and jumping head-on into the fray. I’m fearing we will be trapped—that the “Meir Kahane guys” will firebomb the vehicle.
At this point, Jackson tells Sharpton that he has spoken to an inspector who does not feel comfortable with the situation.
“Why not?” responds the activist.
“Do you feel comfortable with this?” Jackson fires back, staring at Sharpton in disbelief.
“Hey, I’m just gonna stand there and do a prayer and get back in the car,” the crusty preacher says nervously.
“Even some of the Jewish cops don’t feel comfortable with some of these people out here,” Jackson intimates. “They don’t feel comfortable. So I want to give it to you straight up, let you know what’s going down. They don’t feel comfortable. Unless you want us to surround you with cops.”
“Yes,” says Sharpton.
The demonstrators are still chanting, “Anti-Semite! Go home!” Some are declaring, “Kahane lives!”
“I don’t feel comfortable with this. It’s your call,” Jackson emphasizes. “I don’t feel comfortable, and they don’t [pointing to some uniformed cops].”
“Let’s just sit here a minute,” Sharpton suggests.
“OK, you wanna pull up a bit, or you just wanna sit here?”
“Sit right here,” Sharpton says.
” ‘Cause once you get out, you’re in it,” Jackson cautions. “You’re in it once you get outta the car.” As Jackson is pushed against the vehicle by Kahane Chai protesters, he flashes his badge. They back up.
“Are you going to shoot anybody?” a young Kahane militant taunts. Jackson ignores the remark. Reporters pound their fists against Sharpton’s closed window, signaling to him that they want to talk.
“Step back!” Jackson barks at one overzealous scribe.
“Reverend, are you gonna be able to come out?” the reporter asks.
“I didn’t come to come out,” Sharpton says, backpedaling strategically. “We’re having the vigil on Sunday. As I said, we knew we’d get a rocky reception. I think it’s important to make the statement that we would risk getting heckled to show unity [with] people [who] stood with us when a lot of people didn’t want them to. So they called, we came. We know that there would be many that don’t want us to come, but there would be many who would appreciate that some of us would put our differences aside to stand [against] what is wrong. What happened to this man is wrong. I could take a few catcalls to help put the spotlight on the fact that police brutality must stop wherever it is.”
“What do you say to the folks who call you an anti-Semite?” asks another reporter.
“If I’m an anti-Semite, what am I doing here?” Sharpton points out. “The majority of the crowd is not saying anything. It’s a few of them who want to agitate, and I think their agitation shows they’re really not concerned about getting to the bottom of this.”
“Has the mayor done enough so far?”
“The mayor didn’t do what I did,” asserts the reverend. “He didn’t even come out here and face the hecklers.”
“How could he be here?” asks one of the “Meir Kahane guys,” who is blocked by a steely-eyed Jackson as he tries to move nearer to Sharpton.
“I appreciate that,” Sharpton tells Jackson. “Thank you.”
“What happened in Crown Heights?” shouts another critic, referring to the 1991 racial upheaval between blacks and Jews after a Hasidic driver struck and killed seven-year-old Gavin Cato. Although Sharpton was not at the scene when the rioting flared, some Jews blame him for inciting tensions that led to the fatal stabbing of Australian immigrant Yankel Rosenbaum. Sharpton sidesteps the question and beckons to Jackson to allow one Hasidic Jew, who has yelled, “Thanks for coming!” to get through.
“Let him up! Let him up!” Sharpton shouts. “Can you let him through? Can that guy come?”
“Rev, don’t get out!” Jackson pleads.
“Just let me talk to one guy,” insists Sharpton.
“I appreciate you coming down to show solidarity,” says the man, who identifies himself as a journalist for an Israeli newspaper. A heckler from Kahane Chai, peeved by the reporter’s gesture, interrupts, screaming, “What happened in Crown Heights, Al? What happened in Crown Heights, Big Al?”
Sharpton leans out of the window and talks to the Israeli journalist. “Just like many Jews who stood with us for Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, I felt it was no more than right for me to come and show solidarity here,” he comments. But Jackson signals to Sharpton to wrap up the interview because many more Jews are pouring out of their homes to join the protest. Sharpton grins.
“Do you think that there is a similarity between Diallo and Busch?” the reporter asks.
“I think there is a similarity between the fact that a man did not have to be killed,” Sharpton contends. “I think it’s much more similar to Eleanor Bumpurs [the 66-year-old 300-pound grandmother who was shot to death in her Bronx apartment when she allegedly lunged at a white cop with a knife], and I think when all of us start dealing with the same standards, then we can deal with the city that has a set of rules for everybody.”
Jackson eyes his watch: It’s now 3:54 p.m.
“What kind of standards are you looking for?” the reporter asks.
“One standard is that you don’t shoot a man when there is a life-extenuating circumstance.”
Suddenly a Kahane Chai protester confronts Jackson, shouting, “I wanna talk to him. How can he come over here? Why is he here?” Jackson shrugs.
“Al, lemme ask you a question,” the heckler persists, edging over Jackson’s shoulder. “Answer me, please. How can you come here in the Jewish community and the next word you say by the next demonstration is ‘kikes’?”
Sharpton vehemently denies ever using the slur.
“You did say that!” the heckler charges, pointing a finger at Sharpton.
“That’s not true!” Sharpton reiterates.
Then someone demands to know what role Sharpton played in the massacre of seven people at Freddy’s Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned clothing store in Harlem that was being picketed by black activists when it was firebombed in 1995. Summarily, several members of the mob accuse Sharpton of causing the deaths.
“Go on!” a man who says he’s a Talmudic scholar bellows at Sharpton. “Get outta here! We don’t need you! You preach hate against Jews!” Finally, Jackson tells Sharpton in no uncertain terms that this is a good time to get out of the pressure cooker.
“Don’t shout!” Sharpton replies to the man mischievously. “Behave yourself. I’ll be back Sunday.”
“Go make some riot somewhere else!” shouts a little boy.
“Give him some room!” Jackson orders. “Give the reverend some room!”
“Anti-Semite!” howls a young Kahane Chai protester running alongside the departing vehicle. “You’ll pay!” he adds. “We’re gonna get rid of all youse. We’re gonna put in Chinese. We’re gonna move the Chinese into our neighborhood. We don’t need your kind!”
As the van pulls away, Sharpton raises the volume on the James Brown CD, and “The Big Payback” resounds throughout the vehicle. I look back at Jackson through the driver’s side-view mirror. He salutes. No sweat. Just another meltdown in the pressure cooker.
Note: The dinner honoring Detective William Jackson will be held on March 1 from 7 p.m. to midnight at Russo’s on the Bay, 162-45 Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach, Queens. For information, contact Sergeant Vanessa Ferro at 212-374-0298 or Officer Eric Liburd at 212-678-1849. Tickets must be purchased by February 28.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2001