Wednesday, August 17, 2011

George's Greatest Hits: "Harlem Rally, Through Cop's Eyes" (originally published in the New York Daily News, Wednesday, September 16, 1998)

Introduction:  This past Saturday--August 13th, 2011--I had the occasion in my professional capacity to make the scene at an event in Harlem billed as the "Million Youth Rally."  A long stretch of Lenox Avenue had been reserved for the million youths--from the stage at around 112th Street all the way up to 125th, the authorities were ready with rows of metal barricades to close as many blocks as necessary to accommodate the crowds.

But despite the inclusion of a few crowd-pleasers--poet Amiri Baraka recited his vaguely anti-Semitic poem about 9/11, with sax backing, and Louis Farrakhan himself closed the show with a rambling speech about Libya--the entire audience barely filled a block or two.

Perhaps the low turnout can be blamed on the absence of Al Sharpton--guarding his newly-won mainstream credibility as a mother wolf guards her cubs, he was nowhere to be found.

Nonetheless, I couldn't help but reminisce with a sort of warm nostalgia about the original Million Youth March, at the very same location, in September of 1998.  Now that was the real deal.  It had it all--Sharpton; huge crowds; hours of racist and anti-Semitic speeches; the late Khalid Abdul Muhammad whipping everyone up to a froth; and the oppressive sense of imminent violence.  And me, who wrote this swell piece in the New York Daily News (Wednesday, September 16, 1998) about the whole thing.

-George Molé

Harlem Rally, Through Cop's Eyes

by George Molé

New York Daily News
Wednesday, September 16, 1998

Recently, I stood with a group of my fellow police officers on Lenox Ave. in Harlem at the controversial rally known as the Million Youth March and listened as Khalid Abdul Muhammad told the crowds that surrounded us to kill us.

Soon after, the rotors of police helicopters made a cleansing wind that blew Muhammad’s foul words from the New York streets.

Cops turned off the sound system and cleared the stage, and the rally was over—at just the time a court had said it must end.

Some have claimed that, despite the court order to end at 4 p.m., the NYPD was overzealous in bringing the rally to a close when it did—that the event was peaceful and should have been allowed to continue.

As one who was there, I disagree.

Although I was not involved in the fracas near the stage and had no hand in planning the Police Department’s actions, I was stationed in the thickest part of the crowd and felt the tension build as Muhammad’s call to arms began to resonate with many of his listeners.  For the safety of everyone present—cops and spectators—the event had to end when it did.

For most of the day the rally had indeed been peaceful.  Much of the language coming from the stage was ignorant and ugly, but the ideas expressed at a rally are not a cop’s business—as long as everyone is safe.  None of the speakers was urging immediate violence, and the spectators were largely orderly.

The mood changed when Khalid Muhammad took the stage.  With rolling cadences that a benevolent clergyman might use to express faith in God or to comfort the oppressed, he urged his listeners to assault and kill cops.  To “disconnect the railing…and beat the hell out of them.”  To “take their nightsticks…and ram it up their behinds and jam it down their damn throats.”  And to “take their goddamn guns from them and use their guns on them.”

Every exhortation contained a conditional phrase designed to allow Muhammad to sound militant to his audience, yet escape criminal liability (a strategy that will not work if those who examine the case exhibit any common sense).  Only brutalize or murder a cop “if they attack you,” he would say.

But what legitimate action by a police officer might a hostile crowd, brought to a boil by a hypnotic speaker, choose to call an “attack”?  The making of a valid arrest, the issuing of a summons—indeed, even a cop asking someone to exit in this direction instead of that one—might have become an occasion for conflict that left someone hurt.

It was not hard to see as Muhammad spoke that his message was being received by many with enthusiasm.  Fists pumped in the air, and glares and curses came our way.

Would the crowd have erupted into violence?  I don’t know.  But history teaches that evil words, persuasively spoken, can cause people to do things they otherwise would not.

When cops stand for many hours in the sun surrounded by people who profess to hate them, they often talk to each other to pass the time.

I spoke for a while with a female officer of Hispanic descent I know, a single mother of two who is also raising her younger brother.  At one point she said, looking around, her voice sad, “I don’t believe in all this race stuff.  I think we’re all just people.”

When Muhammad told his listeners to kill cops, he was telling them to kill her.  Because there is no abstract entity called “cops.”  Just people.

But she went home safe.  As did all the misguided people who came out for Muhammad’s hate rally.

Because, thank God, the law, and not Muhammad, was in control that day.

Molé is an NYPD sergeant and writer.

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