Inside Sharpton's National Action Network

You didn’t have to attend Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) Conference last week to get Sharpton’s radical message.

As Washington, D.C.’s non-voting Congresswoman Eleanor Norton (D) told the audience at Thursday’s NAN Luncheon, “Reverend Al’s megaphone is attached to a television,” giving praise to his unique position as a powerful political activist with the advantage of a “news” show on MSNBC.

But that doesn’t mean close attention to the event isn’t well deserved. With extraordinarily high profile guests from President Obama’s cabinet, such as; Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sabelius, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Sharpton’s four-day conference was not to be missed. On top of that star-studded list of guest speakers, panelists included many high profile labor leaders, civil rights activists, spiritual leaders as well as other attendees from across the country.

The event kicked off last Wednesday morning, to the delight of the crowd, with an address from Holder. Holder covered issues ranging from Trayvon Martin to voter fraud. He offered an eerily bleak outlook on the current state of American society in general.

At one point, Holder referenced Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Only when it is dark enough, Dr. King said, can you see the stars. Well today once again, it is dark enough.” Holder went on to claim that while he is “optimistic about the path that we are on…many obstacles lay before us, and there are dark skies overhead, but if history is any guide and I believe that it is, positive change is frequently the consequence of unfavorable, not favorable circumstance, progress is often the product of darkness, not the light.”

While it may be easy to play defense against the highlighting of these comments, claiming they are taken out of context, they were his choice of words, and they are not taken out of context. They are isolated within the context in which they were intended, and they highlight a point of view held by himself, and other allies of the President, who have consistently demonstrated that they and their ideology thrive in times of despair. It provides them the opportunity to sell their convoluted ideas and connotation of progress to people whose patience has worn thin.

The Spotlight on National Action Network

Sharpton could not have asked for a better chance to highlight his event than with the press conference of Trayvon Martin’s parents that day. The entire D.C. press corps flooded the room, shining a light on NAN and Sharpton just prior to George Zimmerman’s arrest--long overdue, according to the members of NAN.

The presser was highlighted by calls for justice--not just for Trayvon, but for Zimmerman too. Yet while Sharpton and his followers made all the right comments in front of the cameras and media--condemning calls for violence, allowing for the system to work, and toning down the heated rhetoric--these messages weren’t exactly mimicked by all those in attendance, including panel speakers, who referenced the Trayvon-Zimmerman case as an example of injustice in the “system.”

Just before the press conference on the “Criminal Justice” panel, Glenn Martin of the Fortune Society told the room, that “Zimmerman ain’t the only Zimmerman, he represents a disease that has never gone into remission in America…that a young black man in a hoodie belongs at the business end of a gun, that’s how our law enforcement system approaches young black men. And that the very system that we’re asking to prosecute him, has been proven itself to be equally racist in its application of the law.” Martin concluded his speech by sharing a story of when he entered and exited prison, and how it reminded him that “this is not just about criminal justice,” and said, “you want to figure out how to dismantle this system, follow the dollars,” for which he received a standing ovation.

Several attendees went on camera to share their differing opinions as to what would ultimately bring justice in the case. When asked if arresting George Zimmerman and giving him a fair trial regardless of the outcome based on the evidence would bring justice, or whether that would not be sufficient in lieu of a guilty verdict, attendees had mixed opinions. However, the majority of those interviewed did believe the public had seen enough evidence through the media to determine that a Zimmerman was guilty of murder. 

Is NAN Promoting Unity?

At the Thursday morning breakfast featuring Sharpton, Duncan, and Dennis Van Roekle, President of the NEA, festivities were kicked off with the “black national anthem.” I personally had never heard this song before, and was unaware of its existence. Not that there is anything wrong an anthem that African Americans wish to sing in addition to the Star Spangled Banner (our official U.S. National Anthem)--however, the National Anthem was not sung.

Later that morning, prominent labor leaders filled a panel to discuss the American Jobs Act and collective bargaining. Challenging questions from the audience and from citizen journalists in attendance were met with derision and even attempts at ridicule by some of the panelists. It was becoming clear that the panelists and the participants were not accustomed to being questioned by anyone who does not accept the motives, strategies and solutions of the left.

