September 6, 1998

Mixed Message Is Put Forward in Harlem Rally


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    NEW YORK -- With a turnout far smaller than organizers had hoped, and with police officers lining every block, Harlem served as host Saturday to a black youth rally that galvanized some with its calls for unity and alienated others with the anti-white, antisemitic message of its chief organizer, Khallid Abdul Muhammad.

    Several thousand people flowed past the clusters of police officers everywhere to convene at Malcolm X Boulevard and West 118th Street, where a large stage had been erected overnight. They chanted "Black Power," waved black nationalist flags and taunted police officers for limiting pedestrian traffic on some streets with shouts of "These are our streets!"

    Within the first 30 minutes of speeches from the stage, the crowds -- which appeared to be closer to 20,000 than the 50,000 organizers had predicted -- received the kind of mixed message that has disturbed Harlem's political leaders and prompted Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to denounce the rally, called the Million Youth March, as a "hate march."

    First, a young boy identified as Little Brother Damien of the Harlem Boys Choir urged understanding between generations of black people: "We've got to change the way we treat our mothers and fathers and the ways our mothers and fathers treat their sons and daughters."

    The boy's plea received prolonged applause. Then another speaker introduced Malik Zulu Shabazz, a lawyer and close aide to Muhammad, as the man who "gave Jews hell in the newspapers."

    "I don't care that you call yourself Crip, I don't care that you call yourself Blood," Shabazz said, referring to some of the prominent gangs that had been invited to the rally. "You are the chosen people of God. I don't care what the Jews say. You are the only people who have been in bondage for over 400 years."

    Shabazz also ridiculed Giuliani, whose administration had tried to thwart the event, and whose unpopularity among some in the crowd was evident in a sign being waved near the stage. "Waste Nazi Giuliani," it said.

    " Giuliani," Shabazz said, "you have no power over your former slaves."

    Giuliani, who spent the morning at the Latin-American Little League World Series in Brooklyn, expressed only delight that as of early Saturday afternoon, the rally was significantly smaller than its organizers had hoped and appeared to be generally peaceful.

    "What it shows me is that our strategy has worked," Giuliani said. "The 'Million Person March' is going to be some infinitesimal percentage of that 'million person.' " He went on, "I think most kids in New York City -- white, black, Hispanic, Asian, whatever the group -- they'd rather play baseball today than march under the banner of a hater."

    Saturday's event culminated a monthslong quarrel between organizers and the city. The ostensible question centered on the rights to the use of the streets of Harlem, but an undercurrent of racial tension has flowed through the dispute. For the last several weeks, the mayor has denounced the rally as a "hate march" while Muhammad has demonstrated his ability to espouse anti-white sentiments in the engaging cadences of a preacher.

    Two city councilmen from Harlem, Stanley Michels and Guillermo Linares, attended the rally and branded it a failure.

    "The turnout here today is clearly a rejection of what Khallid Muhammad has said and the racism he stands for," Michels said. Part of the reason the rally's organizers failed, he said, is that they went around elected officials -- even to the point of insulting them.

    "There is no way it could have been a success even if they had approached us," he said. "The message they represent would have still spelled failure."

    Linares concurred. "To the credit of this community, they understand the difference between a positive message and racism," he said.

    But state Sen. David Paterson and other Harlem officials were clearly more anxious about the possibility of a clash between the police and the participants. Early Saturday morning they sent out more than 500 volunteers -- some wearing shirts saying "Harlem Community Observer" -- to act as mediators and to direct people who needed help finding bathrooms and water.

    By early afternoon, Paterson was in his office on West 125th Street, receiving reports from the field -- and he was not happy about what he was hearing.

    "They're exhorting the crowd to violence, which is barbaric and just inhuman," he said. "There's a large gathering of young people. Many of them feel intimidated and harassed by the full deployment of police. Given that intimidation, for the speakers to be advocating the shooting of white people is loathsome. And yet my feeling is that this visible presence of police artillery has in many senses provoked the crowd.

    "I feel that the marchers have been caught between this firestorm of force vs. inflammatory rhetoric. And I just pray that the gathering will disperse peacefully."

