Jewish and black leaders welcomed the investigation this week of the violence at Saturday’s youth rally in Harlem. Sixteen police officers were injured, one seriously, when efforts to disperse the rally at its court-ordered conclusion time of 4 p.m. were met with resistance from participants. Five civilians were also injured, and one man was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, according to police.
The violence followed a fiery speech by rally organizer Khallid Abdul Muhammad, who reportedly called Jews “the bloodsuckers of the black community,” and later urged the audience to “beat the hell out of” police or “use their guns on them” if they moved in on the crowd.
In a joint statement, four major Jewish groups equated Muhammad’s words with “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” and denounced his actions as “endanger[ing] the people of Harlem and the police.”
Earlier this week, Police Commissioner Howard Safir, branding Muhammad a “coward,” called for his arrest. “Mr. Muhammad, I believe, incited to riot, which is a crime,” he said at a press conference. “He waited until the end, when he knew he could create a situation … and then, like the coward that he is, he cut and ran.”
On Tuesday, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau announced that a grand jury would investigate whether a crime was committed.
“If the U.S. attorney or [Manhattan] district attorney finds that the facts warrant criminal charges, those charges should be pursued to the fullest extent of the law,” read a statement from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Community Relations Council. The statement called on the authorities to determine whether Muhammad, a former Nation of Islam official, attempted to incite a riot.
Also welcoming the investigation was Dennis Walcott, president of the New York Urban League. “Let them go through the natural proceedings and analyze the words used by Mr. Muhammad to see whether he was responsible for possibly inciting a riot,” Walcott told The Jewish Week. “This is definitely a proper investigation.”
But some black elected officials tempered their support of the investigation into Muhammad’s rhetoric with skepticism over the police reaction.
A spokesman for Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields said she considered Muhammad’s comments “some of the most reprehensible comments ever heard in a public forum.” But Michael DeMarzo said Fields “has asked for the investigation to be broadened to include what situation was on the ground that necessitated low-flying helicopters over the crowd and the spraying of mace. A lot of people have expressed concern regarding the chronology of events.”
Whether or not Muhammad broke the law is a murky issue for authorities, according to legal experts, because Muhammad did not urge action independent of the police action. The grand jury, and prosecutors must determine if the ability to cause harm was imminent.
Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said he was researching case law but was unsure whether there was a precedent.
“Putting aside how ugly and repugnant the statements were, he couched them in conditional language: if the police do x, you can do y. He couched it in self-defense language. From the cases we have read so far, I don’t find anything involving self defense.”
Although billed as a Million Youth March, police estimated that fewer than 6,000 attended the rally, surrounded by police.
Walcott of the Urban League, who did not attend the rally, said he was not surprised by Muhammad’s rhetoric, which his organization has denounced.
“If nothing else, he’s been consistent. Unfortunately, his message has been the same. There are variations on a theme, but he’s consistent in his language.”
Walcott also downplayed the turnout, saying that television coverage seemed to show “an ebb and flow. Many people were there out of curiosity, others were caught in the mix, trying to leave but not being able to get out.”