High Stakes In Harlem

High Stakes In Harlem

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the city cannot deny a permit for the so-called Million Youth March. Black elected officials are distancing themselves from the march, scheduled for Saturday, and encouraging young people to stay away. Last year most denounced organizer Khallid Abdul Muhammad’s rhetoric as anti-Semitic while supporting the march because of the issues it portended to address.

Insiders and observers say Harlem leaders have a variety of incentives to contribute to the march’s failure, including the following:

1. Growing strides in black-Jewish relations. Jewish and black officials are finding more common issues than ever, while the preponderance of dialogue programs are increasing contacts and exposure. Muhammad’s tirades against all Jews (even the staunchest supporters of the United Negro College Fund) foil the momentum.

"At this point, black leadership regrets more than ever the schism that occurred since the civil rights movement, when they decided to go it alone," says former Mayor Ed Koch. "They are trying to re-establish that bridge."

2. Last year’s turnout. Muhammad fell about 994,000 short of his million youth goal, and many of the 6,000 who attended were from out of town, which means there is little home-turf risk in opposing the march.

"Last year’s turnout indicates that [Muhammad] really isn’t important politically," says Mitchell Moss of New York University. "He has not proven to be an important person who is getting community support, and so he is treated with less deference."

3. Muhammad’s hollow message. The former Nation of Islam official’s diatribes surprised even his worst detractors last year while coming up short on constructive solutions to police brutality and other issues. Even his former Nation of Islam cohort, Conrad Muhammad, has denounced his characterization of "hook-nosed, bagel-eating, so-called Jews" as "not-civilized and disrespectful." In an interview on NY1, Muhammad said "the shape of someone’s nose and what they eat have nothing to do with the agenda he’s supposed to be representing."

Harlem state Sen. David Paterson says he’s yet to encounter anyone involved in the march at a community forum on such issues as education, infant mortality or teenage pregnancy. "This is a very self-absorbed group," says Paterson. "The only attention they get is from the ferociously evil things they say about other people."

4. The threat of violence. The melee between cops and participants at the end of last year’s march, which erupted as Muhammad fled the scene, makes it more difficult to defend the rally on free-speech grounds. It may also give parents second thoughts about sending their children to this year’s event.

5. Upcoming political races. Many black officials have their eyes on higher office and will need widespread, broad-based support. Rep. Charles Rangel needs Jewish support and money to help Democrats recapture the House in 2000, so he can become chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, a shoo-in for re-election, has been talking about running for mayor. State Comptroller H. Carl McCall will likely run for governor.

6. Muhammad’s own reputed City Council race. Term limits may present an opportunity for Muhammad to seek office, a scenario that could make him a fixture in New York rather than an annual nuisance, creating a further need to marginalize him.

7. Reluctance to hand Mayor Giuliani a victory. A large-scale rally resulting in the same violence and rhetoric as last year would legitimize the mayor’s attempts to block the event while portraying him statewide as a bulwark against anti-white radicals as he prepares to announce his U.S. Senate bid. If the rally tanks, Rudy appears to have huffed and puffed about nothing.

8. Cost of clout to Harlem. Presidential hopeful Bill Bradley and Sen. Charles Schumer have campaigned in Harlem, but it doesn’t seem to generate the same interest as Borough Park or Crown Heights. Peaceful protests and issue-oriented community events donít generate the kind of press coverage that Muhammad’s march garners, which sends a negative message about how many votes for white candidates are up for grabs.

9. The Los Angeles JCC shootings. The attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center in a Los Angeles suburb last month has heightened sensitivity toward anti-Semitism and the notion that hate speech prompts hate violence. The attacks have also drawn blacks and Jews closer to the realization that they face common enemies, making the idea of an anti-Semitic forum in Harlem unseemly.

"Given our tragic history, the purveyors of hatred and violence should be pariahs in the black community as nowhere else," wrote columnist Bob Herbert in Sunday’s New York Times.

10. The assault on Councilman Bill Perkins. The verbal and near-physical attack by Muhammad followers reported by the Harlem Democrat, who opposed the march, destroyed Muhammad’s message of black unity.

"It shows that he is a threat to all elected officials, not just white elected officials," says Moss of NYU. "And that he doesn’t play by any rules that they are familiar with."

The Village Voice apparently was duped last week into reporting that Chanina Sperlin is part and parcel of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. The Voice’s Peter Noel quoted Sperlin, the Council’s "front man," as saying that he has "banned" Hillary Rodham Clinton from campaigning for Senate in Crown Heights because she is "an anti-Semite." Sperlin, the council’s vice chairman, is depicted as if he is speaking out of principle rather than partisan loyalty.

But Sperlin is known to be a crony of Bruce Teitelbaum, director of the Senate exploratory committee of Mayor Giuliani, who likely will run against Clinton.

"They are married at the hip," says one well-known Crown Heights leader. "It is no secret that [Sperlin] is a frequent of City Hall, and rides in the mayor’s car."

Michoel Chazan, the president of the non-profit council (which is prohibited from involvement in political races) said in a statement that Sperlin "did not speak in the name of the council but rather as a private individual … The council has always welcomed and met with all officials and politicians who have expressed a desire to meet with us."

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