Ballot Box

The Best of Al Sharpton

The bravest thing he ever did.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his best. Here’s the one told by supporters of Al Sharpton—and what they leave out.

The story: “On May 23, 2001, I was sentenced to ninety days in prison. … I was arrested for trespassing in Vieques, where I went to protest our naval activities there. I went on the advice of leaders in the Puerto Rican community who explained the damage [nearby Navy practice] bombings were doing to the land and people of Vieques. After hearing about it, I knew there was no way I could remain silent and do nothing. These same leaders stood with me during our protests following the brutalization of Abner Louima by New York City police officers. They were arrested right alongside me during our protests against the killing of Amadou Diallo. After hearing about the injustices in Vieques, I was compelled to stand with them. My move also strengthened a black/Latino coalition that went beyond politics and resonated on a street level.” (Sharpton, Al on America, 2002, Page xiii)

Reality check: Most of the health concerns that inspired the Vieques protests were overblown. Contrary to statements by protesters, there was no statistical evidence that residents of Vieques had abnormal rates of cancer or infant mortality.

But verifying these claims was never Sharpton’s principal concern, as his account shows. His concern was to “stand with” Puerto Rican leaders. Why? The New York mayoral election was approaching, and joining the Vieques protests was an easy way to mend fences with the Puerto Rican community, which Sharpton had alienated by playing hardball with Fernando Ferrer, a mayoral candidate of Puerto Rican descent. By getting arrested and going to prison, Sharpton got a constant stream of favorable publicity from Spanish language media outlets in New York.

On the other hand, Sharpton’s imprisonment did increase public pressure against the bombing range, and President Bush ordered it to be shut down by May 2003.