The contradictions of Al Sharpton

Lee Sustar looks at the career of Rev. Al Sharpton and his role in the movement.

Rev. Al Sharpton speaks at a National Action Network eventRev. Al Sharpton speaks at a National Action Network event

REV. AL Sharpton's prominence in anti-racist protests has long made him a target of mainstream right-wingers and assorted racists. Leading the pack these days is actor James Woods, who called Sharpton a "race pimp" who was "directly responsible" for the December murder of two New York City police officers. Assorted Fox News hosts, in a conversation with Donald Trump, voiced the same sentiments, in only slightly more measured language.

On the other end of the spectrum, being first on the scene after some racist atrocity has given Sharpton credibility among victims of racist violence. Sharpton himself was once stabbed by a racist while preparing to lead a protest.

But the fact that Sharpton is reviled by cops, racists and right-wingers doesn't mean that the Black Lives Matter movement should accept him as its leader. In fact, a new generation of activists has already made their criticisms of Sharpton quite clear. When young protesters from Ferguson tried to take the stage to speak at the December 13 march in Washington, Sharpton denounced them as "provocateurs" and threatened to call security.

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SHARPTON'S ATTEMPT to silence grassroots activists highlights his many contradictions. After all, the man once famous for always wearing an outsized Martin Luther King medallion and who organized the 50th anniversary commemoration of King's 1963 March on Washington was an enthusiastic informer for the FBI--the same FBI that tried to destroy King and repressed Black militants. Sharpton, who puts himself at the head of protests against the NYPD, supported the appointment of William Bratton as police commissioner--the same William Bratton who was the architect of the "broken windows" policing strategy of strict enforcement of trivial offenses.

Furthermore, at a time when the movement is voicing demands for transformative changes in policing as part of a wider anti-racist struggle, Sharpton offers a narrow vision of what those changes should be--limited to mandatory police body cameras and state attorney generals overseeing investigations of police shootings of unarmed civilians.

"Let us not give in to pettiness and emotion, for true change is at our doorstep," Sharpton wrote after the big December 13 protests. In a statement following the killing of the two NYPD officers, Sharpton said that "we have stressed that most police are not bad"--a direct challenge to the movement's developing critique of how institutional racism fuels police violence.

Thus, while Sharpton often does initiate and support important protests, he also works to ensure they remain within safe political channels. From his MSNBC television program to his partnership with Wall Street bankers to promote charter schools to his regular access at the Obama White House, Sharpton has come a long way from his days as an outsider scorned by the liberal establishment, Black as well as white.

Sharpton has a direct line to Corporate America's key players, too. For years, right-wingers have been up in arms over business donations to Sharpton's NAN. More recently, a New York Times article detailed Sharpton's corporate-sponsored birthday party that netted $1 million in donations and NAN's finances, focusing attention on chronic late payments of taxes.

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DISCONTENT AMONG activists over the role of Sharpton and his National Action Network (NAN) surfaced in the aftermath of the confrontation with the Ferguson youth at the December 13 protest.

Twitter immediately lit up with criticism of Sharpton by African American grassroots activists. Indeed, concerns about Sharpton's role had been simmering for some time among activists in Ferguson and beyond. Many among the new generation of militants view Sharpton as an establishment figure more interested in containing protests than building an anti-racist movement.

Nevertheless, Sharpton is often the most prominent individual to show up after a racist outrage--like when the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., finally became front-page news in the spring of 2012. Virtually no one else can offer the same resources to the victims or their families. As a Washington Post reporter put it, "Sharpton...played several parts in the Martin story virtually at once: national TV host, Martin family advocate, rally organizer and promoter, and newsmaker."

Sharpton articulated the anger of millions of people when he called for the arrest and indictment of George Zimmerman, Martin's murderer, as well as the police officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner last year. But he has shown little interest in building an ongoing mass movement with wider political goals or fostering the growth of grassroots organizations beyond NAN. Instead, he has chosen to network with established groups like the NAACP or local ministers, with a focus on gaining whatever measure of justice is possible through the courts.

In the aftermath of the non-indictment in the Ferguson killing, Sharpton hailed President Obama's call for more funds for police body cameras--just two days before a New York grand jury failed to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner with a chokehold, despite video evidence of the murder.

