It was a sure sign that Reverend Al Sharpton’s run for the presidency will bring out the worst in some folks when, last Thursday, Jay Leno, standing with the candidate and Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Petra Nemcova, said he was hosting “Beauty and the Beast.” Sharpton threw back his head and laughed gamely, but he is braced for a fight.
Sharpton views his campaign as a battle royal between the progressive “children of the rainbow” and the Democratic Leadership Council that brought Bill Clinton to power and turned the Democratic Party, as he says, “to the right, not the center.” Presumably some rainbow children voted for Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and facing the permanent problem that no one deals with our issues, will appreciate someone just “speaking truth to power.” And a battle for the soul of the party seems even more needed now than in 1988.
It has not escaped people of color that the old arrangement of voting Democratic because the alternative is worse brings home little bacon. The past decade has only exacerbated entrenched problems of unemployment, racial profiling, police brutality, and poor access to education, medical care, and housing.
We have now been through years of the Dems’ rightward drift. Though African Americans still like Bill Clinton, we suffered most heavily his compromises, like the 1994 crime bill and welfare reform in 1996. With the aftershocks so visible in our communities, it’s hard to imagine black voters in particular taking hope from senators Joe Lieberman or John Kerry or Representative Dick Gephardt.
Times are different from when Jackson ran, because the 2000 election was determined in such a novel way, and because of 9-11 and all that has followed. And perhaps most important, George W.’s much desired war with Saddam Hussein is not his daddy’s war. It is a war fraught with unimagined dangers not only for our troops, but for the American people, who in 1988 had never heard of anthrax, color-coded threat levels, and the rest. Polls show that half of Democrats are against a war, along with a majority of African Americans.
Pushing a left agenda during the presidential campaign is worth doing. But does that mean Al Sharpton is the one to do it? His proposals are an array of ideas that have been around Democratic circles for a while, and these are times when serious economic ideas and social-policy thinking are needed. Several anti-war folks have jumped in now, like Representative Dennis Kucinich, who is to the left, but his anti-abortion record and low profile may get in his way.
The reverend is clearly unpopular with the honchos of his party. A November Los Angeles Times poll of three-fourths of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) found 66 percent had a negative view of Sharpton. DNC insiders have been reported as saying they are tired of his carping, and are looking for someone else to energize the black vote. Democratic spin doctors say he’s a joke, while Republican pundits are showing him love.
If George Bush does get us into a war, as a friend said to me, the public may want to turn to an army man to get us out. If the Dems are looking for their very own Dwight Eisenhower, General Wesley Clark, who gives some vivid descriptions of the horrors that may await U.S. troops, may be more of a problem to Sharpton than most of the others now in the race.
But at February 15’s anti-war protest in New York, Sharpton was the only candidate visible, and when his voice rang out on the boomboxes overhead on Third Avenue, the surging crowd quieted. Earlier that morning I sat with Sharpton as he had a modest dish of eggs and grits at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem.
THULANI DAVIS: What did you think about the city refusing a permit for a peace march?
AL SHARPTON: I think that it is more of the war on civil liberties. It’s insane that we have more of a reactionary policy in 2003 around the war in Iraq than we did in the late ’60s around Vietnam. Who would have thought in 2003 that you would not get a permit to march in New York for any reason?
Since you oppose war, how do you think we should deal with Iraq? We should respect the UN process. I think when Bush went to the UN, literally stuck his finger in their faces and said, in effect, my way or the highway—without even paying our UN bill—he set a tone that not only challenged the world to support a flawed policy in Iraq but undermined the credibility of the UN. It’s dangerous for the world. It’s particularly dangerous for the United States because it’s going to isolate [us] even more in a world that does not react the way it did 50 years ago to intimidation by superpowers.
What can we do improve our relationship with the Arab world? I think we need a more balanced foreign policy. We’ve got to respect the sovereignty of Arab nations. We’ve got to deal with our engagement with those forces that are reactionary there that have oppressed and exploited the Arab people. And the Arab people know that we have been partners to them, from the shah of Iran to the royal family of Saudi Arabia. We’ve got to respect the rights of the Palestinians to have a state, and we’ve got to not act as though we can decide how people ought to govern themselves and who ought to be part of that government. We can’t, on the one hand, support oligarchies, misogynist leadership, people with human rights records that are horrific, and, on the other hand, attack Hussein and expect it to ring credible in the Arab world.
