Rain on the parade

The Million Youth March was suppossed to empower and uplift young African-Americans. So how did it become a political circus starring adults?

Published September 10, 1998 6:44PM (EDT)

During the L.A riots in 1992 I was working in an office tower in midtown Manhattan. At noon that Friday, two days into the meltdown on the West Coast, rumors flew from building to building that blacks were rioting in New York City. There was a rush hour at lunch time; Manhattan emptied out. Before leaving, people in my office peered down 30 stories to make sure a wave of angry, rock-throwing people hadn't stormed down from Harlem.

They never came, of course. But that same gut-level fear of the African-American community persists. And it is that same fear that fueled most of the hype coming out of New York's City Hall and the news media leading up to the "Million Youth March" in Harlem last weekend. Its chief organizer, a venom-spewing, anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan protigi named Khallid Abdul Muhammad, provided a boogeyman from central casting. Something told me that in the rigorous tug of war between Muhammad and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the kids would be the big losers.

What many press accounts left out of the day-after coverage of the event was that all but the last five minutes of the afternoon were perfectly congenial for those who attended. Raised fists and chants of "black power" were as threatening as it got. I, mild-mannered white guy, didn't sense a single moment of racial animosity. Groups of 10 and 12 young people in matching T-shirts, printed with the names of their youth organizations, had come in from as far as Oakland, Calif. There were strollers and parents, bold haircuts and in-your-face T-shirts, dreadlocks and incense, fliers about lectures and socialism and unjustly imprisoned individuals -- the sort of countercultural patina that typically surfaces whenever there's a gathering of people who aren't totally down with the wonderful world of Disney.

The controversy over the event stretched all the way back to January and grew louder and louder over the summer. The problem, ostensibly, was that it was spearheaded by Muhammad, a man famous for his invective against whites, Jews, Catholics, gays and others. Muhammad originally applied for parade permits at the heavily orthodox Jewish Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn -- just to cause trouble, apparently -- and Central Park, as well as his preferred location on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. Mayor Giuliani publicly wrote off the event as a "hate march" and tried to deny Muhammad a permit for Harlem. Mohammad's lawyers took the city to court and won on First Amendment grounds from, ironically enough, a Jewish judge. Giuliani then whittled the permit down to four hours on six blocks of Malcolm X Boulevard, rather than the 12 hours and 29 blocks originally requested. Meanwhile, the Harlem political establishment got pissed at both the mayor for his big mouth and Khallid Muhammad for being an arriviste who failed to notify them of his plans.

As it was, six blocks were more than enough. The rear block was almost empty save for some cops manning a vacant crowd-control pen. Police officially estimated that 6,000 people showed up; so even if you apply the standard protesters' algorithm to determine actual attendance at a rally -- quite a bit more than the police estimate, but nowhere near double -- at most, 10,000 people were there.

And 2,500 blue suits.

Hundreds of cops lined up behind layers of barricades, designed to ensure that people trickled in and out slowly. Dozens occupied the fenced-off center of each intersection. Pairs and threes peered down from every other rooftop. A set of police officials in white shirts looked like they were surveying Red Square, with their motionless heads protruding from the roof lip of a six-story corner building. A couple of helicopters hovered high above at all times.

The march was billed as a chance for black youth to be empowered in their struggles for quality education, jobs and self-sufficiency. Instead, it was the police, and Mayor Giuliani, who became the focus of the protest. Speaker after speaker drew cheers talking about police abuses, mandatory-minimum drug sentences that disproportionately net people of color, the one-third of young African-American men who are in prison or on parole. Giuliani drew loud boos whenever his name was mentioned, which was often. Other speakers called for reparations from slavery. A Native American condemned the white man, while another speaker called for the United States government to be "taken down." He tried to get the crowd to cheer, "Down with the USA," but it didn't take.

"Slave labor workfare + attacks on immigrants + racist police terror + prison labor = fascism U.S.-style -- right here, right now," read a sign held by a white attorney from Newark.

"When the ruling class gets desperate," he told me, "it usually turns to an authoritarian form of government."

Great, I thought. I'm with you. But what about the kids? The Million Youth March had a lot of confrontational, highly political ranting but not a whole lot about education, teen pregnancy, poverty and street violence -- issues that urban kids deal with daily. The positive intentions of this event seemed to be struggling to breathe amid all the anti-authority tension.

I asked a fine-featured, spectacled black man in a gold-patterned dashiki that sloped around his ample belly what the young kids must think about the swarms of cops.