Sharpton does put the question of racism and racial violence in the context of social inequality, both in speeches and on his MSNBC program. However, he is at least as likely to go on a Bill Cosby-type tirade over the supposed failings of African American youth--men in particular--for their style of dress and "ghetto" behavior. That was the case with Sharpton's comments at Mike Brown's funeral. "Some of us act like the definition of Blackness is how low can you go," he lectured, adding, "Now you want to be a n---- and call your woman a w---." Too many African Americans, Sharpton said, want to have "ghetto pity parties instead of strategizing."

What's more, Sharpton is a leading proponent of Barack Obama's political and economic policies--despite the obvious and total lack of progress for the majority of African Americans during the six years of Obama's presidency. In turn, Obama gave Sharpton's credibility a boost by appearing as the keynote speaker at the 2014 NAN convention.

To post-Ferguson activists, Sharpton's inside-outside approach to politics may seem like a straightforward case of opportunism. But the contradictions embodied in Sharpton reflect something bigger: the dilemma of the African American middle class.

Even as unprecedented and often lucrative opportunities open in business and politics for a minority of African American professionals and entrepreneurs, the vast majority of Black America has suffered a catastrophic loss of wealth and an increase in state repression, of which racist police killings are only the most obvious part.

Sharpton's rise to prominence correlates with the inability or unwillingness of the Black political establishment--from Barack Obama on down--to improve the conditions of the Black working class. At the same time, the activist left has been small and weak for many years. By stepping into the vacuum, Sharpton has played dual roles: as organizer of protests and the man who keeps activity within the framework of mainstream Democratic Party politics.

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THIRTY YEARS ago, anyone attending an Al Sharpton-led demonstration or press conference would have had a hard time believing that the man who'd begun as a boy preacher in singer James Brown's entourage would someday be a key figure in mainstream U.S. politics.

After he was been taken under the wing of New York City's rising Black middle class as a young man, Sharpton founded the National Youth Movement, an organization that sought corporate donations for youth programs. James Brown introduced Sharpton to Don King, the leading Black boxing promoter, who was constantly under the pressure from law enforcement for alleged ties to organized crime. Confronted by FBI agents out to nail King, Sharpton agreed to inform on the promoter.

Sharpton's first high-profile advocacy for victims of racist violence came in late 1984, when Bernhard Goetz, a white man, shot four unarmed Black youths in a subway car after claiming that they had harassed him.

I first saw Sharpton in action at a church in Harlem about a year later at a meeting aimed at organizing around the death of 17-year-old Edmund Perry, a Harlem-raised recent graduate of the elite Philips Exeter Academy and winner of a scholarship to Stanford. The NYPD claimed Edmund and his brother Jonah--both unarmed--had assaulted a plainclothes cop, Lee Van Houten, who fatally shot Edmund in the gut.

The Perry shooting--coming amid a string of killings of unarmed African Americans by the NYPD--shocked the city. But New York's Black political establishment, by then ensconced in seats on the City Council, state legislature and Congress, did virtually nothing to organize a response.

Sharpton, along with two attorneys, Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, stepped in, backing Perry's mother in a wrongful death lawsuit and defending Edmund's brother Jonah from prosecution. Sharpton, quick on his feet and adept at prodding the mainstream media to pay attention, helped to give a voice to people who had none.

The racial tensions in the city finally burst into the open the following year, when a group of racists chased Black motorist Michael Griffith into the path of a car that struck and killed him in Howard Beach, Queens. Sharpton, Mason and Maddox were the leading spokespeople for Griffith's family and organized big protests that successfully pressured then-Gov. Mario Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor, who obtained three convictions in that case. New York magazine saw evidence of "a new Black activism," with Sharpton as a leading personality.

Maddox, Mason and Sharpton were also at the center of the controversy over the charges by Tawana Brawley in upstate New York that she was gang-raped by white men, including a local police officer. A grand jury declined to indict, dismissing the case as a hoax.

Sharpton's many critics on the New York political scene seized on the Brawley case in an attempt to destroy his credibility. But Sharpton also found himself ostracized by one-time coalition allies in New York's militant Black left when news first surfaced that he'd served as an FBI informer when the Feds were investigating Mafia ties in boxing. According to published reports, Sharpton also gave authorities information about Black leftists and Democratic Party politicians.

Those revelations led to a permanent break between Sharpton and the Black left in New York City, even as the Brawley case seemed to have burned whatever bridges Sharpton had to the political mainstream.

