Saturday’s nationwide protests against the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin will mark the next chapter in Al Sharpton’s long and checkered history of activism. Over several decades, Sharpton has led protests against both real civil rights abuses–and fabricated ones; both peaceful–and not.
Sharpton’s demonstrations will likely attract greater attention following President Barack Obama’s statement Friday that Trayvon Martin “could have been me, thirty-five years ago.” While Obama called for Americans to respect the verdict, he also claimed the outcome might have been different if Martin had been white.
Obama’s comments followed a statement last Sunday in which he likewise called for people to respect the verdict, appealed for calm, and offered words of sympathy for the Martin family. He first weighed in on the case in March 2012, emphasizing the racial aspect of the controversy: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Media outlets friendly to Obama seemed this week to be worried that he had not done enough to clarify his stance on the case. On Thursday, two consecutive shows on CNN–The Lead with Jake Tapper and The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer both explored the question of whether Obama should say more. Friday, he did.
Though Obama did not address the protests directly, he identified with their theme–namely, frustration with a justice system that is characterized by Sharpton, and now by the president, as racially biased. Though only 24% of Americans agree that Zimmerman was motivated by race, many demonstrators have disagreed–vehemently.
Thus far, several people have been beaten in violence associated with nationwide protests against the Zimmerman verdict, and there have been incidents of property damage, despite efforts to keep demonstrations peaceful. These are the only the latest in a long history of such events in Sharpton’s troubled record of activism.
One of Sharpton’s most notorious misadventures was the Crown Heights riot of 1991, in which blacks targeted Jews in Brooklyn after the motorcade of a prominent rabbi accidentally ran over a black boy, Gavin Cato, who died. In the violence that followed, a Jewish student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was murdered by a mob.
In 2012, after a rally in Los Angeles in support of Trayvon Martin, Breitbart News confronted Sharpton over his role in the riots. “I wasn’t in the Crown Heights riots,” he said. “I came after the Crown Heights riots. Read the state report. We got there three days later and brought the peace. So get your facts right.”
That prompted an angry response from Isaac Abraham, spokesperson for the Rosenbaum family: “That’s Al Sharpton, distorting the facts. He was there inciting the riots,” Abraham said. “He was there, he called Jews ‘diamond dealers.’….Maybe he doesn’t think it was incitement, but he was so close to being charged.”
Rosenbaum’s brother Nathan later spoke out against Sharpton’s claims: “Sharpton’s blatant lies, distortions and hypocrisy, particularly in regard to his role in the Crown Heights Riots, continue regretfully, in large part, to be condoned and/or ignored by the media, politicians and business (MSNBC) alike…
“In my experience, which no doubt is not as extensive as others, I have never seen a person be able to avoid being held accountable in substantive terms for his various and significant serious otherwise well publicized misdeeds over such a prolonged period of time, as Sharpton,” he added, noting Sharpton’s work for MSNBC.
In 1995, Sharpton led protests against Freddy’s Fashion Mart, a clothing store in Harlem, over a rent dispute, calling the Jewish owner of the store a “white interloper.” One of the demonstrators later entered the store with a gun and set fire to the premises, killing seven people inside in addition to himself.
Less deadly, though more notorious, was the case of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who claimed to have been raped by six white men in a racist attack, including an assistant district attorney and a police officer. Sharpton whipped up public outrage against the accused and the city itself even as Brawley’s story fell apart.
After investigators concluded that Brawley had faked the attack, Sharpton refused to back down. He was later sued for defamation but refused to pay the damages ordered by the court, which were ultimately paid on his behalf by supporters. He told Breitbart News last year that he still stands by the Brawley case.
Sharpton added that he was still qualified as a civil rights leader because “…we won the cases of Abner Louima, we won the case of Howard Beach, we won the case of Bensonhurst, I think I’m more qualified to stand than most. I’ve won more cases. And the case you mentioned, Brawley, there was never any violence.”
There has already been violence in the Zimmerman protests–protests that likely would not have happened without Sharpton’s involvement. Indeed, Sharpton was instrumental in pushing state and local authorities to arrest and prosecute Zimmerman after promoting the false narrative that the attack had been racially motivated.
Sharpton even boasted, following the verdict, that the merits of the case would not have been enough to bring a prosecution, were it not for his efforts: “Let’s not act like we got in the Florida case because of the merits, we got there by rallying, by protesting and by raising the issue,” he said in a radio interview on Monday.
Throughout, Sharpton was supported by the Obama administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder, who spoke at a convention of Sharpton’s National Action Network, which has planned protests throughout the Zimmerman controversy, and which declared it would stage protests in one hundred cities Saturday.
Obama’s evident support for Sharpton prompted an angry response from Nathan Rosenbaum: “The fact that Sharpton is made welcome by President Obama is a disgrace and highlights a serious character flaw in the President. The President is wrong for doing so and the message he sends in doing so is dangerous.
“Make no mistake about it–Al Sharpton is a racist, an old fashioned bigot, who craves the media limelight and will do and say anything to draw the attention of the media to him,” Rosenbaum added.
Regardless of the outcome of the protests, the debate has challenged the “post-racial” character of the Obama presidency.
Though he rose to national prominence on the strength of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convension, in which he envisioned a nation united across all differences, President Obama’s involvement in public outrage over alleged racism leading to Martin’s death has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism.
While the mainstream media welcomed his statement Friday as yet another example of his intellect and sensitivity, Obama risked adding fuel to the fire of a racial controversy that Sharpton had stoked for months, dividing the nation needlessly in the midst of urgent problems facing black America and the country as a whole.
Breitbart News will provide comprehensive coverage of Sharpton’s protests around the nation on Saturday.