"I imagine the kids don't believe this is a free country," he said.

I met a burly, kindly Nigerian man named Sam Chetwas on 125th Street before the rally. He was selling little motivational books out of his Jeep Cherokee that he had written and published himself: "The 100 Steps Necessary for Survival in America for a Person of Color" was one title.

"I think the young black youth has so much work to do in the classroom, more than marching on the street," he said. "After the march, what next? The youths are not challenged, not preoccupied with things that empower them in the real sense. They're preoccupied with destruction."

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Top: Khallid Abdul Muhammad, an organizer of the Million Youth March, punches his fist into the air during his speech at the march in Harlem Saturday.

As the afternoon wore on, and the shadows lengthened on the stately brownstones of Harlem, the tame crowd began petering out. A few people sat on the shady stretches of curb eating ice cream, or strolled along wearily trying to hawk Million Youth March T-shirts and key chains. Just then, Khallid Muhammad took the mike for the second time that day. His earlier speech had been very short and pretty tame. He had urged everyone to finish school, stay away from drugs and be good to the black woman. Nothing he said couldn't have been said by anyone else on the rostrum, which included the dependably voluble Al Sharpton.

But now, with the 4 p.m. closing bell specified on the city permit approaching, Muhammad was back. He had fought City Hall and won his day in the sun. And as his shrill staccato bounced down the avenue, it quickly became clear that he was going to end the show his way.

"We say to you today, you filthy bastards!" he hissed at the cops. "You no-good, filthy BASTARDS!"

A semi-enthusiastic wave of "yeahs" rolled down the avenue.

"We want you to be steadfast against these BASTARDS! ... Disconnect the railing and beat the hell out of them with the railing if they so much as touch you!"

More faint cheers.

"If anyone attacks you, take their goddamn guns and use them! If they take up their nightsticks take it out of their hands and ram it up their ass like they did with Abner Louima!" he shrieked, in reference to a Haitian man whom New York City police officers sodomized with a toilet plunger in a Brooklyn precinct house last summer.

Two young black men standing near me turned to each other and laughed -- the sort of cynical, somewhat incredulous, crinkled-eyed laughter that people break into when confronted with absurdity. But they weren't laughing at the absurdity that this march, intended to show young people that their numbers and comment could rise above the odds and turn back the tide of violence and despair, was itself ending with a call to violence. No, they were probably laughing from the tension of it all -- Muhammad was saying what many people had been thinking, and on one level they were glad he was giving voice to their thoughts; on another, there was something nerve-racking about these words as they came screeching down this high-security prison of an avenue, past the sea of blue suits.

Before he was done, Muhammad made sure to slur Jews as the "bloodsuckers of the black community," sucking the last dregs of positive energy right out of the air (dishearteningly, people raised their hands and cheered when he said this). The police command decided not to give Muhammad an extra millisecond of time -- a move that has become the focus of more grandstanding and indignant calls for investigation and lawsuits in the last few days -- and stormed the stage promptly at four, while Muhammad was still ranting. People began to throw bottles and garbage cans.

Sixteen cops and several spectators suffered minor injuries. The papers the next day would report this as "violence," and TV news would be filled with footage of the melee. The substance of the march -- a youth-empowerment message and anti-police-state overtones -- would be drowned out by the spectacle of a racist charlatan's 15 minutes of fame.

Which is too bad, because a lot of moms in that audience came with the best intentions. "People have to learn to love themselves, to respect themselves," said Sherry Rich, her 8-year-old son Earnest wearing an oversize Million Youth March T-shirt that stretched down to his knees.

Clearly, as with Louis Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C., people were willing to overlook Khallid Muhammad's racist views because he went ahead and put together a gathering they felt was more important than him. "I think we've gotten to the point where we have to look beyond it," said Kathy Lindor, a counselor to troubled children from Elizabeth, N. J., when asked about Muhammad's vitriol.

She had bought her year-old son, Jimmy, a white Million Youth March T-shirt and asked other children to sign their names to it. Chazz from Yonkers and Shakeer from Queens, both 8, were among the dozens who had scrawled and circled their names. Although her son didn't know what the speakers were saying, Lindor said, with the T-shirt as a souvenir, "I figure at some future time Jimmy will remember this, and it'll make a little change in his life."

But after Khallid Muhammad's second speech, I had to wonder: What form would that change take?

By Jeffrey Obser

Jeffrey Obser is a freelance journalist who has also written about genetics issues for Newsday.

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