After one citizen journalist asked the panel about “card check,” and if they would go on the record in support of a secret ballot to show support for employees' right to choose whether or not they want to be in a union, Annie Hill, Secretary Treasurer of the Communications Workers of America, responded that she would only support this on the condition that employers could not “terrorize” the employees that want to be in a union. Hill’s comments make it unclear as to whether or not she keeps up with the current news and pays attention to who really does the terrorizing when it comes to labor unions. Apparently she is unaware of the numerous cases recently of labor unions showing up outside employers’ homes in large numbers with giant inflatable rats, disrupting the peace in their communities as well as terrorizing family members and children who happen to have been home at the time.

The question was also answered with hostility by other members of the panel who focused on overall economic unfairness, as well as R. Thomas Buffenbarger, President of the International Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who compared the signing of a union card to signing a draft card to go to war. Eliseo Medina, Secretary Treasurer of the SEIU, mocked the question by comparing signing union ballots to signing a driver’s license or marriage license.

Why Isn’t Washington, D.C. a State?

At lunch, Sharpton and other spiritual leaders gathered to speak, give and receive awards to and from each other, as well as give a social justice award to Rep. Norton. Upon receiving her award, Norton commented on the concept of social justice as well as the Zimmerman arrest. In her closing remarks, Norton spoke about her support for Washington D.C. statehood.

Curious about her position, I asked Congresswoman Norton about her support for D.C. statehood along with an explanation of why Washington D.C. was not originally created as a state. Norton told me that D.C. “is the seat of injustice,” because of the lack of representation in Congress and claimed “it was an accident” that D.C. was not originally made a state. She went on to explain a brief history, none of which I have been able to verify. It’s quite stunning that the representative Washington D.C. sends to Congress as a delegate, advocating for its own statehood, seems to know so little about how the Capital came to be in the first place.  

How the church can be utilized to re-elect President Obama

The last panel on Thursday was comprised of spiritual leaders, called The Church: Becoming Spiritually Fed and Feeding the Hungry. The panel had little to do with feeding hungry people, as panelists focused instead on explaining how churches can be used as a more effective place to organize politically, specifically around voting and getting out the vote efforts, and electing people who will feed the hungry for them.

Panel moderator Dr. Barbara Williams Skinner, Co-Chair of the National African American Clergy Network said, “What we want to do today is to talk about what it means not only how to be spiritually fed and then to feed the hungry, but how do we elect people that will feed the hungry? ... What can we legally do and mobilize to elect the kind people we need to have elected without anybody worrying about their tax exemption.”

While speaking about Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget, Rev. Dr. Freddie Haynes III criticized the right wing as successfully marketing poor people as political piñatas. “They made them negative, so as the political piñatas, it’s OK to beat up on poor folk, but why don’t we take that back, because my thing is Paul Ryan better know if he’s going to make it into heaven, he’s got to have at least one poor person as a reference on his resume because Jesus said, I was hungry, did you feed me or did you pass a budget that cut out my opportunity for feeding?”

Also discussed was the amount of registered African-American voters and how to get more voters registered to ensure the re-election of Barack Obama. Reverend Regina Thomas, former Secretary of State for New Jersey explained:

…after ’08 when the system realized that there was an electorate that they could not control and that was enthusiastic about this great president, they began to do things such as voter ID and sort of purge you because they knew that Pookie and Shay-Shay began to move around … so what we do is identify a person within our congregation and make them a faith captain … and make that person responsible and making sure that our voters are registered… and so I think what we have to do with voter registration in our churches alone, uh… Dr. Haynes in his church and two or three churches within block, by themselves can control an election just in the difference of new registrations he can add to the rolls, it is only important because they know we master it, they know that we have the best president ever in the history of elections…

In closing, while many of the events that unfolded during Sharpton’s convention are not surprising, they are enlightening, and there is value in highlighting those moments of truth that shed light on what exactly was discussed and taught here. Underneath the cover of the media spotlight, which fails to point out the real message of the conference, and in the shadow of the George Zimmerman arrest, the rest of the conference should not be lost or forgotten.


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