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Summer 1991
   
Sonny Carson and the Politics of Protest
Tamar Jacoby
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Tamar Jacoby was formerly on the staffs of Newsweek and The New York Times, and is writing a book on whatever happened to racial integration.

Sonny Carson makes no apologies for his racial politics. He likes to be thought of as a bad black man, someone who can hold his own fighting the white man’s power. As a youth, he was a defiant gang member. Later, on trial for kidnapping and murder, he cultivated the image of a ruthless militant. Most recently, during the last mayoral campaign, he tweaked New Yorkers’ noses by declaring proudly that he was “antiwhite.” A self-styled troublemaker with no visible political base, he hats made no effort over the years to disguise his faith in the politics of intimidation. Yet for more than two decades, he has been an important presence on the New York political scene, consistently embarrassing and outmaneuvering far more distinguished black leaders like David Dinkins. How he does it, the source of his shadowy power, is one of the most potent secrets of New York politics.

Carson is not the best known or even the most disruptive of New York’s freelance black “activists,” but he has proved to be the most painful thorn in David Dinkins’s side. Their names were first linked in the public’s mind in August 1989, just weeks before the Democratic primary that pitted Dinkins against Mayor Edward Koch. The Bensonhurst slaying of black teenager Yusuf Hawkins had set even the city’s jaded nerves on edge and had given Dinkins, who was promising to deliver racial harmony, a considerable advantage among both black and white voters. Then, on August 31, downtown Brooklyn erupted in a bloody racial free-for-all.

Carson led an angry but disciplined column of 7,500 demonstrators marching six abreast, brandishing placards and chanting rhythmically: “Whose streets? Our streets! What’s coming? War!” At the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, the demonstrators met a heavily armed police guard determined to prevent them from blocking traffic. Carson defiantly breached the police barrier and a 20-minute battle ensued. Forty-four cops and unnumbered protesters were injured, several of them seriously. But the biggest casualty, most New Yorkers agreed, was the promise of Dinkins’s candidacy. How could Dinkins deliver racial peace with a man like Carson gesturing menacingly behind his back?

Dinkins has been struggling ever since to find a way to live with Carson and the shadow he casts. About nine weeks after the Brooklyn demonstration, in the middle of a close mayoral race, it emerged that shortly after that melee Dinkins’s campaign had paid Carson $9,500, supposedly to help get out the vote in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Skeptics charged that the money was simply a payoff, “insurance” against future Brooklyn marches. Within days, the press revealed that Carson’s putative campaign organization was nothing but a shell—without an address, telephone, or members. Under pressure, Dinkins’s people admitted that they had made a mistake, but still the candidate did not repudiate Carson. Then, with the papers still full of the payoff story, Carson called the press conference and made his remarks about being “antiwhite.” Only then did Dinkins publicly distance himself—not, for many white voters, any too persuasively.

Anyone who doubts Carson’s power need only canvass the city’s other prominent black men, both elected leaders and those outside government. The first and most striking clue about his reach is the hold he seems to have on what others are willing to say. Even on the phone, most simply will not talk about him, on or off the record. The few who break the taboo are generally admiring, aware of some excesses and often careful with their words, but largely in agreement about Carson’s central role. “If he did not exist, we would have to create him,” says Wilbert Tatum, publisher of the Amsterdam News, the city’s largest-circulation black newspaper. “He cannot be dismissed as someone blowing in the wind. He represents a significant number of people.” What is more, Tatum explains, “militant” as Carson is, “he often reflects the thinking of those at the center. The difference is that he will venture where our other leaders fear to tread.” State Senator David Paterson says almost exactly the same thing: Carson is “a flamethrower,” Paterson explains, “and often that is what it takes to get some attention.” The young senator, who grew up in the bosom of the city’s black political establishment, has some doubts about Carson’s methods, but he easily dismisses his qualms. “In a community under siege, everybody has their role. There are jabs and there are knockout punches, and often the jab sets up the knockout punch.”

