The protesters are back at Fred Harari’s retail store, but it seems this time there is an unlikely moderator: the Rev Al Sharpton. Sharpton says he is mediating a new dispute with the Jewish merchant whose Harlem store was torched in a deadly 1995 racial conflagration. Four years ago he was recorded at a rally outside Freddyís Fashion Mart urging demonstrators not to let a "white interloper" contribute to the demise of black-owned businesses.
"I have met with the protesters and hopefully weíll try to resolve this," Sharpton told The Jewish Week.
Some of the same demonstrators who picketed for weeks before a gunman shot seven employees on Dec. 8, 1995, and burned down the store have returned to the reopened shop, now called Uptown Jeans.
Harari has won a court order preventing the protesters, led by activist Morris Powell, from gathering within 350 feet of his establishment. The protesters filed a court challenge to reverse the order, but at a recent meeting between them and Harari, Sharpton’s lawyer, Michael Hardy, agreed on behalf of the picketers to accept the injunction.
It is unclear why the protesters returned.
"The reasons seem to be pretty nebulous," said Sharpton. "Three years ago it had to do with the dispute with the record store, but that doesn’t seem to be at issue now."
Sharpton was referring to a dispute between Harari and Sikhulu Shange, owner of the Record Shack, a longtime institution on 125th Street. Harari, who sublets part of the property he controls to the record storeowner, had planned to take over the space to expand his business. This led to weeks of protests by area activists who believe Harlem residents should have priority in the neighborhood (although Shange lives in the Bronx).
Harari claimed the protesters regularly made anti-Semitic threats, and he was in court to obtain a restraining order against the protesters when a man identified by police as Roland Smith entered Freddy’s, shot nine employees and set the store afire before shooting himself. Seven employees, plus the gunman, died.
Both Harari’s store and the Record Shack were heavily damaged in the fire but have since reopened. Shange retained his lease.
Sharpton’s role as a mediator would be a turnabout from 1995, considering his remarks about a "white interloper." The controversial activist later said he regretted using the word white.
Sharpton recently has met with former Mayor Ed Koch and Sen.-elect Charles Schumer as he plans another mayoral run in 2001. Last year he nearly forced a runoff against the Democratic nominee, Ruth Messinger.
Many Jewish leaders insist that Sharpton must renounce his past rhetoric in order to gain credibility, but some have maintained a dialogue with him in recognition of his position as an African-American leader.
Present at the meeting two weeks ago at Hardy’s Manhattan office were Harari and his attorney, Robert Rimberg, Sharpton and Hardy, and two protesters, Powell and a woman identified as Sister Ya. It was the first time the reclusive Harari, a member of the Syrian Jewish community, has met face to face with his Harlem critics.
"It was not an easy meeting," acknowledged Sharpton, who said Powell had accused Harari of paying employees less than minimum wage and not adhering to Fire Department regulations.
Rimberg told those present that all employees of Uptown Jeans were paid minimum wage or higher and that the store was in compliance with all fire regulations. "The nature of their complaint is that they don’t want white businesses in Harlem," said Rimberg.
While there are other white-owned businesses on 125th Street, Rimberg said Uptown Jeans was chosen for renewed protests because "it’s where the tragedy occurred three years ago, and they know they’ll get publicity."
At the meeting Hardy (who unsuccessfully defended Sharpton last summer in the Tawana Brawley defamation suit brought by Steven Pagones) signed a stipulation that the protesters would adhere to the injunction and remain 350 feet from Harari’s store. It is unclear why the protesters agreed to drop their challenge to the injunction. Hardy did not return a call to his office.
While there have been no incidents of violence since the renewed protests began, Rimberg said someone had splashed chicken blood on the sidewalk outside the store and fliers were distributed with the words "It’s On," the phrase reportedly used by Smith as he opened fire.
"I have no reason to be concerned about [new] violence," said Sharpton, who said the matter seemed to be winding to a close.