But a few months later, the 1989 racist murder of a 16-year-old African American youth, Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, put New York politics on the boil again. This time, Sharpton found new collaborators: the New Alliance Party, a strange amalgamation of a leftist group and psychotherapy cult. Many others--including those of us in the International Socialist Organization--joined Sharpton in weekly marches, not because of any illusions in his politics, but to face down the hateful racist counter-protesters and demand prosecution of Yusuf's killers.

Although Sharpton's critics denounced him as a racial demagogue and made fun of his style and dress, he was a model of calm and dignity as we marched through mobs of frenzied white racists, who shouted insults, spat at us and waved watermelons as we rallied at the spot where Yusuf was murdered.

When Sharpton was stabbed on one of the marches, barely avoiding life-threatening injuries, it reinforced his image as someone who was willing to put himself at risk to challenge racist violence. At a subsequent visit to Sharpton's hospital bedside, then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins, the city's first African American mayor, demonstrated that Sharpton' influence was forcing leading Democrats to take notice. For Black New York, it cemented his role as the person to call when the worst happened at the hands of racists or the police.

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THE EARLY 1990s saw Sharpton's entrance into the political mainstream. A series of prominent profile articles--many of which are available on the NAN website, recount the shift.

The first big step was Sharpton's second run for a U.S. Senate seat in 1992, in which he "won the endorsement not only of celebrities like...[film director Spike] Lee and the soul legend James Brown, but also of more mainstream Black groups of the sort once thought to disdain him," the New York Times reported.

On the campaign trail, Sharpton tried to explain away why he had endorsed the incumbent Republican senator in the previous election, as well as his use of anti-gay epithets. He ran for the state's other Senate seat two years later against longtime incumbent Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, winning 26 percent of the vote in a primary election. In 1997, Sharpton ran for mayor of New York and got 32 percent of the vote, coming within 658 votes of forcing a runoff in the Democratic primary.

Although Sharpton's quick wit and grasp of the issues usually upstaged his rivals, he had little chance of winning office. He did, however, succeed in making himself a broker of the Black vote in New York state, a position highlighted by Hillary Clinton's reliance on him to turn out African American voters during her campaign for U.S. Senate in 2000.

Despite Sharpton's bid for the mainstream, he still had plenty of enemies. They seized on a 1995 tragedy: A mentally unstable man burned down a store in Harlem whose Jewish owner was involved in evicting a Black-owned record shop. Seven people died in the blaze. Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had ridden a white backlash into office a couple years earlier, blamed Sharpton--because he, along with local activists, had led pickets against the building owner, whom he called a "white interloper" on a radio broadcast.

Sharpton survived that crisis by continuing to build his networks. The National Action Network, founded in 1991, modeled itself after Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH organization, with weekly meetings and advocacy programs, such as pressing big corporations to promote racial diversity.

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AT THE same time, Sharpton continued to speak out for victims of racism in the criminal justice system--such as the Central Park Five, five young men of color falsely accused in a 1989 rape and assault case, who were later exonerated, but not until after they had spent many years in prison.

He also stood with families of African Americans brutalized or gunned down by the NYPD.

The best-known cases were the 1997 police torture and sexual assault of Abner Louima and the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed young Guinean immigrant who died in a hail of 41 bullets fired by cops when Diallo reached for his wallet. In the wake of Diallo's killing, Sharpton led a series of sit-ins at police headquarters that resulted in the arrests of hundreds, including prominent politicians and entertainers. The protests forced an indictment, but the cops involved were eventually acquitted.

Rep. Charles Rangel, then, as now, the senior Black elected official in New York City, explained to a New York Times reporter why Sharpton, rather than himself or former mayor Dinkins, always got the call from victims of racist violence: ''You know it and I know it: We have not gained the credibility that Sharpton has in case after case. Why should they go to a local politician, especially one who is out of office?''

Rangel's comment points to a predicament facing almost every African American politician. Having struggled for decades to create a space within the U.S. political system, those who still want to advocate for Black working people find themselves impotent to do so.

Social inequality, institutional racism, economic crisis and a right turn by the Democratic Party have drastically curtailed the capacity of individual liberal politicians to even advocate for real change, let alone achieve it. And many such elected officials no longer even pretend to offer leadership: the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Corporate Advisory Council is full of representatives of big corporations like Goldman Sachs, Lockheed Martin, Merck, PepsiCo and Verizon.

