Hours after the New York attorney general released a scathing report on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D., N.Y.) serial sexual harassment of female subordinates, the tainted "Luv Guv" sought advice from one of the Democratic Party's most influential talking heads.
"Al, I'm telling you this is all a setup," Cuomo reportedly told Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime supporter. "You know setups when you hear them."
Sharpton leveled with his old friend, and refused to publicly defend him against the report's damning allegations. A week later, Cuomo announced his resignation.
In any event, Sharpton would have been too busy to ply his trade on the governor's behalf. The so-called civil rights leader and bon vivant was getting ready to board a private jet to Martha's Vineyard, where he would be among the celebrity attendees at former president Barack Obama's 60th birthday party.
In almost every respect, and in social status and physical stature in particular, the Al Sharpton of 2021 bears little resemblance to the Al Sharpton who, three decades earlier, was schlepping his way through Crown Heights in a shiny tracksuit while inciting one of the worst outbursts of anti-Semitic violence in modern American history.
"Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid," Sharpton fumed in his eulogy for Gavin Cato, a black child accidentally killed by a Jewish driver in August 1991, sparking several days of violent unrest. "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 meetings, no kaffeeklatsch, no skinnin' and grinnin'."
Absent from Sharpton's eulogy was any mention of Yankel Rosenbaum, the 29-year-old Jewish scholar from Australia who, just days earlier, was severely beaten and stabbed to death by a mob of rioters shouting, "Get the Jew!" A banner displayed at the funeral reportedly read, "Hitler did not do the job." More than 150 police officers and 38 civilians were injured in the riots, which caused millions of dollars' worth of property damage. At the time, Sharpton told the New York Times that critics accusing him of anti-Semitism were "trying to turn the victim into the victimizer."
Shortly thereafter, Sharpton would travel to Israel for the stated purpose of serving the Jewish driver with a summons demanding his deposition in a wrongful death lawsuit. Yosef Lifsh, 22, had returned to Israel after a Brooklyn grand jury found no wrongdoing in Cato's death. Sharpton didn't make much of an effort, but succeeded in making a scene despite spending just three hours in the Jewish state. "Go to hell," one woman shouted as the reverend waited for a taxi at Ben-Gurion International Airport. "I already am in hell," Sharpton replied.
Thirty years later, and hundreds of pounds lighter, Sharpton has not offered anything close to an apology for his inciting role in the Crown Heights riots. Nevertheless, he has become a central figure in Democratic Party politics. In deep blue New York City, he is a veritable kingmaker. When Barack Obama was president, few individuals visited the White House more often than Sharpton. A more polished version of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he has hosted his own television show on MSNBC since 2011. During the 2020 Democratic primary, every serious contender made sure to grovel at his throne.
In the midst of that contest in 2019, after President Donald Trump somewhat generously described Sharpton as "a con man, a troublemaker, always looking for a score," the Democratic candidates leapt to the con man's defense. Joe Biden lauded the reverend as "a champion in the fight for civil rights," before insisting that "hate has no place in our country." His future running mate, Kamala Harris, concurred: Sharpton "has spent his life fighting for what's right and working to improve our nation, even in the face of hate."
In a sane world, describing Sharpton as an enemy of "hate" would be as laughable as describing Andrew Cuomo as a hero of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael Avenatti as a legitimate presidential contender, Bill Clinton as a champion of female empowerment, or Ralph Northam as racial justice pioneer. Such is the world we live in, where simply opposing the Republican Party can absolve shameful actors of any number of sins, at least until they outlive their usefulness.
Crown Heights is hardly the only example of Sharpton's hate-mongering. In 1995, the reverend and his allies agitated against Fred Harari, a Jewish shop owner in Harlem who wanted to evict his black subtenant. "We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business on 125th Street," Sharpton ranted. Months later, a gunman barged into Harari's store and set it on fire, killing seven.
In 1998, Sharpton refused to pay his portion of the $345,000 in damages awarded to Steven Pagones in a defamation trial. Sharpton had falsely accused the former assistant district attorney, among others, of brutally raping 15-year-old Tawana Brawley in 1987. A grand jury concluded, based on "overwhelming evidence," that Brawley had fabricated the attack. Sharpton's brazen efforts to sensationalize the case were aided by the likes of anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan and actual rapist Bill Cosby.
Sharpton would go on to become a respected member of elite society, while Farrakhan and Cosby were rightfully ostracized (for the most part), an outcome that defies rational explanation. As Crown Heights burned in August 1991, for example, the then-director of the Anti-Defamation League told the Times, "Anti-Semitism is all over the place in Crown Heights. It is ugly, it is crude, it is classical and it is deadly. And the fact that it is American and it is black should not make it invisible or tolerable."
In June 2020, the Anti-Defamation League, under the direction of respectable liberal Jonathan Greenblatt, teamed up with Sharpton to pressure Facebook to ban so-called hate speech on its platform. It was yet another example of Sharpton's preposterous resurrection, fueled by a series of failed runs for federal office, including a presidential campaign in 2004, which he parlayed into a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention.
Even then, Democratic candidates were too craven to denounce even Sharpton's most vitriolic remarks and conduct. Now he is fully embraced as a crusader against hate, a fitting ally in the Democratic Party's (and to the extent there is a difference, corporate America's) quest to racialize every aspect of our politics and culture. Anti-Semitism, meanwhile, is thriving. Violent attacks on Jews are on the rise, yet Democratic politicians are reluctant to condemn the likes of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.). Corporations remain silent, or in some cases openly engage in anti-Semitic activism.
Respectable liberals, so to speak, take immense pleasure in believing that someone like Donald Trump, an obnoxious bigot who literally incited a riot, who refuses to apologize for anything or pay his fair share in taxes, would never be accepted among their ranks, much less become an influential figure. Respectable liberal Al Sharpton would surely agree.