Members of the Dinkins administration are more guarded—and more critical. But they too attest, sometimes unwittingly, to the power Carson wields. Mostly, they too want to change the subject: “Focusing on Carson is a mistake,” says one official at the city’s Commission on Human Rights. “Let’s move away from the cult of personality,” echoes another. No one in the administration wants to talk about Carson’s involvement in the mayoral race. Nor has Dinkins unequivocally repudiated the race-based boycott, organized by Carson and others, of two Korean groceries in Flatbush. For months, as protesters blocked the stores, haranguing blacks not to shop with “people who don’t look like us,” Dinkins watched, silent and stalling. The mayor did make one well-publicized speech rejecting the boycotters’ tactics in general terms. But only under great public pressure did he finally drive out to Flatbush to buy a few groceries from the Koreans. What’s more, to this day his administration holds that the boycotters’ demands—and their racial economic jealousies—are essentially legitimate.

City hall maintains that Carson played only a supporting role in the boycott, amplifying and exaggerating positions held by people from “the community.” I don’t think Carson is representative of the folks carrying out the boycott,” says Commissioner Dennis deLeon, who spent months trying to resolve the dispute. Why then didn’t the city repudiate Carson and his racial rhetoric? Says de Leon: “We didn’t want to raise his status.” Nevertheless, deLeon and other officials concede, Carson somehow managed to take over the dispute, making it his in myth if not in fact. “The widespread opinion,” says deLeon, “was that it was Sonny Carson’s boycott, and that became the reality.” Not only that, commission aides admit, but Carson made it far more difficult—in fact, impossible—to resolve the matter. When his people refused to negotiate with the city, one official reports, “no one else in the community was willing to meet with us. No one was willing to go around the leadership.”

More telling still, the city itself has all but adopted Carson’s race-based view of what was at issue in Flatbush. “There are two communities emerging here,” says one aide, “and striving for similar pieces of the pie. These are legitimate issues that have to be resolved.” Like Carson, the city now sees the ghetto grocery business as a contest not among individual merchants but between warring ethnic groups. Taking this economic nationalism to its logical extreme, the administration has even embraced the notion that black neighborhoods have a right to set conditions for ethnic outsiders who ply their trade there. The administration does not attribute these ideas to Carson—on the contrary, it claims these are “the community’s” demands—but in fact his agenda has completely carried the day.

Carson himself is jubilant about the outcome of the boycott. He dismisses critics who say it has accomplished nothing. Never mind that the picketed storeowner has been vindicated in court, cleared of protesters’ charges that he assaulted a Haitian shopper. Never mind that the boycott has done little to help black merchants find a toehold in the ghetto. Carson feels the effort was an unqualified success, largely because it “provoked a coming together in the black community unequaled in decades.” He shrugs off charges that the action was merely expressive, disruption for disruption’s sake. For him, it was highly effective consciousness-raising: “We got the attention of our people,” he says, “people who may not have been aware of the kinds of things that happen when aliens move into our community and disrespect us.” Convinced that the city s blacks are now overwhelmingly behind him, he insists that Dinkins “lost face” among them when he finally went out to Flatbush to shop. “I am arrogant,” Carson boasts, “as to the power we expressed on that avenue in the past year.”

Why can’t Dinkins simply denounce Carson? Not, it seems, because blacks cannot criticize other blacks; Carson criticizes Dinkins all the time, saying that his mayoralty “stinks” and that he is a “figurehead” with no black backing. Yet apparently the criticism can only go one way: Radicals can vilify moderates, but not vice versa. It is a code that Carson knows well; he has been living it for over 25 years. A self-proclaimed “revolutionary,” openly driven by racial spite, he not only is radically separatist in his beliefs, but has relied on tactics over the decades—overt threats and violent confrontations with police—that have often put him outside the realm of what most people consider acceptable in politics. Still, many whites—and moderate blacks like Dinkins—feel that Carson has enough of a following that he must be taken seriously as a political player. In fact, no one knows how representative he is. Yet somehow, no matter how outlandishly he behaves, no one seems able to deflate or dismiss him.

