An Appeal to Rev. Al Sharpton and Mike Bloomberg: Remarks to the Coalition of Outsiders

An Appeal to Rev. Al Sharpton and Mike Bloomberg: Remarks to the Coalition of Outsiders
Dr. Lenora Fulani

I came downtown to tonight’s meeting even though I’m still in the early stages of recovery from compound pneumonia because I wanted to speak directly with all of you. Thanks for all your good wishes and calls while I was in the hospital.

The very tragic death of Sean Bell and the current response of the city’s leadership to it, requires that we, the Coalition of Outsiders, talk together about what is—and isn’t—happening, and what needs to be done.

A young black man—23 years old—is dead. He was killed in what appears to have been a confusing, charged and dangerous scene outside a Queens nightclub where 50 shots were fired by police. Presumably the details of the incident—and its drastic consequences—will be revealed as the District Attorney’s investigation and the grand jury process move along. There is talk of City Council hearings—as if that were a genuine remedy to the problem—but so far no frank discussion of the problem. At a time like this, we cannot afford to be anything but frank.

There is a basic truth—one that everyone knows but that most people are afraid to say—that governs on the streets of the communities of color. It is that young people in our communities distrust, sometimes even hate, the police. And the police distrust and often dislike our teenagers and young adults. Most of the time those feelings are kept in check. But they are always there.

I am a developmental psychologist and, because no one else will say this aloud, a rather good one. I have worked with young people in the poor communities for 25 years and throughout that time I have worked closely with police officers, corrections officers, and others in law enforcement. There’s no question in my mind that this tension, this polarization, this dysfunctional relationship has to be addressed if we’re going to eliminate the possibility of future occurrences of this kind.

But, while there have been high profile meetings, and photo ops and press conferences over the last several days, there is so far no dialogue about how to deal with this basic problem. There has been a lot of “concern” expressed. There has been an effort to create a “fair” environment around the situation—both of which are positive. No one wants a return to the Giuliani era—nor do we have to worry about that. This is not the Giuliani era, it’s the Bloomberg era. Remember? We elected him!

In the last election, the mayor got 47% of the black vote. That vote was produced by the people in this room—by the black leaders in this city who went to the community and said “it’s time to take the politics out of policy.” Half of black voters broke with the political norm—also known as the Democratic Party—to go with us and that has impacted dramatically on City Hall’s handling of this incident. Only a liar—or a reporter for the New York Post—and generally those two are equivalent—would deny that.

I would add here, speaking in my role as a leader of the Independence Party, that it was the Independence Party that got Bloomberg elected in the first place in 2001, part of our long term mission to take the politics out of governing. We have never demanded any favors or special treatment for that, only that public policy—including crisis response—include all those who are qualified to join in, not just those who have been anointed by the clubhouse.

But, politics has a funny way of creeping into the picture—and that has happened in this situation and that needs to be pointed out. None of you—the Coalition of Outsiders—were called to a meeting at City Hall. I was not called to come to that or any other meeting. That is conspicuous to me. As far as I could see, there was not a single woman of color in any of these meetings. Either the photographers in this town use cameras that make black women invisible, or we weren’t there. If there was a black woman present she was kept so far on the sidelines that she didn’t turn up in any photograph. There were no psychologists, no mothers, no voices outside the political establishment.

Mike Bloomberg and Al Sharpton are the key players in this piece of political theatre—and I say that as someone who is a strong supporter of political theatre—I even occasionally act in one. Bloomberg and Sharpton have something very significant in common. They were both profoundly shaped by the outsiders, by the people in this room. Each of you has your history with Sharpton. Certainly I have mine. Long before Al Sharpton was officially “baptized” by the New York political establishment, he and I were on the streets together, marching against racially-motivated brutality, the chronic injustice of the justice system and the excessive use of force by the police. These protests gave Sharpton greater notoriety and political power. And that’s a good thing. Sharpton is an important leader and his exercise of power is important to the black community. That’s why I frankly object to him reducing himself to “press conference politics” when he has so much more to give and to contribute.

My background has been to bring new and developmental programs to the poor communities, specifically to develop young people to break out of and move beyond the anger and resentment that can produce dangerous and destructive events. That anger is understandable, but it’s also ultimately harmful to the young people themselves.

For all of the drama around the mayor’s and my relationship—most of which was created by the media, high paid PR professionals and political insiders looking to wreck non-conformist approaches to learning and education—he is well aware that the developmental approach I helped to create is a key tool for dealing with these kinds of problems. The city recently approved a $12.5 million bond for the All Stars Project which goes into the poorest and most alienated communities to create developmental opportunities for young people. The All Stars deals in an ongoing way with the very issues that are at the heart of the Bell tragedy. But not unlike Sharpton, who is limiting his role to the traditional “civil rights leader,” Bloomberg is limiting his own role to the traditional politician, albeit one with greater sensitivity to the black community, by not availing himself of effective resources for this crisis, even if they were created by outsiders.

The city needs Bloomberg and Sharpton to genuinely lead right now. That means bringing in the outsiders, those who are perhaps politically incorrect, but who have the experience and the track record to make a difference. The issue on the table is not a short term resolution to the death of Sean Bell. There can be no resolution there—it is too late. The young man is dead and we mourn him. His family’s pain, his children’s pain, will always be there and will never go away. The serious issue on the table is what is this city going to do about the intense antagonisms that produce these tragedies. Press conferences, posturing, public hearings and the like, do nothing to touch that. They simply reinforce it. If all you can offer the people of this city—including the poor black community and the police—is a photo op and a four-day media cycle, then you have compounded the original tragedy several times over.

The city would be better served by putting ten young black adults and ten police officers in a room together—without TV cameras, handlers, spin artists and media provocateurs—and help them talk to one another, help them go beyond the freeze frame they are stuck in. Some of us have already begun work on this project.

But at the same time, as outsider political leaders, as the people who shaped the careers of Al Sharpton and Mike Bloomberg, we have an obligation to let them know that they have to go beyond traditional political boundaries. We didn’t form the Coalition of Outsiders to score political points. If we wanted to do that, we’d have gone the clubhouse route. We came together as outsiders to demand that the insiders lead. I know Al Sharpton and I know Mike Bloomberg. I know they care and I know they want to make a difference. It’s our job to show them how to do that.

Bloomberg and Sharpton have an unusual opportunity to make a difference, but if that’s going to happen, if we’re going to push them in that direction, we can’t be armchair activists. We have to take our roles in this situation as seriously as we take theirs. You are all important players in this city. There are many hundreds of other activists who look to you for leadership. There are thousands of community people who take their cues from you. You have to reach them with this message. You have a special responsibility, because we are the outsiders. As outsiders, we are the closest to the people, who are the most outside of all. We have to be their voice demanding new approaches and new ways of dealing with the causes of this terrible event.

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