In the Middle East, can we defuse the tensions? Whatever you do, I feel, in honesty, there will be some tensions for a while. To defuse it long-term, you have to have a consistent policy. I went to the Middle East in 2001, invited by the Foreign Affairs Office, Shimon Peres. I met with him; I met with Arafat. Both of them said what the United States ought to be doing is pushing hard on the Mitchell Accords. Everybody agreed to it; everybody signed off on it. The clout of the Bush administration should have been used to enforce those accords. That has not happened. Bush has, when he’s met with the Saudis, said, well, maybe we need to look at Palestine. When he meets with [Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon he takes the hard-right view. Sharon does not speak to everybody’s sentiment there.
What about easing the tensions with Korea? It’s an interesting contradiction. You have Iraq, who we say has weapons of mass destruction, and we’re in imminent danger. Even with Powell’s stellar performance, we didn’t prove anything. It’s like indicting someone for murder and going to court proving grand larceny. He proved non-cooperation with the weapons inspectors. He did not prove they had the weapons. He did not prove there was a conspiracy to attack the United States. So, I think the videos and the tapes showed more what they didn’t have than what they did. Having said that, we have the suspicion of the weapons of mass destruction and the duplicity of Iraq. With Korea, you know there’s weapons, and you know they lied; they admitted they lied. No one explains to me how you’re going after someone you think has something, and you’re going to engage in protracted dialogue with someone who you know has something and lied to you about it. And I think if there’s anything that’s blatantly telling about the inconsistency and suspicious motives of the Bush administration, it’s that.
Maybe that’s because Korea doesn’t have oil? Well, that’s the most obvious thing that comes to mind. I think that Bush and others’ actions have really raised to a lot of us the view that this is about who will control post-Hussein Iraq and the oil fields. Otherwise, why wouldn’t Korea be on the top of our list? I listened intently to Bush’s state of the union address. One name he never mentioned was bin Laden. He’s no longer even beating the drum about bin Laden. So the example I use is: Someone breaks in my house, the police come, I don’t tell the police, let’s go after the guy who broke in my house, I don’t even tell them about a guy up the block who I know has an arsenal. I tell them, there’s a guy around the corner who I think has a weapon, and he insulted my daddy 20 years ago.
How would a war affect the economy? We’re already into real deficit spending, with all of the hoopla from the Republicans about balanced budgets. Both Bush and his father perfected deficit spending. Look at this $2.2 trillion budget, $300 billion almost in defense spending, and the war in Iraq is not even in that budget. You have states operating at record budget deficits: California, $34 billion; Texas at $10 billion; New York, $2.2 billion. If we go to war, those deficits are going to skyrocket. And we don’t even know where the cost is going to stop. I think it could devastate whatever potential we have for recovery from this recession.
Setting aside the war as a factor, how can we put Americans back to work? We’ve got to invest in putting them back to work. One, I am going to be pushing a plan of infrastructure redevelopment, a $250 billion, five-year plan—$50 billion a year into the federal deficit to create jobs and rebuild bridges, highways, tunnels, and school buildings, and the ports. Ports redevelopment ought to be part of homeland security. Secondly, I’m working on now—and will release in March—a progressive flat tax proposal where we really deal with taxes from a level of protecting working-class America, not just lower-class America, and not continue these escalating tax cuts for the wealthy. He came up with one last year; now it’s the dividend tax cut, more of the same.
Is it time for a jobs program, and how can we target urban communities? There must be a jobs program, not just capital investment programs in inner cities. See, what the Republicans have done is shift everything to creating entrepreneurs, using the empowerment zones to bring retailers into the community. That’s not a jobs program. That’s why I’m talking about a program to rebuild the infrastructure, not depending upon somebody owning something—there’s too many factors between the public and the job. There absolutely must be a government-funded jobs program. Unemployment is higher now than it’s been in a decade. And married to that would be a training program. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, we had Manpower Training and Development, the Neighborhood Youth Corps. None of that is there anymore. What is bringing inner-city youth into the mainstream of jobs, even into the culture of work? That is something we can budget and do.
