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Sharpton Creates Tension in Wake of St. Louis-Area Rioting

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The arrival of Al Sharpton in St. Louis could have been predicted. On Tuesday morning, Sharpton, the New York City-based minister, civil rights leader and media personality, flew into town supposedly to defuse ongoing street violence following the fatal shooting last Saturday by a white police officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri of a local black youth, Michael Brown. As it was revealed days later, Brown very likely had robbed a convenience store, a speculation highly supported by hidden video camera footage. Moreover, Brown had assaulted the arresting officer inside a squad car and tried to grab his gun. Sharpton has demanded that police release the name of the officer and arrest him. Early today, he got his first wish. Hopefully, the cop, Darren Wilson, won’t have to hide for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has ordered State Police to take control of the riot area.

The rioting and looting over several days by black mobs for several days in the streets of Ferguson, a community of a little over 20,000 people in northern suburban St. Louis, rocked the metro area and the nation. Local NAACP leaders claimed that the violence, though unfortunate, was an understandable response to a police execution of an “unarmed” 18-year-old local black youth, Michael Brown. Police say that Brown was a suspect in a robbery of a local convenience store about 15 minutes prior to the shooting. When apprehended, Brown, far from being cooperative, assaulted the unnamed officer inside his police car and allegedly attempted to take the officer’s pistol. Fearing for his life, the cop pulled out his revolver and shot Brown multiple times. Police say this was a case of self-defense.

Brown, formally speaking, was unarmed. But this assertion is almost meaningless. Hundreds of crimes are committed every day in the country without the use of a gun, knife or other weapon. Moreover, Brown, if the police story is correct, was attempting to arm himself by grabbing the officer’s gun. His corpse lay on the street for hours, but the purpose of not removing his body was to process an accurate crime scene report, not to exercise any sadistic impulses.

Certain eyewitnesses tell a different story. One witness, Phillip Walker, said he was on the porch of an apartment complex overlooking the scene when he heard gunfire and saw an officer with Michael Brown on the street. Walker told the Associated Press that Brown “was giving up in the sense of raising his arms and being subdued.” The officer “had his gun raised and started shooting the individual in the chest multiple times” and then, with Brown lying on the pavement wounded, “stood over him and shot him.” Walker admitted that he did not see the circumstances that led to the first shot. Another witness, Dorian Johnson, told KMOV-TV in St. Louis that he and Brown were walking home in the middle of a street from a convenience store when a police officer, from inside his squad car, asked that the pair move to the sidewalk. Johnson and Brown ignored the directive. In response, the officer got out of his vehicle and fired his gun. “We wasn’t causing harm to nobody,” Johnson remarked. “We had no weapons on us at all.” The officer fired a shot, causing the pair to flee. “He shot again, and once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and put his hands in the air, and he started to get down. But the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots.” The attorney for Brown’s family, Benjamin Crump, who had represented the family of Trayvon Martin in Florida, says Brown “was executed in broad daylight.”

These two versions of the story were so divergent that it was impossible to reconcile them. News of the killing quickly spread throughout the neighborhood. Predominantly black crowds gathered in the streets of Ferguson to protest. And the protest continued for several days. While the daytime demonstrations were more or less peaceful, the nighttime demonstrations decidedly were not. In fact, they degenerated into rioting. Any number of overwhelmingly black rioters smashed windows of a number of local businesses, broke into the premises and looted merchandise. St. Louis County Police SWAT teams in riot gear arrived on the scene, firing tear gas canisters at a crowd assembled at a gas station serving as an impromptu riot staging ground. Officers marched in their direction of the rioters, ordering them, and reporters filming the events, to disperse. As of Wednesday, police had arrested 65 persons, including two reporters. Two police were injured in clashes Wednesday night.

The official response has been to deplore the violence, while not singling out either side for opprobrium. In a prepared statement, Gov. Nixon remarked: “The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans. While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the right of the press to report on matters of public concern.” President Obama also expressed an even-handed rebuke. “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism and looting,” he said. “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Reverend Al Sharpton, a close friend and ally of Obama, also called for peace in the streets during his brief visit to the St. Louis area. He appeared at a news conference in St. Louis with Brown’s family. Sharpton described Brown as a “gentle giant.” To become violent in the wake of his death, he said, would be to betray his name. He and others later spoke at a local church before an overflow audience. This sounded reasonable – on the surface. But there is good deal more to the story.

First, Sharpton has a long history of public demagoguery not only to justify black violence but to incite it. On a practical level, while black defendants deserve a presumption of innocence, while white defendants deserve a presumption of guilt. His many racially-motivated campaigns since the mid-1980s have created character assassination and at times criminal violence. Sharpton’s background is documented in my 2009 Special Report titled Mainstreaming Demogoguery: Sharpton’s Rise to Respectability. (I have recently updated and expanded the report into book form. It will be published within several weeks.) Sharpton is not a peacemaker.

Second, Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004, is a smart and experienced politician. He knows as well as anyone that making an inflammatory statement in this situation would be the kiss of death for his future as a player on the national stage. He has tasted power and influence at the highest levels in recent years, and especially with Barack Obama as the nation’s president. He has been a frequent visitor to the Obama White House, and is a shadow cabinet member. Sharpton isn’t about to risk losing his newfound reputation as a pragmatic reformer by making reckless statements. He knows he’s more effective on the inside looking out than on the outside looking in.

Third, during his visit he publicly demanded that Ferguson police arrest the white police officer accused of shooting Michael Brown. Even the most naïve among us surely understands that even to release the name of that cop, with or without an arrest, is put to a target on his back. Any number of St. Louis-area blacks would love to go to prison for killing him; if convicted, they’d be prison royalty. The officer and his family would have to go into hiding. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson certainly knows this. He remarked: “If we come out and say, ‘It was this officer,’ then he immediately becomes a target. We’re taking the threats seriously.” Undaunted, Sharpton, the prince of peace, already seeks a conviction. A reporter for Progressives Today, Adam Sharp, achieved the improbable feat of outflanking Reverend Al from the Left. Alluding to the phrase, “Snitches Get Stitches,” spray-painted on a QuikTrip convenience store looted and torched Sunday, Sharp approached Sharpton and his entourage and interviewed him. Here is the key portion of the transcript:

Sharp: “Since you are a federal snitch, sir, do you fear for your life?

Sharpton: I’m not a snitch, but today I want to tell the feds about a cop that needs to go to jail.

Sharp: “Are you in fear for your life being a federal informant and…

Sharpton: I want to inform on this policeman today.

Sharp: Are you here to snitch on the rioters?…Are you here to work with your FBI partners?

Sharpton did not respond to this question. Beyond this point, the interview broke down. Granted, Sharp was smug and obnoxious beyond the call of duty. Notwithstanding, he should be given a backhanded compliment for teasing out Sharpton’s motive.

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