Dinkins is by nature a deeply moderate man, cautious and determined to be mayor of “all the people.” Yet, for all the power and prerogatives of his office, he remains somehow unable to distance himself from angry leaders whose stock in trade is pitting the city s blacks against its whites. Dinkins is not alone in this dilemma. Far tougher mainstream blacks in other cities have the same problem with their own “race men”—figures like the Reverend Louis Farrakhan, Congressman Gus Savage, or Milwaukee’s self-styled Black Panther leader, Michael McGee. In these cases, too, the moderates are muzzled, largely by their own political instincts. They know all too well that it does not pay to chastise militants, that it will seem to many black backers as the worst form of betrayal. To criticize Carson is to criticize—or make light of—the racial anger that he represents, and few black politicians will dare do that. Thus, no matter how badly Carson behaves, his views will help define the range of acceptable black opinion. No matter how far he goes, he must be reckoned with—and the most moderate of leaders will find themselves being tugged toward his extreme.

Sonny Carson’s baptism into racial politics came in 1964 at the New YorkWorld’s Fair. More than a million people were expected; President Lyndon Johnson was scheduled to speak; the nation and indeed the world were going to be watching. For the small radical Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), all of this made the fair an ideal target for a dramatic demonstration: a “stall-in.” The plan was that more than 2,500 cars would run out of gas on the highways leading to the fair; hundreds of other protesters would pull emergency brakes on subway trains and lie down on the bridges between the city and the fair grounds. Amid the hoopla of the grand opening day, Brooklyn CORE would effectively close the fair down, lodging a huge symbolic protest against racial discrimination.

Never mind that the fair itself was in no way discriminatory and that the demands CORE put to the city were so sweeping as to be unmeetable. As Carson (who did not yet belong to CORE) wrote several years later: “I think it had something to do with jobs, but it wasn’t important what it was all about; what was more important was the effect it had ... it brought about [a] kind of pandemonium.” Just to threaten such an action gave Brooklyn CORE a moment of delicious revenge. In Carson’s words, it placed “the city in a position that black people always find themselves in ... a position of having to react.”

As it happened, the stall-in fizzled: The 2,500 cars did not appear, those that did were outnumbered by police and the city’s roads remained largely unobstructed—but not before CORE’s radicals had tasted an intoxicating new power. Not only had white New Yorkers utterly panicked, but the Brooklyn chapter also discovered that it could manipulate its much richer and better connected parent, the national CORE organization. CORE’s national director, James Farmer, was against the stall-in from the start, but he had no answer to the Brooklynites’ claim that only they and their bold tactics could appeal to the increasingly impatient youth of the Northern ghetto.

After a long night of talk, national CORE repudiated the stall-in, but it had to make up for this censure by mounting its own protest at the fair—massive sit-ins and lie-ins directed at only slightly more specific targets on the fairgrounds. The militant Brooklynites could hardly have asked for more. Farmer and three hundred fellow protesters were arrested, and thousands of fairgoers inconvenienced—not by a small group of radicals, but by one of the nation’s most respected and mainstream civil rights organizations. Then, as now, the militant tail was wagging the moderate dog. The black protest movement was losing its capacity to resist the pull of its own extremists.

What happened at the fair was typical of what was taking place in many American cities in 1964, a critical moment for the civil rights movement. In many places, at that point, tactics began to overshadow goals and to pit followers irrevocably against the mainstream. By 1964, the movement was struggling to make itself relevant in the North, and in city after city, activists found that the old methods, perfected over a decade in the South, were not particularly suited to addressing Northern concerns. Civil disobedience—and the legal change it was meant to bring about—could do little to improve life in the ghetto, where the problem was less segregation than poverty and ingrained pathology. Almost by definition, the old tactics could not deliver, and when they did not, frustrated protesters only became more enraged. The less effective the movement was, the more militant it became. And poor Northern blacks, who were in any case far angrier than their middle-class Southern cousins, latched on to the idea of protest-for-protest’s-sake.