With African American elected officials unable or unwilling to take up a struggle around the broader economic and social issues affecting the Black community, Sharpton often had the political stage to himself--particularly during the periodic flashpoints around racist police violence. He used his 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to further raise his profile nationally and to occupy a niche in liberal politics abandoned by Clinton-era Democrats.

"I'm not running an African American campaign," Sharpton said back then on CNN. "We're running a broad-based campaign that includes African Americans and Latinos and gays and lesbians and laborers and others." He added: "I believe the [Democratic] Party has moved far to the right. I do believe that the party has a bunch of elephants running around in donkey clothes."

In 2006, Sharpton was again central in the protests against the police shooting of another unarmed man, Sean Bell, on his wedding night. Three cops involved in the shooting went to trial, but were acquitted. Sharpton, who served as an adviser to Bell's family, pointed out that the cops involved in Bell's killing were Black, Latino and white. "If they were all Black, we would be marching tomorrow" anyway, Sharpton said on the eve of a silent protest over the killing.

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EVEN AS Sharpton became the go-to person in cases of police violence and player in Democratic politics, he struck up arrangements with leading corporations.

The most important deal came in 2011, when Sharpton's NAN, along with other civil rights organizations, signed an agreement with media giant Comcast, in which the company agreed to develop diversity programs or minority contracting provisions as a condition of its takeover of the NBC television network. Several months later, Sharpton was given his own daily show, PoliticsNation, on MSNBC, a property of the newly merged company.

Sharpton's rising media profiled corresponded with his closer ties to the White House. Indeed, Al Sharpton's and Barack Obama's careers have a certain parallel. Both rose to prominence outside the usual Democratic political machinery. Obama leapt from being an obscure state senator to the presidency, via the U.S. Senate, in just four years. Sharpton, the quintessential outsider, became the top African American vote-getter in New York state, effectively imposing himself on Black politicians who had been in office for a decade or more.

Obama apparently sees a close relationship with Sharpton as a means of keeping in touch with his Black voting base--and having a reliable ally to promote his policies among African Americans. Or, more precisely, defend Obama's lack of a "Black agenda" to assist African Americans, despite the blows they've suffered since the Great Recession.

For Sharpton, association with the sitting president opens many new doors for himself personally and for NAN. The agenda of the 2014 NAN Convention, held last April, makes that clear. With Obama as the keynote speaker, the event featured Cabinet secretaries, some left-wing African American intellectuals, community activists, liberal editors and journalists, and a smattering of labor leaders.

From the standpoint of anti-racist and social justice organizing, however, the presence of representatives of big companies raises big questions. CVS Caremark, Bank of America, Macy's, US Cellular, WalMart and, unsurprisingly, Comcast, all participated in a panel discussion called "How Can Corporations Collaborate to Affect Change in the Community?" McDonald's, which relies heavily on low-wage Black labor, also participated on that panel--and organized a separate session for itself, called "Showcase of the Stars Career Panel."

Sharpton, like President Obama, is on record of favoring an increase in the minimum wage. "Blacks suffer disproportionately from having to do work and not get the kind of wages that we need," Sharpton told a reporter for Black Enterprise. "This is a central concern in our community."

That's a stance that sits uneasily alongside Sharpton's relationship with McDonald's, the company that sponsors the annual 365Black Awards, where Sharpton was the Humanitarian Honoree for 2014.

To be sure, the media's focus on Sharpton's often-shaky finances is surely a sign of a racial double standard. Donald Trump, the loudmouth right-wing real estate magnate, has run companies into bankruptcy several times, but is still lionized as a business leader.

But for activists in the new Black Lives Matter movement, Sharpton's finances--and his connections with the state, from the FBI up to the White House--must be a concern. Can a man so dependent on Corporate America for financial support--not to mention his ties to the White House--be a consistent ally in the fight against racism? Can a person who was willing to wear a wire for the FBI be a reliable fighter against police repression? Is it possible to trust someone with regular access to the White House to undertake a serious challenge to the system?

Some may draw the conclusion, as many New York leftists did in the 1980s, that it is best to stay away from any protest campaign led by Sharpton. That would be a mistake. Victims of racist police violence will continue to look to Sharpton for resources and support. Grassroots activists need to be there, organizing for justice, despite their criticisms of Sharpton.

At the same time, however, it's clear that when Al Sharpton is involved in a struggle, there will be many, many strings attached. Those committed to fighting for justice should stay involved, no matter who appears to be "in charge"--but work to build a lasting, independent and democratic movement.