For many Black Americans, he is next to a Messiah. For many non-Black Americans, he is thought to be an agitator, riling up already uncomfortable societal quagmires that are better left swept under the rug.
Media image aside, the Rev. Al Sharpton is neither of these things. The boy raised by a single mother in working class Queens, NY, developed a passion for civil rights activism as a pre-teen. He began marching alongside the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other prominent civil rights activists at the tender age of 13, seeking to progress the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of civil disobedience and taking the high road to equal rights under the law for Black Americans.
With his new book, “Rise Up: Confronting A Country At The Crossroads,” Sharpton outlines his unrelenting position on the weightiest political and societal issues of our time, recounts some hard lessons learned, and offers an inside glimpse into the mentors who shaped the man we see today. Most importantly, Sharpton outlines his plan for an America at the crossroads.
Allison Kugel: In light of recent news in the Breonna Taylor case (no criminal charges were ﬁled in her death), what was your ﬁrst reaction when you heard that decision?
Rev. Al Sharpton: It was alarming, but not surprising. I didn’t have conﬁdence in this investigation, because of the obvious policies of the prosecutor. The prosecutor guides the grand jury and there is nobody in there besides the prosecutor. This prosecutor is a protege of Mitch McConnell. I did not think that he was going to do anything. I did feel that the indictment of the other ofﬁcer, (Brett) Hankison, for the endangerment of everybody but Breonna was just as offensive. What they are saying is that he was reckless in who he was shooting at and putting others at risk. What about who they shot, and her being at risk? It is one of the reasons why we do what we do, in saying there needs to be new laws. We just had a big march with tens of thousands of us, three weeks ago. Among two of the things we wanted are The George Floyd Policing and Justice Act that sat in the House, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up. It would strengthen the laws that would have eliminated the no knock laws and put this whole thing in a different perspective. That’s one of the things I talk about that in this new book.
Many people believe that you just show up wherever the action and media attention is. It’s important for people to know that you and your National Action Network (NAN) are the ones who work to bring national attention to these cases in the ﬁrst place. For example, it was your organization, NAN, that brought national attention to Trayvon Martin’s murder and to George Floyd’s murder. Without your hard work, the world wouldn’t know the names Trayvon Martin or George Floyd. Why isn’t this common knowledge?
A lot of the media just doesn’t say it. Ben Crump (attorney for the Floyd family) and the families have said it. In fact, Breonna Taylor’s mother’s ﬁrst interview was on my show (MSNBC’s "PoliticsNation"). They couldn’t get a national show before my show. Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother) wrote about it her book on Trayvon. Ben Crump brought them to New York to ask me to blow up Trayvon (in the media). Trayvon had been buried for two weeks. I didn’t even know about Trayvon until they came and met with me in my ofﬁce. We made it an issue and called the ﬁrst rally and had about 10,000 people out there. It ended up being the day my mother died, and I went ahead with the rally anyway. I said in the eulogy to George Floyd that people call me to blow things up, and I have an infrastructure with NAN where we support the family, we help them get legal advice and media advice, and we stay with them. Sometimes people can’t cover their expenses if they need to do a rally. Some of them need to pay their rent, and NAN helps with that. They call us because they know we’ll come.
Who is your heir apparent once you reach a certain age and you are no longer able to do this work?
That would come up through the ranks of NAN. We have a lot of young people in our youth and college division, and some of them have a lot of potential. It is not up to me to choose who it will be, but I think it will come up from the ranks of the movement. That is why I built an organization. The point person before me was Rev. Jesse Jackson who was one of my mentors, but he didn’t choose me. Cream rises to the top. You’re going to take a lot of scrutiny. You’re going to take a lot of attacks. I’ve been stabbed and done time in jail for marching. There is a downside to this, and not everybody is built for that.
In your book you illustrate a parallel between The Great Depression and The New Deal put in place by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and our current economic crisis due to COVID19 and the potential solution of a Green New Deal. Have you had the chance to speak with Kamala Harris or Joe Biden about this?
During the (primary) campaign, yes. There was the meeting when Kamala came to Harlem and went with me to Sylvia’s soul food restaurant. I’ve talked to them separately. I’ve not talked to them at length since they were nominated. Obviously, we’ve talked on the phone, but this is something that I’m pushing out and I’m encouraging them to do. With COVID-19 this country is going to go through a tremendous economic challenge. We need a Marshall Plan and government involvement to bring the country back. If we don’t have that kind of engagement, we are going to have a very difﬁcult 2021 and 2022.
How do you see a Green New Deal rolling out despite the strong lobby for oil? How can a new administration circumvent that?
Rise up and vote in this election and put in ofﬁce people that will not be in any way swayed by the lobbyists. We have to change the lawmakers. Lobbyists can only go as far as who they can influence.
With the worldwide protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd, what do you ultimately see resulting from all the protesting?