    Many of those attending the rally were clearly angry about how the police were handling things,

    "It's the million cop march, not the million youth march," said Michael White, 36, who lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. "All the police are on the inside, we're all on the outside. It shouldn't be like that."

    LeShea Brown, 19, said police officers stopped her at 121st Street and Fifth Avenue and said she would have to turn around unless she could show that she lived in the area.

    "I had to lie," she said. "I had to cry and lie just to walk through my own community. I pay taxes here. It's not fair for Giuliani to treat us this way. You can't tell me that any of this would happen if this were the St. Patrick's Day parade."

    The dispute between the city and the rally organizers began in January, when organizers filed vague plans for a Million Youth March, somewhere in the city, on Sept. 19. But as the months passed, those vague plans evolved into a formal request for a 12-hour event on Sept. 5 -- the first day of the Labor Day weekend -- for 29 blocks stretching up Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem.

    The city denied the request, saying it would cause excessive congestion at a time when the city's complement of police officers was already stretched thin by vacations and other weekend events. It suggested Sept. 19 as an alternative time, and Randalls Island and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx as alternative locations. Shortly afterward, Muhammad suggested that he would hold the event with or without a permit, and raised the possibility that gang members who attend the event might, if provoked, resort to violence.

    At this point, what had been a quiet debate between the city and the organizers became public, surprising many in Harlem who had no idea that their community was being considered as the site of a large rally. The neighborhood's political leaders criticized Muhammad for speaking of black unity while also failing to tell Harlem of his plans. They said he had placed them in the awkward position of supporting the empowerment of black youth -- the stated purpose of the rally -- while decrying the leader's antisemitic, anti-white message.

    But Harlem's leaders also complained that the mayor had not kept them apprised, which they said reflected his poor relations with the city's black community. And they said that by mixing the denial of the permit with his denunciation of Muhammad as a hate-monger, Giuliani had failed to recognize the complexities posed by the situation, and had only aggravated tensions.

    The mayor's standard response to this charge was that he could not separate the message from the messenger, a point he shared again on Friday. "We're hopeful that most people will make the point that they're against hatred and they will not separate the leader from the march and therefore not join in the march and therefore not march under the banner of anti-white, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic hatred, anti-anything-else hatred."

    Late last month, the organizers filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District in Manhattan, arguing that the city's denial of their permit had denied their constitutional rights to free speech. A federal judge eventually agreed, and suggested in his ruling that the city had the wherewithal to handle the 12-hour, 29-block march.

    But last week a three-judge panel for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals drastically reduced the scope of the planned rally, saying that while the organizers have a constitutional right to demonstrate, they do not have a right to dictate to the city the terms of such a gathering. After a lawyer for the organizers acknowledged that they expected only 50,000 people to attend -- rather than the 1 million to 3 million originally touted -- the panel narrowed the rally to just four hours, and only six blocks.

    That decision left both the city and the organizers declaring victory and promising to cooperate. But in the days leading to the event, the organizers declined to reveal pertinent information about the rally to anyone, including city officials, who complained that misleading information about the event was still being circulated on Friday.

    The mystery ended Friday morning, with the sight of the stage looming over a corner of Malcolm X Boulevard that reflects the struggles of the Harlem community. To the west of the stage were two apartment buildings: one had blooming potted plants visible from the windows; the other was mostly abandoned, with six stories of boarded-up windows.

    Participants included hundreds of people who identified themselves as members of various organizations: the Youth for Social Change, from Durham, N.C.; the Workfare Workers; the Black Latin Association of the Bronx. Its leader had a grenade strapped to his shirt. He declined to say whether it was live.

    Jamille Jones, 17, of Newark, who had joined 50 other people in taking the PATH train from New Jersey and then the A train to Harlem, wore a black beret and pins depicting black panthers. He spoke admiringly of Muhammad.

    "He doesn't hold his tongue," the young man said. "He tells it like it is, about what they're doing to us. He's filling our anger."

    When asked whether he was bothered by Muhammad's antisemitic rhetoric, Jones said:

    "You mean, calling the Jews 'bloodsuckers'? Well, maybe they should analyze it, and think, 'Why is he calling us bloodsuckers?' "

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