Brooklyn CORE’s confrontational methods—extended sit-ins and the like—were modeled on the Gandhian tactics that had been used in the South. But as the stall-in showed, those methods were already being emptied of meaning. The Brooklyn group’s idea, as someone said at the time, was to do something that “drastically inconveniences people.” Unlike in the South, the inconvenience now served little purpose beyond expressing anger and disrupting white lives. Yet ghetto youth like Carson, who had little hope of change and nothing to lose, were electrified by this expressive power. They joined the groups that offered the best chance for angry protest—unstintingly militant groups like the Muslims and Brooklyn CORE. These radicals then claimed, with some justification, that only they could appeal to the people in the street. Again and again, throughout the second half of the 1960s, middle-class black leaders found themselves scrambling leftward to catch up with the bitter ghetto blacks they claimed to represent. In fact, neither radicals nor moderates could deliver much in the way of change; but the militants could at least provide emotional satisfaction. Before long they and their nihilistic tactics had taken over the movement.

In 1964, Sonny Carson was the very model of the ghetto youth that CORE aimed to bring into the civil rights struggle. In his mid-twenties, out of work, thoroughly alienated from the white world around him, Carson was an all-too-typical product of the gangland Bedford-Stuyvesant where he grew up. In elementary school, he was already learning to steal pennies from newsstands. By junior high, he was an accomplished mugger, constantly high on drugs, and firm in his belief that the only important human quality was remorseless aggression. Before he had finished high school, he was serving in a state reformatory, and even there he was known as one of the toughest boys, prepared to defy the parole board rather than bend his neck to anyone.

By the time he joined Brooklyn CORE, Carson had tried the U.S. Army, the civil service, and the life of a grown-up hustler, by his own account selling drugs and running illegal gambling joints in Brooklyn. None of these activities could hold him. He was drifting more or less aimlessly when the stall-in galvanized him with its radical power politics. As for which branch of the movement spoke his language—the middle-class moderates or defiant nationalists—Carson never had a moment’s doubt. “There was another brother,” he has written, looking back on 1964, “named Martin Luther King”:

[He] was beginning to upset me because that philosophy he taught was spreading and it didn’t seem to fit right with me. That “turn the other cheek” business—shee-it. Malcolm, I think, was saying it right: that if someone hit you on one side of your cheek, then you lay him in the grave.

Carson rose fast in movement politics, and by 1967 he had become executive director of Brooklyn CORE. By his own account, he was opposed to integration (he thought mingling with whites could only be humiliating), scornful of the black middle class (perpetrators of integration and traitors to their race), and openly thirsty for racial conflict (he still believes that only fear will bring whites to make concessions). Flamboyant and quotable, Carson was already attracting the attention of reporters, and he seemed to personify the anger that filled the ghetto by the summer of the Detroit and Newark riots. It was then that Bobby Kennedy chose him to sit on the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development Corporation, a self-help effort that would eventually absorb hundreds of millions of dollars in backing from the government and private groups like the Ford Foundation and IBM. Asked why he was flirting with local toughs and militants, Kennedy explained: “These are the people we have to reach. Some people may not like it, but they are in the street and that is where the ball game is being played.”

For Carson, the long hot summer of 1967 was the opportunity of a lifetime. He did not have to manufacture the threat of violence—it hung heavy and visible on the streets—and he played brilliantly on the city’s fears. Whether he and his followers actually encouraged rioting in Bed-Stuy remains a matter of dispute; there is no hard evidence, though there are witnesses who charge this, and he himself admits that his CORE office provided a rallying point for angry youths. In fact, Carson’s game depended on just this uncertainty—and on convincing the city that he could turn the violence on and off.

Mayor John Lindsay played into Carson’s hands, coming out to Brooklyn several times to try to soothe him and enlist his help. With bands of kids roaming up and down the streets, looting and setting fire to trash cans, Carson and his followers would sit with the Mayor at CORE headquarters and tell him menacingly just how bad things were. “These kids are sore,” Carson said on one occasion. “If [the neighborhood is] ... burned it won’t be CORE’s fault.... We don’t want it burned down ... but CORE won’t stand in the way.” By the end of the summer he was calling Lindsay’s people in the small hours of the morning and insisting that the Mayor or a top aide come out to Brooklyn “immediately.” Invariably they went—no matter how late or how frightening the meeting place—and invariably they were met by a new round of veiled and not-so-veiled threats.

