Op-Ed

Opinion | Why Are Democrats Defending Al Sharpton?

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.

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Why is a person with such a sordid history — one for which he has offered nothing more than weak apologies for wishing he’d “done more to heal rather than harm” — enjoying the support of such a determinedly antiracist political party? For a few reasons that I can see.

The first is President Barack Obama. Before 2008, Mr. Sharpton had largely remained at the fringe of the Democratic Party. That changed because of Mr. Obama’s candidacy. Mr. Obama was catching flak from his left among African-Americans unhappy about his relative moderation on race-related policies, including his disavowal of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The candidate needed a black “leader” to defend him and deflect criticism. One was found in Mr. Sharpton, who was cultivated by Mr. Obama’s closest aide, Valerie Jarrett.

In short order, Mr. Sharpton became a political kingmaker. In 2011, he got his own show on MSNBC. Between 2009 and 2014 he’d visited the White House 61 times. All of this has left the Democrats joined at the hip with an exemplar of failed black leadership.

The second reason Democrats have rushed to Mr. Sharpton’s defense is South Carolina. Given the critical importance of that state’s early primary election, and the crucial role the black vote is sure to play in that contest, Democrats running for president have had to kiss Mr. Sharpton’s ring — and cover his derrière.

The third, and most powerful, reason is that Mr. Sharpton now has the right enemy: Donald Trump. Democrats seem unable to do two things at once: condemn Mr. Trump and refuse to defend ideas and people that are not worthy of being defended. Instead, anything he criticizes, however plausible that criticism, becomes something they feel compelled to rally behind.


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