In the early hours of Tuesday, July 27, 2004, I made my way out of the secure perimeter of the Democratic National Convention in Boston and toward the 7-Eleven just outside the fence, the last place to buy a liter of Coke for a long writing night.
As I approached, I saw what seemed like news: two white Boston police officers, one small and one tall, frog-marching the Rev. Al Sharpton out of the convenience store.
“You got me shoplifting!” Sharpton yelled, and I thought I had a story.
Then the police officers snapped photographs, they thanked the activist for playing along, everyone started laughing, and Sharpton waved his pink Tropicana Smoothie as a trophy. “He’s a funny bastard,” one of the cops said.
I wrote the story up, and have thought of it since as a kind of sad one. Sharpton had run for president that year, and he lit up the debates. He gave a genuinely gorgeous convention speech, little remarked on then or since, about listening to Ray Charles sing “America the Beautiful.”
And yet in the early hours of that Tuesday, there was Sharpton as New Yorkers like me had always known him. A more familiar character — a raspy-voiced, messy, and mischievous urban figure, the radical foe of the police yet game to goof around with them. He was simultaneously iconic and somehow harmless.
And it wasn’t to be Sharpton’s convention. That Tuesday would be remembered in politics for the debut of a junior Illinois senator named Barack Obama, who delivered his breakout convention speech bringing together black and white, red and blue, the dawning of a new post-racial American politics. Al Sharpton and his ilk were brushed off into history.
I had asked to spend some time with Sharpton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia after I recalled that moment in Boston 12 years earlier, and how wrong I’d been to write him off then. I was hardly alone at the time. In 2008, Obama won the Iowa caucuses, and the former Reagan aide and CNN commentator Bill Bennett, watching the returns come in, brought up Sharpton. Obama “has taught the black community you don't have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don't have to act like Al Sharpton,” he said.
“I was like, out of all the things happening, why did he pick me?” Sharpton recalled. “And then we went into this whole media thing. We were in a post-racial generation.” He said the word with a wry emphasis: post-racial. Well, that didn’t happen. He concluded: “I think that people underestimated.”
What people underestimated was the enduring heat of American racial conflict, its deep roots, its ongoing violence, its flawed protagonists. But Obama’s first term and its half-forgotten racially charged incidents — the beer summit, the Shirley Sherrod tapes — reminded even optimists that the first black president wouldn’t be able to wave the stories away. Sharpton was not surprised; nor, he said, was Obama, who never distanced himself from the New York preacher.
“The president understood more than a lot of others,” Sharpton told me.
Sharpton has spent his career reading his obituary. A child preacher, a James Brown protégé, he never fit neatly into political categories. He was lampooned in Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987. He was supposed to be done, finally, in the late 1980s when he championed a young woman, Tawana Brawley, who claimed — falsely, it turned out — to have been sexually assaulted by white cops. His role defending the (later vindicated) alleged Central Park jogger rapists brought the tabloid outrage to fever pitch. But he was always more in control of the narrative than it appeared. As Amsterdam News publisher Wilbert Tatum told an impressed Joan Didion in 1991, “Al is probably the most brilliant tactician this country has ever produced.”
“I’ve been buried politically since I started. Howard Beach was ’86, 30 years ago. With Mario. I’m on my second Cuomo,” Sharpton told me when I saw him in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago.
But Sharpton survived the racially polarized Giuliani years, and he survived the post-racial fantasies of the early Obama years. Now it’s the intense and explicit new racial politics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement — and a wave of commentary has reduced him to a member of the faded old guard.
Sharpton met me in Philadelphia at the Hilton, where his National Action Network was about to host a marathon of speeches and sermons on voting rights, police brutality, and the election, on the sidelines of the Democratic National Convention. The Delaware River was behind him, and his longtime lawyer, Michael Hardy, was slouched at the round table. The luncheon was set to start just as I walked into the room around noon, but Sharpton has always made time for the press.
As an older crowd, heavy on clergy, gathered in the ballroom down the hall, I asked Sharpton to think back to that convention in Boston 12 years earlier, and how he wound up there. Sharpton told me he ran for president in 2004 for a couple of reasons. He wanted to stop the “drift toward triangulation” and pull the party left. Moreover, he "couldn’t believe there wasn’t going to be a black in the race” — in the Democratic Party, in 2004. In the end, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun ran too, and Sharpton didn’t galvanize black voters. And Howard Dean got credit for pulling the party left; Sharpton played his wittier sidekick.