The legislation is one, as I said, but the overall result should be how we as a culture redeﬁne policing and move past police being above the law while questioning the actions of some police is thought to be anti-police. I think legislation can enforce this, or we need a cultural shift. One of the reasons the Floyd case caught on the way it did is that it happened in the middle of a pandemic and everyone was in lockdown. There were no sports, so people were watching the news to see what was happening with the lockdown. They kept seeing this footage over and over again, and they couldn’t turn to sports as a distraction. There was no distraction with George Floyd, and I think that caused an eruption.
I want to talk to you about Defund the Police. What are your thoughts?
I think that we should redistribute how we do the resources like dealing with some of the things you outlined. A month after we did the eulogies for George Floyd, I did a eulogy for a 17-year-old kid killed by a stray bullet in the Bronx, and a eulogy for a one-year old baby that was killed by a straight bullet in Brooklyn. How can we say we don’t need policing when our communities are disproportionately victims of crime? We are the only community that has reasonable fear of cops and robbers.
I think we need to reallocate how we deal with the funds for police. We must have police in presence because right now we are inundating our communities with guns and drugs, and that is reality. Ironically though, I think what people don’t understand, is the one who has defunded the police is Trump. By Trump ineffectively handling COVID-19, most of these cities are going to be in deﬁcit and will be laying off police. That is a bigger threat than people stating it at rallies. They have run out of funds. They are laying off teachers and policeman in some cities.
Whether you love Trump or hate him, every American should be aware that an important part of our democracy is a free press, as well as our postal service. When you have somebody in the highest ofﬁce in the land who essentially gaslights the American public and says, “You can’t trust the media, you can’t trust the medical experts; only believe me,” that is very dangerous rhetoric and undermines our democracy. Why do you think so many Trump supporters aren’t seeing that?
It baffles me on one level, and on another level, I think because the country is so divided, and they have been divided by the media. The media has convinced people that everybody but FOX (News) and a few radio talk show guys are buffaloing you or fooling you. They set a climate where a guy like Trump, who really is representing himself almost as an autocrat, can rise up and take advantage of that. He can say, "Don’t believe them, believe me. I’m one of you." There is nobody more not one of them than Trump, with the glitzy billionaire lifestyle he lives. Whether he is a real billionaire or not, we don’t know. But he’s been able to sell that to people who are suffering through existence issues that are lower-middle class or poor, like I grew up. It’s appealing to them that they are doing this to me, and he has identiﬁed "they" as the liberal media. He gives everybody a blame game. In the interim, he does policies that don’t help them, but that they can feel that it is not his fault, instead it’s their fault.
Throwing it back to the 2016 presidential election, do you think Hillary Clinton was a strong and viable candidate?
I think she was a strong and viable candidate, but she did not run a strong and viable campaign. They did not engage the ground enough. To lose Michigan by 12,000 votes, I know three churches that could have given her that. They never went into Detroit. They never really went into Milwaukee. I think there was almost this feeling of, "We got this. Nobody is going to vote for Trump." She certainly had the credentials. I think she had the vision, and I think she is a decent person. I knew her since she was First Lady, but I think her campaign was too up in the air, too high ground. They didn’t get on the ground, and that is where the voters were. It left an opening for Trump to do it. I think that Biden has not run that campaign so far.
Meaning he has been on the ground?
He has been on the ground and he has his infrastructure on the ground. There is a faction of the Black American movement that has become antisemitic as of late. It’s confounding based on shared history and shared activism.
We need to stand and walk together and go back to the history. When I was a kid, I will never forget, Rev. Jackson brought me to the Jewish Theological Seminary, and I met Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Dr. King. Rabbi Heschel gave me a collection of his books and I still have some, like “God and Man,” and some others. There are people like Heschel, who were part of the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. I tell a lot of people today that when we talk about voting rights, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, were three Jews who died to get us the right to vote. I don’t think enough of us talk about that in the Black community. And yes, we may have had our disagreements, but the history of it is not put out enough … and we have to deliberately deal with the misnomer that we have not come together and suffered together. … We’ve suffered together, we’ve fought together, and at this time we cannot afford to be separate. We are ﬁghting the same enemy. Most people that are racist are also antisemitic, and those who are antisemitic are mostly racist. We are connected and we need to stop acting like we are not.
Lastly, there has been a lot of rioting and looting mixed in with peaceful protesting. Your organization’s famous slogan is, “No Justice, No Peace.”
It means the only way we are going to have real peace, where we can live together as a society that respects each other, is to have justice. I don’t mean "no peace" in the sense of violence. I am absolutely, unequivocally against violence. I have denounced it everywhere and will continue to. As far as the two cops shot in Louisville, Ky., I think it is morally wrong. You cannot become like the people you are ﬁghting. If you become like that, if you have the same values and the same moral code, they have already defeated you. At the same time, I think there’s a difference between peace and quiet. Quiet means just shut up and suffer.
Peace means let’s strive to work together even if we’ve got to march and make noise together to get an equal society for everybody. That is what I mean by “No Justice, No Peace.”
Visit alsharptonbooks.com to purchase “Rise Up: Confronting A Country At The Crossroads,” the latest book by the Rev. Al Sharpton. To learn more about the National Action Network (NAN), visit nationalactionnetwork.net. Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture columnist and author at AllisonKugel.com.