This seems to be something that the civil rights establishment dropped the ball on, too. I agree. The civil rights establishment dropped that in many ways. That’s part of my race. Many of the civil rights establishment were co-opted by the Democratic Leadership Council [DLC] when the party [phased] out emphasizing those kinds of concerns. That has come back to haunt us.
It has been reported that a new FBI policy directs bureau chiefs to compile demographic domestic data, like counting mosques, for investigations and secret national security wiretaps. Would you seek to replace the FBI guidelines that outlaw this kind of spying? Absolutely. First of all, it is wrong. It goes against the whole idea of civil liberties. What you’re really doing is allowing the government to do overtly now what they did covertly in the ’60s, not only to Dr. King but to every group from the [Black] Panthers to the anti-war movement. They tried a whisper campaign against Dr. King with illegal information. Imagine what they would do with legal information against anyone they would want. That is frightening. Big Brother is here, and has a license to do it.
A three-judge panel recently challenged the government concerning secret deportations. More such cases are likely to come down the pike. Could Democrats have been more effective in dealing with the Republican drive to capture judgeships? If nothing else, we could have made more noise. We could have used our bully pulpit more. Part of my race is that the Democrats have been silent, almost to the point of political laryngitis, on critical issues like judge selection, like the U.S. Patriot Act. I have never seen a season of more consent by silence than I’ve seen in the last decade. I think the [Democratic] strategy was, if we move to the center—which I think was a move to the right, not the center—we could get elected. One, it didn’t happen, because we didn’t get elected. I mean, Clinton got elected at the top. We never did regain the Congress. Gingrich killed us in ’94. Look what happened in 2002. It didn’t work. Second, it’s wrong. It’s morally indefensible. We have a party of elephants running around with donkey jackets on.
Many people who are running, in my judgment, are to the right of Republicans. And that won’t even come out unless there’s a real debate. I’m the only candidate who is unequivocally against the war. I’m the only one who is anti-death penalty. I’m the only one pro-gun control. I’m raising issues that none of them would have to deal with because there would be no debate. That’s important, not just in terms of an Al Sharpton candidacy but in terms of, What is the Democratic Party? I think 2004 is about defining what the party is.
Despite whatever tensions we’ve had in the last couple of years, Jesse [Jackson] mentored me. I watched Jesse take this party to where it should go. This is a battle in 2004 of the children of the rainbow versus the DLC. I think this is what it’s going to come down to, if I’m successful in what I want to do. And let’s define what that is. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I knew what a Democrat was. I don’t know what a Democrat is now. Is a Democrat a pro-death-penalty, a pro-war, a pro-business deregulator?
I am asking these questions now because so often all the candidates looking for black votes show up at the last minute at our churches. One of the offensive things is what you just said, and I’ve been saying this to ministers all over the country. As you know, I’ve run for office here. I have to go in the white community and explain my positions, from the beginning. Whites run, they come by our church in the middle of the choir singing “Amazing Grace,” wave at us, photo op, gone. Nobody challenges them on their positions. I don’t blame the candidates; I blame that on us. We need to stop allowing our communities to be photo ops for Democrats who won’t address our issues. For a party that gets 92 percent of our vote, I mean, this is ridiculous. They should be dealing with these issues across the board.
The House is now considering the welfare reauthorization that demands women work 20 more hours with no more child care funds. What needs to be done? Well, first of all, it is more of the criminalizing the poor for being poor. In 1996 I marched at the Democratic convention about the welfare reform bill. Everybody in this race supported the welfare reform, and voted for it. There must be allowances for single parents in terms of child care.
Police brutality? Police accountability is a national issue. Clearly I have been involved in a lot of police brutality cases around this country. It’s not just a Louima in New York; it’s not just a Rodney King in L.A. There should be federal guidelines. I tried to get Clinton to do that. Martin Luther King III and I had a march on Washington around making police profiling and conduct a national issue and to get at least an executive order. Couldn’t get him to do it.
How can the president stem that tide of incarcerations of African Americans? You’ve got to look at a series of laws that helps to accommodate that tide, such as the federal mandatory drug-sentencing laws, such as compensation of attorneys for people who are poor, and the disparity in how the death penalty is used. If you had those high percentages of people incarcerated in another country, we’d call it a human rights disaster. Can you imagine that percentage of whites in a black country in jail? And they wouldn’t be all over the UN beating their shoe heels on the lectern?