Al Sharpton and the Rise of Angry Liberals 

As the New York civil rights leader runs not for the presidency but for the mantle once claimed by Jesse Jackson, he provides a glimpse of progressive anger.

It's not every day you meet a white man standing in the heart of Oakland's toughest neighborhood, proclaiming that the nation's most prominent African-American leader is quietly plotting the genocide of the black race. But that's just what Don Grundmann was doing at a noisy, ragged street corner on December 11, just outside the Allen Temple Baptist Church on 85th Avenue. Amid the stray dogs and hard men who wandered between liquor stores, he stood dressed in a modest gray suit and handed out fliers accusing the Reverend Al Sharpton of using abortion to wipe black people from the face of the earth.

"Al Sharpton and Carol Braun are liars & fakes who are helping white racists to destroy the black community," the flier read. "Please rebuke Al Sharpton and Carol Braun for their evil actions against the black community and humanity as a whole!" Grundmann wasn't just here on a whim; while he pestered the crowd filing into the church, Sharpton was somewhere inside, getting ready to urge potential voters to put him in the Oval Office. As the faithful did their best to ignore Grundmann, his antics began to try their patience, and a security guard lost his cool. "Was you doing that when Bush was taking office too?" he snapped. "When Bush was taking office, was you doing that?"

Inside the gym at the church's Family Life Center, campaign workers culled the herd of people like Grundmann -- after all, there was room for only one eccentric crusader on the bill tonight. Hundreds of people milled beneath the fluorescent lights, from well-dressed African-American men to Quakerish white spinsters. They had come to hear the good reverend conduct the latest in a string of absurdly improbable campaigns for higher office -- two for a Senate seat, one for mayor of New York, and now for Democratic candidate for president. And none of the punch lines that follow Sharpton around the country were on their minds this evening. In an era when a throwaway line about the South's Good Old Days can cost you your position as Senate majority leader, Sharpton's ability to weather scandal after tawdry scandal continues to amaze. Not even his antigentrification campaign of 1995, in which his rhetoric about "white interlopers" may have inspired a protester to burn down a Jewish clothing store and kill eight people, has tarnished his reputation among die-hard supporters. Now, as Jesse Jackson fades from the scene, Sharpton is using his latest campaign to inherit Jackson's mantle as the nation's moral leader on civil rights. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have crawled out of a gin bottle long enough to declare that "there are no second acts in American lives," but he never met Al Sharpton.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who organized Sharpton's appearance and bathed in the giddy applause as she accompanied him onstage, billed the event as a dispassionate forum to discuss burning issues of the day. But from the invocation by Nation of Islam minister Keith Muhammad to the opening gospel tune, the program was more tent revival than political discussion. Lee, Muhammad, and Allen Temple Pastor J. Alfred Smith may have sat onstage, but they were just window dressing; the night belonged to Sharpton. Still, "moderator" and talk-show host Ray Taliaferro couldn't quite bring himself to endorse Sharpton, either. "In ten months and 22 days, we have an election," Taliaferro boomed in a voice honed by years of secular sermonizing. "That's the election where we will elect someone with decency, intelligence, with caring, with a patriotic sense of what this country's all about, to replace the person we have in the Oval Office today!" As the crowd leaped to its feet and cheered, barely anyone seemed to care that Sharpton, who sat three feet away and clapped perfunctorily, will never be that someone.

That was the elephant stalking about the room: Al Sharpton can't win. In fact, Sharpton has built a career out of not winning; every time he does better than expected, New York Democratic pols have to court him all the more to get out the black vote. But these people didn't come out to advance the career of a Bed-Stuy kingmaker -- they came to believe in something. These were people who have been left out in the cold like no others, thanks to years of Democratic Leadership Council strategizing, a Florida vote heist based on striking thousands of African Americans from the rolls of eligible voters, and a maddeningly slim margin of Republican victory in Congress. Now, as Sharpton ascended to the podium, they strained to find hope in what he said, to look past his cynical history and focus on the message.

Sharpton seemed to acknowledge this in his very first remarks. He swayed from side to side in his three-piece suit, mimicking the cadence of his words, and his eyes flared and swept over the heads of his audience, as he declared that this election was so much bigger than Al Sharpton. "This is not about who you elect!" he barked. "This is about what you believe in! We are engaged, on the domestic front, in a nonmilitary civil war. It began with the recount in Florida, it went from there to the redistricting in Texas, it went from there to the recall here in California. From recount to the redistricting to the recall, all to reject the principles of a democratic process in this country!"


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