By Carson’s own account, he came of age that summer: He found himself politically and set the pattern for his career. By then, he had wrapped himself in the mantle of black power. He was playing a prominent part in the national CORE organization, helping push it toward separatism and threats of armed conflict. (It was that summer that the national body dropped the word “multiracial” from the organization’s official description, spurring a mass exodus of white members.) Carson began to trade on his ties to Malcolm X. In fact, the two men had barely been acquainted, but Carson liked claiming the martyred leader as the source of his ideas. Also that summer, Brooklyn CORE bought some farmland and announced plans for a separatist black settlement. But even as Carson talked of leaving white America, he saw that his power lay in playing up to white fears. His Afro haircut and dashikis stunned white New York in 1967, as did his talk of armed black self-defense units. With both Lindsay and Bobby Kennedy paying court to him in Brooklyn—and the press obligingly printing every petty threat—Carson understandably imagined that there were no limits to his reach.

He began to look around for a place to wield his growing influence and soon found the perfect target in the Bed-Stuy public schools. With no particular authority but that of Brooklyn CORE, he announced he was going to “evaluate” 32 teachers, and after a few weeks he declared that all but five of them were “fired.” He made no effort to disguise what he thought was their key shortcoming: Most of them were white. And, as ever, his main tactic was a threat: “If [the school superintendent] ... thinks we are kidding,” Carson told a reporter, “he had better wait until September and see what happens when those teachers ... try to come back to our community.”

When neither the Board of Education nor the teachers’ union responded, Carson took the battle directly to them. First, he and a group of followers took over the union’s Manhattan headquarters, spending a night on office couches and making free use of the telephones. Some weeks later, he tried the same tactic at the board’s central office at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. This time, the cops were there ahead of him, and—by Carson’s own admission—he and his group provoked a nasty brawl that landed one policeman in the hospital. (Patrolman John Clarke was struck on the head with a three-foot metal ashtray, then taunted with shouts of “I hope you die.”)

Also that summer, Carson invited Albert Shanker, head of the teachers’ union, to a “community” meeting in a Brooklyn school. Shanker was heckled and then prevented from leaving. When he appealed to Carson to call off the thugs at the door, Carson merely laughed at what he later described as “this great big honky union chief standing there, blotchy with apparent fright.” By September, Carson’s gang was illegally entering school buildings and accosting teachers in the halls, telling them, among other things, “The Germans did not do a good enough job with you Jews.”

Within months, Carson’s activities in Bed-Stuy attracted the attention of a group of more ideological militants pursuing the black power notion of “community control.” The idea of community control—to get black parents involved in the education of their children—need not have become the source of racial conflict and bitterness that it remains to this day. It appealed across the political spectrum, to whites as well as blacks. Lindsay was trying to get school decentralization written into state law; the Ford Foundation was eager to finance a trial effort; even the teachers’ union was willing to try it on an experimental basis. Yet all this establishment power combined proved no match for Carson and his more rudimentary notions of control.

Carson did not run the Ford-financed experiment in community empowerment carried out in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. He was not a key strategist or an important negotiator for the group of activists and educators (known as the “governing board”) who were given charge of the neighborhood schools. All Carson did was help the governing board enforce its ideas. But in the end, his characteristic enforcement methods overshadowed everything else about the experiment.

In May 1968, the governing board unilaterally ousted 19 teachers, much as Carson had “fired” teachers in Bed-Stuy the year before. In Ocean Hill, too, a key charge against them was their race—and their alleged disloyalty to the black power goals of the experiment. When the teachers’ union objected to the ousters, Carson and his men roamed the corridors at will, just as they had done once before in Bed-Stuy. The only difference now was that they had permission, and no one tried to stop them when they threatened Jewish teachers. Finally, when police were brought in to restore order in the schools, Carson led the “community” in resisting them.

The nature of Carson’s relationship with the governing board remains unclear to this day. He and his men seemed to be everywhere in the district in the spring of 1967 and fall of 1968, not only inside school buildings but also guarding the doors, organizing student boycotts, and leading rallies. Carson claimed at the time to be representing the “community”; he now says he was “advising” the board. In fact, it was never clear whether he was taking orders, giving them, or simply acting on his own initiative with the board’s acquiescence. From the white teachers’ point of view it hardly mattered. The fact was that his tactics made it impossible for most of them to cooperate with the experiment, doing more than perhaps anything else to provoke the bitter teachers’ strike that closed the city school system through the fall of 1968.

