When I first heard that President Trump had gone after the Rev. Al Sharpton — and that Mr. Sharpton had responded in kind — I must admit that I laughed. Are there two New York City hustlers who deserve one another more?
But 48 hours later, I feel differently. That’s thanks to the leading Democratic candidates for president, who have rushed to Mr. Sharpton’s defense, extolling his supposed virtues as a civil-rights paragon while denouncing Mr. Trump’s attack as racist. In doing so, they have, yet again, taken Mr. Trump’s bait, handing him another easy victory while yoking themselves to a genuine bigot.
To read their tweets, you would think Mr. Sharpton was Gandhi-esque. “@TheRevAl has dedicated his life to the fight for justice for all. No amount of racist tweets from the man in the White House will erase that — and we must not let them divide us. I stand with my friend Al Sharpton in calling out these ongoing attacks on people of color,” wrote Elizabeth Warren. Kamala Harris praisedSharpton as a man who has “spent his life fighting for what’s right.” Joe Biden agreed, lauding the reverend as “a champion in the fight for civil rights.”
The problem for Democrats is that Al Sharpton actually is, as Mr. Trump put it on Twitter, “a con man.” And not just a con man: Mr. Sharpton is an ambulance-chasing, anti-Semitic, anti-white race hustler. His history of offensive statements is longer than the current American president’s. And Mr. Sharpton’s worst sin — his blatant incitement to violence during the Crown Heights riots of 1991 — leaves no doubt that he is not a leader, as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio described him, who has spent his years “pushing for justice in the teachings of Dr. King.”
Mr. Sharpton came onto the national scene in 1987, during what is now known as the Tawana Brawley affair. On Nov. 28 of that year, a 15-year-old black girl was found lying in a garbage bag, smeared with feces, with various racial slurs and epithets written in charcoal on her body. She said that she’d been raped by six white men and that two were law-enforcement officials. Mr. Sharpton relentlessly championed her cause. And yet, after seven months of examining police and medical records, a grand jury found “overwhelming evidence” that Ms. Brawley had fabricated her entire story.
Yet Mr. Sharpton proceeded to accuse the prosecutor, Steven Pagones, of being one of the perpetrators of the alleged abduction and rape. Mr. Sharpton was successfully sued (along with Ms. Brawley’s lawyers, Anthony H. Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason Sr.) for defamation. The jury in this civil action found Mr. Sharpton liable for making seven defamatory statements about Mr. Pagones, whose life fell apart as a result of the entire episode. Mr. Sharpton refused to pay his share of damages, which was later paid by a number of his supporters, and he has refused to apologize.
In August 1991, after an automobile accident involving the motorcade of a Hasidic rabbi accidentally killed a black child, riots broke out in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Much of the press portrayed it as a kind of cultural clash between the black and Jewish communities, but it was described accurately by the Times columnist, A.M. Rosenthal, as a “pogrom.”
Following the death of the boy, Gavin Cato, hundreds of black men took to the streets. Within hours of the accident, 20 young black men surrounded Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Australian yeshiva student visiting the United States to conduct research for his doctorate. They stabbed him several times in the back and beat him. He subsequently died of his injuries. The rioting continued for three days, leaving 152 police officers and 38 civilians injured. At least 122 blacks and seven whites were arrested.
Amid this unrest, Mr. Sharpton led hundreds of protesters on a march in front of the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. During his remarks at Gavin Cato’s funeral, at which there was a banner declaring, “Hitler did not do the job,” Mr. Sharpton let loose with a eulogy blaming “the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights,” and insisted that “the issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid.” He continued: “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’. Pay for your deeds.”
Four years later, Mr. Sharpton incited violence again. In 1995, Fred Harari, a Jewish tenant of a retail property on 125th Street who operated Freddy’s Fashion Mart, sought to evict his longtime subtenant, a black-owned record store called the Record Shack. Beginning that August, Mr. Sharpton led a series of marches against the planned eviction. Protesters led by Mr. Sharpton’s National Action Network picketed outside the store day after day, referring to Jews as “bloodsuckers” and threatening, “We’re going to burn and loot the Jews.” At one point Mr. Sharpton told protesters, “We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business.” Never mind that the building was actually owned by a black Pentecostal church.
Then, on Dec. 8, 1995, a protester named Roland J. Smith Jr. entered Mr. Harari’s store, told all the black customers to leave, shot several remaining customers and set the store on fire. The gunman fatally shot himself, and seven store employees died of smoke inhalation.