His presidential run was not itself a triumph. He won 27 delegates and wound up a historical footnote. He faced accusations that an unconventional campaign adviser, Republican Roger Stone, had orchestrated the whole thing as a dirty trick, which Sharpton dismisses. Stone — a longtime Trump retainer — is “just anti-establishment,” he said, and Sharpton wound up campaigning loyally for John Kerry. The campaign ended, as other Stone ventures have, in a particularly messy kind of defeat. Sharpton spent the next five years under investigation by the Federal Elections Commission for spending undisclosed money on his campaign and mixing nonprofit and campaign funds; in 2009, he and the campaign paid $285,000 to settle the case.
But the campaign changed Sharpton’s own trajectory. He won every debate with his flexible wit and quips, which were viral one cycle before that was the name of the game. Bush’s tax cuts were “like Jim Jones giving Kool-Aid. It tastes good, but it will kill you.”
“It changed my life and changed my career,” he said. “It made a lot of people that considered me controversial say, ‘I’m watching the debates. I may not agree with you, but I don’t think you’re that extreme.’ I think it got me past the 30-second sound bite and the caricatures. It became more difficult for people to be dismissive on a national level.” Pretty soon came the ultimate validation of arrival into the political elite: “George Bush started inviting me to stuff.”
Sharpton also followed the increasingly common path from being a canny media subject to being a media professional. (Who’s ready for Trump TV?) In 2005, the black radio magnate Cathy Hughes, who owns Radio One, signed him to do a talk show, which has aired around the country since then from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday in dozens of markets, which in turn put him on course for a show on MSNBC.
His narrow but continuous presence has given a grassroots constancy of a sort that few national figures can match. As he stood proudly to the right of the podium at the Hilton, one Texas pastor said that he watched Sharpton’s PoliticsNation Sunday mornings to make sure he’d have smart things to say to his congregation.
Sharpton remains only an ambivalently national figure, however. There were only two politicians seated at his table at the gathering — the New York state attorney general and the New York City comptroller. He will cheerfully gossip at length about an Upper West Side state Senate race. Sharpton’s media relationships, too, are deeply New York — something that was, perhaps, as much of an asset as a liability as a generation of New York political reporters ascended the national press. He recalled to me that when Maggie Haberman, now the dominant New York Times political reporter, was a young New York Post reporter, she’d call him to berate him when he gave scoops to her rivals. He said he’ll probably have to give her the news when he endorses Clinton.
After the gathering at the Hilton, I left with Sharpton and his small entourage — his lawyer, Michael Hardy; his national field director, Rev. De-Ves Toon; and a mild, hulking security guy — in the usual politician’s SUV. Sharpton has a handful of young staffers helping with this and that, but he isn’t quite the personal assistant type. He pulled a grimy wire out of his briefcase to charge his phone so he could check Instagram, his favored social network.
Sharpton is broadly at home in the new media. At the Hilton, he pointedly told the ministers present that they should be tweeting, not handing out fliers. His morning routine begins a bit after 5:00 with Huffington Post, Politico, Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, and Salon, followed by a set of black sites — The Root, theGrio, News One. “Then I read the papers in the car,” he said, though his daughters tell him, “People aren’t reading newspapers anymore, you look old!”
He prides himself on his nearly 500,000 Twitter followers, but he’s not in the hashtag game and doesn’t really engage on the platform that has been central to a new black civil rights movement. And he has an ambivalent relationship with the new generation of organizers loosely affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, who have driven a wave of progress and outrage on the police brutality fights he’s spent his career on. He’s faced suspicion, and occasional confrontation. In 2014, one of the most prominent protesters and now a leading figure in the movement, Johnetta Elzie, seized the stage at a Washington, D.C. rally Sharpton arranged. Some of the younger activists who favor direct action see him, as one close watcher of the movement told me, "as a relic and an opportunist." (Sharpton, of course, used to be seen as a violent radical; he lost much of his once iconic weight during the three months he spent in jail to protest the test bombing of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in 2001.)