On one of the worst days of the autumn, police tried to escort a group of union teachers to work. They were met on the school steps by Carson and some fifty of his men wearing police helmets and battle fatigues. After a tense standoff (Carson says there was violence), the teachers were allowed to enter the building, but not to teach. Shortly afterward they were told to report to an auditorium in another school. There, they found the walls lined with Carson and his followers, now carrying sticks and bandoliers of bullets. The teachers clustered in the middle of the room as Carson’s men began to curse at them. “Wait till we get the lights out,” the men shouted. “We’ll throw lye in your faces. You’ll be very visible.” The lights in the windowless hall were flicked on and off; teachers were pushed and shoved and told they would leave the room only “in pine boxes.”

By the time the strikes ended, in mid-November, the crisis in the schools had become a two-way affair, with the teachers’ bitter strikes contributing heavily to the poisoned racial atmosphere. Still, there can be no mistaking Carson’s role in setting the tone in the city, polarizing whites and blacks to the point where many wrote off the other race entirely.

Where did Carson get this power? Was the community behind him? As usual, no one was sure. His rallies in Ocean Hill were never very large, and it took only a few dozen men to implement his intimidating politics. Still, he claimed to represent black New York—and, as usual, no black leaders came forward to dispute his claim. Indeed, members of the governing board played this ambiguity for all it was worth: they gave the impression that they themselves were moderates, willing to negotiate and uncomfortable with intimidation, but then shrugged that they could not control Carson or the grass-roots anger he represented.

After the strike, Carson settled into a career as an activist, roaming New York at will and involving himself wherever racial conflict threatened. He would appear sporadically in the news—confronting school officials here, defending militants somewhere else, disrupting the State Senate in Albany and standing by as the drapery in the hall was set on fire. By 1973, he was something of a celebrity, riding the wave of radical chic that crested in those years. He had written a book about his gangland youth. Paramount Pictures was preparing to make a movie out of it: The Education of Sonny Carson. He was, he later reported, lecturing at Yale on the July evening when police came to his house to arrest him in connection with a local murder.

There was never much doubt about what happened on the night of the crime. Carson’s base at the time was in a hotel in Bed-Stuy, where he and his followers kept what they called a museum of African artifacts. Several rare pieces and some money were stolen. Somehow Carson and cronies knew exactly who had done it and decided to take matters into their own hands. There were eight men in the posse, including Carson; all allegedly had guns. They found their victims easily enough, and one of the thieves was fatally shot at his home in Brooklyn. The other was wounded and left for dead at a deserted spot on Long Island. He survived and testified extensively about what happened. Yet despite agreement about the basic facts, Carson’s role remains in doubt.

The well-attended trials—for kidnapping and murder—lasted into 1976. Carson spent much of that period caught up in the glittering world of Hollywood: consulting with Paramount, hanging out on the movie set, riding around in a limousine with a white chauffeur. When the film was done, he crisscrossed the country on a publicity tour, granting chatty interviews about black victimization in America. One reporter who met with him at poolside in Los Angeles said he looked as if he had been staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel all his life. As for his involvement in a murder case, it only seemed to add to his glamour as a streetwise militant.

In court, where he sometimes showed up in bathrobe and slippers, Carson claimed that he and his gang had only been implementing justice. Because he was black, he could not rely on the white police; he had intended only a “citizen’s arrest.” Besides, he claimed, there would be no trial if he were not a famous militant. The case turned on the question of whether or not he had ordered the shooting. Carson said no; the triggerman argued yes. But neither the gunman nor the surviving victim made very credible witnesses. (One was deemed unreliable because he had taken part in the crime; the other admitted lying on the stand.) Carson was acquitted of murder, but ended up serving 17 months in prison on kidnapping charges. The day of his murder acquittal he stood up in court and told an applauding crowd: “I’m just happy for everyone. Especially for the people in the community. It’s more a victory for them than for us.”

