Over the years, Al Sharpton has tried to reposition himself from a rabble rouser into a statesman. He now faces accusations of incitement after the murder last weekend of two officers in New York City.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and former New York Gov. George Pataki have blamed Sharpton for using rhetoric that they said fostered an anti-police environment. Former NYPD commissioner Bernard Kerik said Sharpton and others had “blood on their hands.”
The 60-year-old Obama adviser and MSNBC talk-show host has endured sharp criticism from both flanks, from mainstream America who has long seen him as a race-baiting radical to protesters who accuse him of using their movement for self-promotion.
A less experienced civil rights figure might find these waters perilous, but Sharpton claims to be the first call many African-American families make when they feel that their loved one was unjustly killed by police.
“All of the critics, those people have to ask themselves: Why, if Sharpton is so bad, are the families standing there with him?” he said in an interview.
In the wake of the police officers’ deaths, he has presented himself as a peacemaker, condemning the killings while defending the rights of protesters to continue to decry what they perceive as racist police tactics.
All the while, he has touted his high-profile role. He even concluded a recent news conference by denouncing death threats directed at him — playing one such voice mail for the microphones. “The language is, ‘Hey N-word, stop killing innocent people. I’m going to get you,’” he said. “I have several like this.”
Younger activists have criticized Sharpton as too much of an establishment insider and have said that he is riding the coattails of their hard work.
“Al Sharpton doesn’t speak for us,” said Erika Maye, a spokeswoman for Freedom Side, an Atlanta-based group that has been involved in the protests. “His focus on respectability, pulling up your pants and getting an education — that doesn’t keep our brothers and sisters safe. You can do everything you’re supposed to do, but if a police officer sees you, they will see you as a suspect, so you can still be subject to police violence.”