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On Steven Scalise—and Al Sharpton

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eye on the news

On Steven Scalise—and Al Sharpton

What conduct should disqualify someone from a public career? January 6, 2015
Photo by Elvert Barnes

Some defenders of House Republican whip Steve Scalise, who is under fire for speaking a decade ago to a group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader and Nazi sympathizer David Duke, have argued that the congressman shouldn’t be pilloried for one past indiscretion—especially when people like Al Sharpton can command the respect of the president of the United States and the mayor of New York City. If Scalise should go—and I think he should—his departure should at least prompt a discussion of what conduct ought to place one beyond the pale of political acceptability. And a good place to begin is with “Reverend” Al (who, “ordained” as a “boy preacher” at 10, never attended a seminary or led a congregation).

Sharpton is most infamous for his role in the 1987 Tawana Brawley rape hoax. Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl from Wappingers Falls in the Hudson Valley, went missing and reappeared four days later in a large plastic garbage bag with dog feces smeared on her body, “KKK” and “Nigger” scrawled on her chest, and her jeans burned at the crotch. She claimed that a group of white men, including a police officer, kidnapped and gang-raped her. Sharpton and radical lawyers Alton Maddux and C. Vernon Mason latched on to Brawley, becoming her “advisors.” With no evidence, they accused a young assistant district attorney responsible for prosecuting the case and a young policeman, who had just committed suicide, of involvement in the “rape.” Prevailing on Governor Mario Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor, they then refused to cooperate with Cuomo’s choice, New York Attorney General Robert Abrams, a liberal Democrat (for whom I then worked) with impeccable civil rights credentials. They charged Abrams with masturbating over photos of Brawley, and Sharpton compared asking Brawley to meet with Abrams, a Jew, with “asking someone who watched someone killed in the gas chamber to sit down with Mr. Hitler.”

It was all a fraud. A grand jury established that Brawley had made the whole thing up, and defiled herself, to avoid being punished by her stepfather for coming home late after visiting a boyfriend in jail. A Sharpton associate later acknowledged that they knew all along that she was lying; they had thus used this deeply troubled teenager to foment racial conflict. The young prosecutor, Steven Pagones, won a defamation verdict against Sharpton. Wealthy supporters eventually paid the bill for the reverend, but Sharpton won’t apologize, even now, for his role in this outrage.

Sharpton’s actions in two other notorious episodes were even more incendiary—and in one case deadly. In August 1991, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood shared by African-Americans and Hasidic Jews, a 7-year-old black boy named Gavin Cato was struck and killed by a Hasidic driver. Rioting erupted and a rabbinical student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was fatally stabbed by a group of young black men. Sharpton, who a few days earlier at an unrelated rally in Harlem had said, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house,” appeared on the scene and stoked the flames. In a eulogy at the boy’s funeral, where one banner read “Hitler did not do the job,” he attacked Jewish “diamond merchants” in Crown Heights for doing business with apartheid South Africa and provocatively added: “All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise . . . no coffee klatch.”

Four years later, Sharpton led a boycott of Freddie’s Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned Harlem clothing store that was seeking to evict a black sub-tenant (possibly at the behest of its African-American landlord). At a series of Sharpton-organized rallies in support of the sub-tenant, the reverend stood by as speakers attacked Jews, and he himself blasted Freddie’s as a “white interloper.” On December 8, 1995, one of the protesters set fire to Freddie’s, killing seven store employees (all minorities).

This is the man whom Democratic leaders from President Obama on down fawn over. And that’s without mentioning his years of tax evasion. If Steven Scalise should go, then Al Sharpton certainly should be driven from public life, too.

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