Today, more than 15 years later, Carson still derives much of his power from a vague claim that he represents the “community.” As in the case of Brooklyn CORE, the claim cannot be easily tested, yet this very uncertainty is what gives Carson his hold on city politics. Today, as in 1967, he shrewdly cloaks himself in mystery—and casts a large shadow from a dubious base.

A visit to his office in the basement of a downtown Brooklyn building reveals a taste for the ritual trappings of power. The office is a rambling expanse of little rooms, many of them decorated with African images and posters of Malcolm X. The front door is manned by a pair of taciturn youths; a half dozen more young men are lounging in the hallways or sitting along the wall in Carson’s personal office. All wear high-topped African skullcaps; most have flamboyant hairstyles, and several sport rings in their ears or noses or both. They greet each other with the salutation “Peace” and elaborate, choreographed hugs. Carson himself wears a brilliantly colored kente-cloth cap and carries an inlaid African chieftain’s staff.

No one seems to be working except Carson, here exercising the quiet power of an old-style ward boss. At mid-morning, he is on the phone, making calls to city officials to fix little problems for followers: getting a larger apartment for a woman in a housing project, asking the D.A.’s office to look into a case. “If they say they can’t help you,” he says to someone battling the bureaucracy, “tell them you’re a friend of mine.” Still other calls concern upcoming “community” events: advising someone how to get corporate backing for a rally, finding a photographer to cover the renaming of a Brooklyn street. To almost all, Carson is charming, asking even city officials about their families. In between calls, he tends to the waiting youth. With them he is by turns avuncular and authoritarian, sternly rebuking one or two who have neglected office chores. Later, in the room where the young men practice martial arts (it is decorated with more Malcolm posters and a life-sized papier-mâché Egyptian portal), Carson describes himself: “I have a talent: I’m good at organizing people. I know how to judge people and to talk to people and to motivate them.”

To the white world and the city at large, he projects a very different kind of power—deliberately more menacing. He talks in a formal interview about the coming racial “confrontation” and the need for black people to arm themselves. Malcolm X’s phrase “by any means necessary” crops up several times in an hour’s conversation in which Carson rejects not only integration but also the ideas of “harmony” and “equality” between black and white. He clearly enjoys the shock value of what he says, salting his talk with sharp asides about burning down the ghetto, “taking over,” and targeting a large number of other Korean merchants. “Then look out! Look out!” he warns at one point, rapping his chieftain’s rod on the table in front of him. His number one enemy is the police, and he sees violence against them as justified self-defense. His preferred tactics are those that make whites “suffer some of the same indignities that we’ve had to suffer.” Asked if his power is a threat-based power, he bridles at first but then backtracks. “All politics are about threats,” he says. “You do what you have to do. If the majority of people in the society are warmongers, then you have to be a warmonger, too. That’s the only way to get out of their grasp.”

Carson’s goals are somewhat less clear. By his own description, his struggle is reactive: a victim’s necessary response to the crushing world around him. If he is violent, it is because the world is violent; if he can not see beyond race, that too is because society cannot. “When you live in America, it’s always about race,” he says. He sees whites spreading crack in the ghetto and “criminalizing” black attempts to control their own lives: “They make it their mission,” he says, “to make sure we don’t have power.” The answer, for Carson, is “power” for power’s sake -essentially, resistance for resistance’s sake. This sometimes takes the form of traditional black power deals: Carson still talks about the creation of a “black nation” (he imagines a self-sufficient community “like the Hasidim”) and about “community control” (black oversight not only of ghetto schools but also other ghetto institutions). But by and large, his alms are short-term: ad hoc reactions to the pressures of the moment. He sees his tough guy tactics as a way to instill pride and rally other blacks to say “no” to whites. The most successful actions, in his view, are those that “cause some pain and get some attention. That,” he says, “is what it is really all about—to get some attention.”

