Washington's hot date with Al Sharpton

The star of the Diallo trial takes his show to the capital.

Published March 3, 2000 6:30PM (EST)

The Rev. Al Sharpton is having his moment. No more talk-show brawls for him. After years of attaching himself to every credible and dubious case in New York that involved even a hint of racism, he's been redeemed by Amadou Diallo, the blameless African immigrant gunned down by officers of the New York Police Department. From the early moments after the shooting, Sharpton allied himself with Diallo's parents, orchestrated dozens of protests and picked whatever fights he could with his long-time nemesis, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

By the time the officers were acquitted, Sharpton had established himself as the self-appointed spokesman for the disaffected among New York's African-American community. As Sharpton met with Justice Department officials in Washington on Thursday afternoon, calling for federal intervention in the Diallo case, hundreds of protesters gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue, clogging two-thirds of the block and spilling into the street. When Sharpton finally emerged with Diallo's family, the ever-swelling crowd had been standing for an hour, listening to a parade of rabble-rousers calling for everything from increased civilian oversight of urban cops to a boycott of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When Sharpton marched out of the Justice Department, the assembled throng gave him a hero's welcome, full of shouts, whistles and thunderous applause. A notorious mike hog, he nonetheless relinquished the spotlight to Diallo's parents after a short speech and a few rounds of "No justice, no peace." Though Diallo's father, Saikou seemed pleased with the attention, mother Kadiatou's face was stoic and unsmiling. "I pray for justice and harmony," she said, her eyes lowered.

Though the demonstrators showed enthusiasm for all the speakers, the press was clearly there for Sharpton. The cameras have been flocking to him this election year, as every Democrat who needs a photo op with a nationally known black preacher has lined up to shake Sharpton's hand. Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley and Al Gore have all made the pilgrimage. Both Bradley and Gore took pains to explain their meetings with the reverend when challenged during Wednesday night's debate about Sharpton's past anti-Semitism. Each spoke about growth and the power of redemption, as if today's Sharpton had nothing to do with his Jew-baiting past.

The exchange demonstrated the power that the national political establishment and his New York base have bestowed on Sharpton. Though he's never been elected to anything, the Democrats feel compelled to defend him, and the Republicans to openly malign him, making Sharpton America's latest race man, heir apparent to now-irrelevant Jesse Jackson's political legacy.

But it's not only white leaders who want to kiss Sharpton's ring. The lesser lights at Thursday's rally were a veritable "Who's Who" of black political has-beens. Former Washington mayor Marion Barry spoke, as did former New York mayor David Dinkins and comedian turned civil rights war horse Dick Gregory.

The only other black leader there with juice of his own was former congressman and current National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chief Kweisi Mfume. A short time ago, that organization would not have deigned to associate itself with the likes of Sharpton, but now it finds him useful in renewing its former activist reputation.

The whole protest had that air of redemption, a new beginning for Sharpton, for the self-appointed power brokers who spoke before him and for civil rights agitators who have been searching for a message since the victories of the 1960s. Without laws to rewrite and Jim Crow signs to take down, the mission of the movement has gotten murky. Diallo's death has become a point of mobilization in an age when the issues defy easy symbolism, and manifestations of racism have become slippery: racial profiling by the police, red-lining of minority communities by banks, financial organizations and insurers and the general backlash against affirmative action.

When Sharpton led the crowd in a parade around the Justice Department, the mood became borderline festive, like a well-attended wake. Protesters found old friends in the crowd and posed for pictures. Spontaneous chants were led by whoever's voice was strongest, and protesters sang along. "No justice, no peace." "The people, united, will never be defeated." "Police procedure, one-oh-one. It's a wallet not a gun."

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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