Sharpton took an oblique shot at the movement from the podium of his Philadelphia gathering: “You don't have a confrontation because you're a confrontation freak," he told the approving crowd.
Sharpton told me he admires and talks to some of the Black Lives Matter activists, including DeRay Mckesson, whom he sees as goal-oriented; others he thinks are more like Occupy Wall Street, protesters without a cause or a clear trajectory. The split reminds him of his own youth at Brooklyn’s Samuel J. Tilden High School, where “all my friends … were in the black nationalist organizations, the Black Panther Party.” Sharpton was, he says, seen as a moderate, aligned with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Operation Breadbasket.
“I could hardly get a date because all the fine girls in school were all a lot more radical,” he said.
And so he’s not troubled by the new narrative. He has his broad media base. Regular people, he notes, recognize him in the street. The idea of a generational conflict is “media, and not understanding the culture.”
“Do you think a young extremist could have walked in that room today and anybody would have done anything but tell them to sit down and shut up?” he asked, referring to the room full of pastors and established officials — from Rep. John Conyers to Urban League President Marc Morial — at his luncheon in Philadelphia. “Name me anybody else with that kind of reach and visibility on a daily and weekly basis. Which is why I can call a march and get thousands right away. I talk to them every day. I don’t have to gear up.”
We were supposed to be headed for the Wells Fargo Arena, but instead wound unpredictably away from the river, destination unknown. The SUV pulled up in front of a modest cigar shop — I was told it was Philadelphia’s second-nicest — offering Sharpton a break and a chance to indulge a habit he modeled on Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the legendary Harlem congressman.
It’s a habit that brings him into contact with an unpredictable group of people. In the back room at SJ Cigars, we could hear an older white man explain to Hardy his theory that Edward Snowden had hacked the DNC. The man came around a divider to see Sharpton, and to admit he’d liked him since seeing him on The Morton Downey Jr. Show in the 1980s.
“You’re lookin’ excellent. You look better than you do on TV!” the man said.
“Well, you’re kinda cute yourself. Who are you votin’ for?” Sharpton asked.
“If you were running, I’d vote for you.”
In New York, sometimes it’s his old enemy Rudy Giuliani, with whom he’s now cordial. Sometimes it’s Donald Trump’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric, whom he bumps into at the Grand Havana Room in Midtown, where they’re all members. “It’s only hello-goodbye niceties.”
Sharpton’s tolerance — even enjoyment — of ideological adversaries does not extend to Donald Trump, though he recognizes the parallels in their public lives.
“Both of us were outside of the New York power structure,” he reflected. Trump was "a Queens guy," to the Manhattan real estate barons, Sharpton continued, “and I was outside of even the black political structure, a Brooklyn guy, and a civil rights guy that wasn’t a member of the club. And I think that we both figured out how to get past them and to deal with the tabloid-crazed media in New York."
“And there was another similarity: Both of us had a lot of our growing up in New York that was meshed with the entertainment world. So we learned how to use showmanship for something serious,” Sharpton said. That, he said, is where the similarity ends.
“I think the difference is that I was trying to get attention because I really believed in a cause,” Sharpton reflected, after recoiling a bit at the comparison, and noting that his mother, unlike Trump's, was on welfare. "I’ve been in it since I was preadolescent. I think that his cause was him. So he never got the chip off his shoulder, ’cause the chip is him. ‘Y’all rejected me, y’all rejected my dad.’ And it’s revenge."
Sharpton is self-aware enough to understand his own place in the media game, but he sees his role differently than Donald Trump's.
“Mine was, y’all are gonna deal with these issues that the established blacks won’t deal with. So when I sit back and see a black president, when I sit back and see a Geneva Reed-Veal [the mother of Sandra Bland, who died in a jail cell in Texas] stand on the stage at the Democratic Convention, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. Because I did a lot of what I came to do. Y’all gonna deal with these issues."
“I ain’t mad at nobody. He is,” Sharpton concluded. “He will never, ever go to bed and wake up and be the toast of the Regency breakfast room. But I will see police reform laws.”
Then he made his way out of the cigar parlor, pausing for a selfie with the delighted women behind the counter. The rain was falling, so he got in his SUV and headed straight back to New York.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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