Asked about the size of his organization, he answers evasively: “That’s just what my enemies want to know.” No one outside his immediate circle seems to have any idea. He regularly turned out scores of demonstrators in front of the Korean groceries. Yet, as when he terrorized Ocean Hill, he may be working with no more than a close-knit gang. As for how he lives—or whether he pays his cadres—neither friends nor enemies will speculate about that. (There was some talk at the time of the first Korean boycotts, in Brooklyn in 1988, that the protesters were extorting money from grocers. These rumors were never substantiated.)

Carson’s links to the city’s loose black-militant coalition are equally shadowy. He contributes in his own way to the race-driven causes of other leaders like the Reverend Al Sharpton. At the time of the Howard Beach incident, for example, Carson provided a “security force” for black demonstrations in the white neighborhood where the beatings and death of a black youth took place. Yet even when he joins in an alliance, Carson remains a loner, making no secret of his contempt for Sharpton and company. His closest associates—his only acknowledged, long-term allies—belong to a group of Marxist revolutionaries known as the December 12th Movement. Generally younger than Carson and more intellectual, they too cover themselves with considerable secrecy. Every now and again, a flamboyant member will grant an interview about their ideology: They are determined to overthrow the system, by violent means if necessary. In 1985, seven members were charged in a politically motivated armed robbery, but acquitted. The workings of the organization remain little known.

Carson himself is convinced that his support is growing—that the black community is gradually catching up with him and the militant positions he has held for 25 years. Looking back over his life, he draws a sharp distinction between “our pathetic past”—the largely cooperative, integrationist black mood of the Fifties and early Sixties—and the tough, defiant racial pride of recent decades. In the past, he says, “most black people didn’t know they were black.” Among the older generation this is still a problem; that is why Carson devotes himself to “making people in our community understand what’s happening to them.” But, he says, the younger generation is different: “They grew up on streets with names like Malcolm X Boulevard. They’ve seen the struggle and the coming together—and they can only go on to be better operators.”

Today as ever, Carson is an unabashed self-promoter, but he is not wrong about his resonance in the black community. The mood among both middle- and lower-class blacks is, if anything, more nationalist today than it was in 1964. True, unprecedented numbers of blacks have made their way into the mainstream -earning college diplomas, finding professional jobs, assuming considerable economic and electoral power. All of Carson’s sharpest rhetoric could not prevent that integration. Yet the bitter race-based worldview that he and others like him voice still sours many lives among even the best integrated. Carson and company keep this racial anger alive. They feed it and fan it and make it look glamorous -and make fun of those blacks who don’t seem to share it. Their brand of separatism is evident in middle-class black politics: it’s what fuels demands for Afrocentric education and legitimizes race-based boycotts like the one in Flatbush. More troubling, though, more disastrously limiting for blacks is the effect this bitterness has in the poorer community. Carson was quite right to boast, in the aftermath of the 1968 school strike, that he had converted thousands of black students into little “Sonny Carsons.” He made violent confrontation seem not only acceptable but glorious and convinced an entire generation of New York kids that white people were their implacable enemies.

Where will Carson take this following? He is as vague as ever. Asked what the alternative is to integration, he refuses to say—”No. no, I can’t tell you that”—as if the answer were a military secret. In fact, today as before, Carson seems driven by the logic of his tactics rather than by a well-developed ideology. That, more than anything, may be the secret of his appeal. More than 25 years after the stall-in, Brooklyn CORE’s approach still carries the day: Protest for protest’s sake is still so emotionally satisfying for many blacks that it manages to trump most other kinds of politics. What’s more, as the past 25 years show, the real size of Carson’s following makes little difference. Whether or not he represents most black people, he evidently speaks to something in the hearts of many. They may not approve of everything he does and may even deplore some of his most extreme methods. Yet the sheer defiance of his manner commands a wide respect. As one fellow radical, Coltrane Chimurenga, recently told the Village Voice, “Say what you want about Sonny, he always stands up for black people.” As long as the world is divided sharply into black and white, Carson’s appeal will remain—as it is today—largely unchallengeable in the black community. As long as the battle lines can be drawn that starkly, there will not be much that men like David Dinkins can do to shake Carson’s hold on the city’s racial emotions.

 

 

 
How an angry young man became a political power broker
City Journal Summer 1991.
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