Wisdom of the World
September 7, 1998


The Overview: Giuliani and Organizers Clash Over Rally

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    NEW YORK -- Mayor Rudolph Giuliani stepped up his defense Sunday of police officers who stormed the stage at a youth rally in Harlem on Saturday, saying that they had decided to move in only after the keynote speaker began urging the crowd to "riot and murder."

    Tensions about the rally's abrupt ending mounted Sunday, with the organizers and community leaders in Harlem accusing the city of using excessive force to shut down what had been a peaceful event.

    They threatened to sue the city, saying the police had defied a court order permitting the rally and had violated the civil rights of thousands of participants.

    Giuliani has given several explanations for the police action. Early Sunday, he said at a news conference that organizers had flouted a "sacred" court order by going past a 4 p.m. deadline.

    "If you want to know why the police came in at 4:01, go read the court order," Giuliani said. "This is all about creating a respectful society. The court said they had between 12 and 4; it meant exactly that."

    But on Saturday, just before the rally, the mayor had said that the police would allow "some reasonable flexibility" in ending the rally at 4 p.m.

    And in a call to a reporter Sunday night, he said that the police would indeed have allowed the event to run late, if the chief organizer, Khallidun Abdul Muhammad, had not begun inveighing against the officers in a speech laced with obscenity and anti-Semitic slurs.

    "They were quite prepared to be more flexible, but when the speech turned to incitement to riot and murder, they closed down the event," Giuliani said. "I had given them the discretion to make that determination."

    Shortly before 4 p.m. on Saturday, as dozens of officers in riot gear assembled behind the stage, Muhammad told the crowd to gird themselves for possible attacks by the police. If attacked by officers, he said, members of the crowd should "take their guns away and use their guns in self-defense."

    Just as Muhammad was finishing his five-minute speech, a police helicopter swooped low over a section of Lenox Avenue known as Malcolm X Boulevard, where a crowd estimated by the police at 6,000 had assembled for the rally. Officers climbed onto the stage, ducking thrown bottles and chairs as they shut down the sound system.

    One civilian was injured as the crowd was dispersed, but not seriously. About 15 police officers also received minor injuries.

    Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir said after the rally that they wanted Muhammad to be charged with inciting to riot. Although they said so again Sunday, no charges had been pressed by Sunday night. Muhammad seemed to have disappeared from the city, and neither his aides nor his son, Farrakhan, who attended an afternoon news conference held by some of the rally organizers, would disclose his whereabouts.

    But at that news conference, several organizers said they hoped to sue the city for violating their constitutional rights to gather in public, and for holding their event to a different standard from that of the hundreds of other rallies that take place on city streets each year. And in Harlem, several elected officials said they would call for an investigation of whether police officers at the rally had complied with the city's rules for dispersing crowds.

    "If anybody should be prosecuted, it should be Mayor Giuliani and the police officers who engaged in criminal conduct," Michael Warren, a lawyer for the rally organizers, said at a news conference in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. "We must go back to court to challenge the propriety and the manner in which the police dealt with our people in Harlem yesterday."

    The rally on Saturday culminated a monthslong battle between organizers and the city. The city had denied the organizers' request for a rally in Harlem on Labor Day weekend, saying the neighborhood could not safely accommodate the one million people that the organizers originally predicted would attend. It offered an alternative time and location.

    The mayor repeatedly condemned the rally as a "hate march," while the organizers complained that he was violating their constitutional rights to free speech and used increasingly strident, antiwhite invective against him.

    Finally, a three-judge panel for 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found last week that the organizers had a right to hold a rally but not to dictate the terms of the gathering.

    After a lawyer for the organizers acknowledged that they expected only 50,000 people, the panel narrowed the rally, from 12 hours and 29 blocks to just four hours and six blocks. Community leaders, who in recent weeks have walked a fine line between denouncing Muhammad's racist statements and acknowledging his right to free speech, said Sunday that they were disgusted by his remarks at the rally, in which he called Jews "bloodsuckers" and encouraged the crowd to beat police officers with wooden barricades if the officers assaulted anyone.

    But State Sen. David Paterson and several other elected officials from Harlem said they found the actions of the police on Saturday even more appalling. "We've been calling the organizers irresponsible for the last month," Paterson said. "We wouldn't expect anything different from Mr. Muhammad. The shocking thing was the fact that the police stormed the tranquil crowd."

    The Rev. Al Sharpton also lashed out at Giuliani and the police Sunday, questioning why the police had not allowed a "grace period" of several minutes before shutting the rally down.

    "It was a total irresponsible, juvenile action to allow someone to move to that level of escalation at that stage of the game," Sharpton said. "The march was over, Khallid Muhammad was walking off the stage, there was no longer a threat of danger."

    Other community leaders said the aggressive police action had the unfortunate effect of making Harlem residents more angry at the city than at Muhammad and others who spewed invective at the rally.

    "If it had ended in peace, maybe the focus would have been totally on the language," said Bill Perkins, a City Councilman from Harlem. "Since the day ended in violence, the violence is the focus. The police are the focus."

    City Council Speaker Peter Vallone was one of the only public officials who made a point of defending the police force Sunday. A Democrat who is running for governor, Vallone said during a debate Sunday that the police "handled themselves very, very well."

    "I think that he could have and should have been arrested on the spot," Vallone said of Muhammad. "Calling for violence like that is absolutely outrageous."

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