The Rev. Al Sharpton seems to have learned this lesson long ago: When you’re a controversial civil rights leader who’s made a career out of harassing the cops and embarrassing the government, never keep any assets in your own name. But that has never prevented authorities from vigorously inspecting the good reverend’s personal and organizational finances over the years, and often coming up with troves of improprieties, ranging from misappropriation to delinquency and possibly fraud. But even when the government seemed to have Sharpton squarely within its sights, his organization hobbled by the costs of litigation, fines and arrears assessed for unpaid taxes, none of it seemed to stick.
He has repeatedly stuck his thumb in the eye of the best laid plans for his demise and risen to a level of mainstream power and influence that belies what many feel is at best an unorthodox style and, at worst, a cynical exploitation of the suffering of the people he purports to represent. Certainly, Sharpton’s role in the tawdry Tawana Brawley hoax—and his subsequent conviction for defamation for his role in tarnishing the careers and reputations of the falsely accused police officers—should have been enough to bury him for good. But the lessons he learned early on stood him in good stead. When the cameras are on, Sharpton seems to be literally everywhere. But when it comes time to pay the bill for that infamously earned publicity, he vanishes into a cloud of impalpable smoke.
What assets does he own? Who pays his expenses? How does he manage to get around the country and set up shop at a moment’s notice each time there is a controversy involving the police and African-Americans? Those are questions that government officials have tied themselves in knots trying to answer over the years, mostly to no avail.
What’s probably most remarkable about Sharpton’s financial shenanigans is that, rather than being a source of shame, they are seen by his most ardent supporters as a badge of honor. In fact, he has played on the justified suspicions of many Blacks that the powers that be will use every trick in the book, up to and including assassination, to discredit Black leaders who are considered a thorn in the side of the system. Sharpton has adroitly used that cover as a bargaining chip against his would-be accusers.
In fact, the government has been singed so many times by Sharpton—whether over the abuse of Abner Louima, the Haitian man who was subjected to demented sexual torture in a New York police precinct, or Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant who was shot 19 times by plain clothes police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun—that in many cases, municipalities will try to settle cases as quickly as possible, lest Sharpton drag them through the mud for months and years. And it’s not just the millions in settlements to the aggrieved families. Sharpton has probably been more influential in spurring changes in police procedure, including use of force and improving internal investigations, than perhaps any single person since the Civil Rights Movement. That’s impressive.
And yet, how hard could it possibly be for the government to collect the $4.5 million in federal taxes that even Sharpton acknowledges he owes? Therein lies the rub. The government has attempted use the threat of financial and/or criminal sanctions for his outspoken conduct to gain leverage over Sharpton and his organization. It does not really want him to be free and clear of financial encumbrances, lest he really get out of hand and start making more substantive demands. Rather than bringing the full weight and power of the law down on Sharpton, the government has acted more like a lenient creditor at best and, at worse, an angel investor in Sharpton’s improbable yet undisputedly successful enterprise. He has, in a sense, evolved into the crazy uncle who owes you money but still gets invited over to holiday dinners because not doing so would cause strife in the family. And who wants family strife, especially during the holidays?
Nothing could be more illustrative of the Sharpton paradox than the contrast between the decrepit finances of his nonprofit advocacy group, the National Action Network, and his recent ascension to the corridors of power in Washington and New York. Here’s a guy who owes the government millions in fines and back taxes, who probably couldn’t pass a background check to be hired as a low-level government employee, and yet he strides the halls of Congress and the White House as if he’s a member of the club. And that’s because, in fact, he is. At this point, the powers that be need Sharpton to succeed. They are too invested. And he reminds them why every time he steps in front of camera at a civil rights rally or speaks at the funeral of a young Black person gunned down by the police. He has real power, and it is not the kind one can tax or fine or discredit using ordinary means. The best chance the government has at preventing the disruption that Sharpton can incite is to invite him to a seat at the table.
Many who have a bone to pick with Sharpton were secretly excited about the prospects of having someone like Barack Obama in the White House. Obama is in both substance and temperament almost the anti-Sharpton. It was assumed that with a leader like Obama, people who have been traditionally suspicious of the political process would now see it as more accessible. To a certain extent, that is true. On the other hand, they have also expected more accountability from the Obama administration, especially on matters having to do with perceived injustices against minorities. Obama and his team have, for obvious reasons, been loath to be seen as displaying any particular favoritism. And so into the vacuum stepped Sharpton.
He is the perfect foil. He is someone everyone can blame for inciting division, thus taking the heat off Obama. But he’s also someone who has the trust of the people and can skillfully redirect and mollify their anger and rage against a system that they often see as their mortal enemy.
Williams is sole owner and manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American Currentsee magazine.