Though casting himself as a bold teller of truths, more often than not the Reverend Al Sharpton serves the agenda of those in power.
Photo by Michael Fleshman
The citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, deserve better than Al Sharpton. A world-class scumbag with criminally under-acknowledged ties to the Mafia, the FBI, Rudy Giuliani, Nixon administration shysters, corrupt business tycoons, and endless other seedy characters, Sharpton had the gall this week to castigate Ferguson residents for allegedly expressing too much anger at the police over the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown. That Sharpton is being held up as some kind of moral exemplar, authorized to lecture people on proper behavior, is truly a sick joke. In a sense, though, you have to admire the guy’s brazenness: Few street preachers end up advising the president.
Sharpton may have conceded agreement with Senator Rand Paul last week that the militarization of local law enforcement represents an undesirable trend, but the good reverend lagged well behind the libertarian right in coming to the realization that equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan could be used for problematic purposes when transferred by the federal government to departments across the country, free of charge.
Sharpton’s tardiness in denouncing police militarization is perhaps partly explainable by the fact that, per his own reckoning, he literally operates as a proxy for the Feds—namely the Obama administration. CBS's 60 Minutes reported on this posture as such: “He's decided not to criticize the president about anything, even black unemployment that's twice the national rate.” Since acquiring his own MSNBC show, Sharpton—a former FBI informant, it was revealed in April—has regularly glommed onto highly charged controversies (such as the killing of Trayvon Martin) by presenting himself as a sort of de facto emissary between the White House and the “community” he purports to represent.
Sharpton postures as a fearless critic of state violence, but one can’t simultaneously be an honest broker about what’s going on in Ferguson—the federal government at Obama’s direction is complicit in extreme terror, escalation, and civil liberties infringements—while simultaneously affirming that the chief executive of the federal government ought to be off limits for scrutiny.
“Sharpton has a long and well-documented history of leveraging his civil rights profile for his own benefit,” journalist Wayne Barrett, who chronicled his travails for 37 years at the Village Voice, wrote on the sordid occasion of Sharpton’s 2011 ascension to the 6 PM MSNBC time slot, replacing Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks. Uygur had garnered excellent ratings in the preceding months, so the removal seemed somewhat puzzling—until Uygur revealed that network executives summoned him to a cartoonishly melodramatic closed-door meeting in which they issued a threat: Think twice before saying anything that might upset certain unnamed “people in Washington.” Uygur didn’t do that, and not long thereafter, he was replaced by Sharpton, a reliable peddler of pro-administration talking points.
Sharpton now enjoys a larger audience than ever before in his long, stupid career. In 2013, he made use of this privilege by moderating a probing segment titled "Should President Obama Be on Mount Rushmore?"
At times, Sharpton has certainly helped provide needed services to traumatized, grieving, and financially despondent victims of NYPD violence. But he has all too frequently used such endeavors to promote lies and slander, always to the convenient effect of heightening his own stature. The 1988 Tawana Brawley disaster is among Sharpton’s most high-profile scams, and is cited on a regular basis by the conservatives he purposely enrages. During that shameful saga, Sharpton served as lead spokesman for a batty team of NYC lawyers that claimed the Ku Klux Klan, Irish Republican Army, and other dark forces were involved in covering up the rape of a 15-year-old black girl. The entire story was ultimately exposed as a hoax, and the district attorney Sharpton falsely accused of being one of the attackers successfully sued for defamation.
Sharpton also thrust himself to the fore of Eric Garner’s police-caused death this summer. NYPD officers threatened, surrounded, and then seized Garner in an illegal choke hold, in broad daylight, for doing nothing more than standing on a Staten Island sidewalk. The coroner’s office declared it a homicide; locals were distressed. Given Sharpton’s longtime residency and activism in the city, that he would intervene after such an incident may seem reasonable enough.
Well. At the Garner funeral service on July 23, which I attended, Sharpton delivered a bombastic address. In it, he paid special attention to the individual who recorded Garner’s fatal police altercation, which showed incontrovertible proof of officers’ unprovoked aggression. Sharpton invited the young man up to the altar of Bethel Baptist Church in Downtown Brooklyn and heralded his courage—the only problem was that he kept misstating the man’s name as “Ramsey Ortiz” instead of “Ramsey Orta," indicating just how little attention Sharpton apparently pays to the pesky details of the causes he inserts himself into.
At an August 22 rally on Staten Island for Garner and Mike Brown, Sharpton cautioned the assembled crowd against formulating any systemic analysis of police misconduct in their neighborhoods, recommending instead to focus merely on the few “bad apples” who tarnish an otherwise valiant department. This logic is completely fallacious, and Sharpton thus distracts from the crucial task of assessing NYPD violence on an institutional, policy level.
Sharpton went on to warn any rally-goers who might be tempted to stir up trouble, “Don’t piss on my party,” then announced he’d be leaving his own event early to depart for Washington, DC. Janaye Ingram, executive director of National Action Network (NAN)—otherwise known as Sharpton’s personal corporate slush fund—later declined to provide details when I asked where exactly he had gone.
