Photo: USA Today
Let me make something crystal clear right off the bat: Even if he were to be on the ground shouting at the top of his lungs, Al Sharpton wouldn't even come close to being the biggest problem in Ferguson, Missouri right now. The current crisis lies almost entirely with the staggeringly disproportionate response by a militarized police force to largely peaceful protests in that town, as well as in the police shooting of an unarmed black man that sparked those protests. Ferguson has descended into madness right before our eyes -- the eyes of the entire nation -- to the point where it barely even resembles an American city anymore and it's actually painful to think that it is.
So, no, Al Sharpton's efforts so far in Ferguson and whatever may be to come from him are likely to be, or at least should be, incidental when everything is taken into account. But it's still worth mentioning that this particular racially charged incident is one he should sit out for the time being for exactly that reason: because he can't be the story here.
Last night I wrote a piece that cast Sharpton in among the usual and unusual suspects descending upon Ferguson, Missouri and unwittingly threatening to obscure the quest for the truth about what really happened in the shooting of Mike Brown. It can be argued that a couple of days ago Sharpton did some good by appealing for calm from those outraged by Brown's death -- and the family of Brown reportedly asked to speak with him -- but at the same time he also couldn't resist the chance to be photographed with Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose at the airport while he was there and he was the star of the show during a news conference on Tuesday. This is because Al Sharpton is a self-made media figure, one with a reputation for being as much of an opportunist and ambulance chaser as he is a legitimate activist crusading for the greater good.
For decades now he's injected himself into any and every offense with even a whiff of a racial component and, under the guise of seeking only justice, has helped to turn that offense into a media free-for-all. He's to racial incidents what Nancy Grace is to violent crime and Gloria Allred is to sexual harassment cases. Yes, there was the Tawana Brawley fiasco, but even if you make the argument that that was nearly 30 years ago there have been dozens of examples since: everything from his claims of racism in the alleged Duke lacrosse rape, which turned out to be a fabrication, to his demand for the heads of high-profile media people like Don Imus -- who's admittedly an idiot -- and Kelly Tilghman of the Golf Channel simply because they said something he found racially insensitive. Whenever there's a chance to make a claim of racism, there's Sharpton with his face in front of a camera.
The problem is that he tends to treat the black community as a monolithic entity and invites himself to be its official spokesman. Sure, that means he has experience in things like organizing marches and such, but it also means he has baggage, and a lot of it. There are those who understandably can't take him seriously anymore because of his history of self-promotion and of bringing the same level of outrage to every offense to the point where his presence actually becomes counterproductive. And that's what we have now in Ferguson: a situation that's already had the necessary amount of national attention drawn to it, thankfully, and one that wouldn't benefit a bit from Sharpton's interference. The smartest thing he could do -- certainly the best thing for Ferguson -- is stand aside for this one. He has an hour every weekday on MSNBC to reach the entire nation and should judiciously use that rather than being on the ground in this war zone.
I realize that a lot of the people who regularly beat up on Al Sharpton are assholes who seek cover for their own racism by dismissing him as a "race hustler." But just because Bill O'Reilly criticizes Sharpton in bad faith doesn't mean well-intentioned people on the left can't criticize him in good faith. While I wouldn't want to be lumped in with the resentful white men on the right if I could avoid it, I don't think there's a thing wrong with pointing out the potential negative impact he can have here.
Earlier today, Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, said during an interview that a continued Sharpton presence in Ferguson may cause the situation to "escalate." Granted the interview was on Fox News, of course, and King doesn't speak for the entire black community any more than Sharpton does, but about this I think she's right. What's happening in Ferguson right now has captured of the attention of the entire nation, across political and racial lines, and made it clear just how far race relations still have to go (and how far police in our country have moved toward being a military force). Sharpton is simply not necessary to make a point that's already being made perfectly clear.