Al Sharpton speaks at the US Department of Agriculture. Photo via the USDA
According to the veteran journalist Barrett, despite the self-anointed “reverend” title, Sharpton has never actually administered a church. Still, he was invited recently to stand alongside Cardinal Timothy Dolan at a summit convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio, where the duo discussed “healing” strategies for NYC minority communities in the aftermath of Garner’s homicide. Dolan—another pandering, blusterous, hyper-partisan, power-worshipping clerical charlatan—has proved an awfully auspicious partner for Sharpton. Both men live opulent lifestyles. Sharpton infamously lavished his then girlfriend, who was also executive director of NAN, with luxury hotel stays valued at $4,000 per night—not to mention “a Mercedes, a Caddy, a $7,000 Rolex, mink coats, David Yurman jewels, and a Trump apartment.” (Dolan has a mansion on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.)
That someone with such an extensive record of deceit, lying, and fraud as Sharpton now occupies a position of such prominence says a lot about the fundamental ethical rot at the heart of elite US political culture. In all likelihood, the people who enable Sharpton privately find him a complete moron, but nevertheless understand his vacuous bombast is good for business. Such people therefore offer restrained praise for Sharpton in public, appear at his fake charitable functions, and pretend that he represents some kind of oh-so-very important “voice.” Shortly after the Uygur-Sharpton switcharoo, Phil Griffin, Sharpton’s boss at MSNBC, was bestowed with the NAN “Keepers of the Dream” award. (Two years later, NAN honored former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, granting him the opportunity to invoke Martin Luther King Jr. in defense of the department’s relentless stop-and-frisk policy.)
This duplicity goes back decades. Sharpton’s impetuous “campaign” for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, today largely forgotten, was regarded at the time as such a joke that almost no black people supported him. He finished a distant third in the heavily black South Carolina primary, which Obama himself won four years later by 29 points. (Sharpton also lost two thirds of the black vote in his home state.) Demonstrating his lack of backing among the demographic on whose behalf he claims to speak, the charade mostly served to get Sharpton on TV, which ended up paying big dividends.
After the phony presidential effort folded—he won laughably few delegates—Sharpton went on to enjoy a successful run as a regular Fox News talking head. The relationship made perfect sense. His overbearing, obnoxious persona allowed for topics with racial dimensions to be simplified into straightforward, easily digestible narratives. Issues of police violence already disrupt the typical partisan paradigm, because it’s not something like Obamacare, where the two parties have a vested self-interest in endlessly trumpeting their unchanging position one way or another. Countless Democrats heap worshipful praise on the police at every opportunity, and often provide them with more taxpayer-funded goodies than Republicans, but would be embarrassed to tout those accomplishments before black audiences. As senator, for instance, Vice President Joe Biden spearheaded the 1994 “crime bill” that played a major role in facilitating the transferal of military equipment from the Pentagon to podunk little police forces that never in a million years would have legitimate use for armored vehicles or rocket launchers. (“The Western Foothills of the State of Maine… currently face a previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities,” one sheriff’s corporal recently proclaimed in defense of his application for federal funds.)
Despite the outsize importance that black voters assign to criminal justice issues, national Democrats have virtually ignored the policy preferences of their surest constituency in this arena. Sharpton’s primary function appears to be misdirecting black folks’ absolutely justifiable fury into votes for politicians who might systematically neglect their concerns but nonetheless pay requisite homage to “the Rev.”
Therein lies the danger of Sharpton injecting himself into situations like Ferguson: His unwieldy rants have the effect of inflaming tensions, and not the productive kind of tension that might eventually manifest in substantive change. Instead, he fosters an aura of cheap partisanship, which only reduces the likelihood that marginalized communities suffering under violent police regimes will secure any meaningful amelioration of their hellish predicaments.
As Ferguson shows, so many matters involving race today are in dire need of robust and honest public discussion. Sharpton inhibits this process. He is a self-aggrandizing fraud, and though it’s true that conservative media’s fixation on him is usually ridiculous and condescending, it’s equally true that his current prominence is thanks to all manner of major US political figures, including Mike Bloomberg, Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker, Condoleeza Rice, and especially Barack Obama, who adulated the bogus reverend twice in four days a few months ago.
Al Sharpton on an "education tour" with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Photo via American Solutions
From the Donald Sterling affair, to the 2004 Haiti coup d’état, to the 2000 Florida recount—Sharpton apparently feels that he has a constructive role to play in virtually every major world controversy. But if anything is impressive about Sharpton, it’s the sheer breadth of his hypocrisy. That so many powerful actors are eager to countenance his bullshit really sucks, most of all for the besieged people of Ferguson. Meanwhile, the sleazy “reverend” keeps laughing all the way to the bank.
Now that it’s clear the main aim of National Guard forces deployed to Ferguson by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon was not “ensuring the safety and welfare of the citizens,” as Nixon originally claimed, but instead to help reinforce and fortify the already militarized local police, will Sharpton call on the commander-in-chief to order swift redress? Seems unlikely.
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