The Tawana Brawley case that captivated New York in the late eighties is a shocking reminder of the toxic mix racial exploitation and personal ambition can produce. The New York Times and Retroreport.org have just released a new 15-minute documentary on the despicable hoax, which should be required viewing for the NBC news executives who are heavily invested in rehabilitating a key culprit of this loathsome episode: the Reverend Al Sharpton.
Brawley was 15 years old in 1987, when she was found in her hometown of Wappingers Falls, New York with “Bitch,” “KKK” and “Nigger” written on her stomach, her jeans burnt in the crotch, feces in her hair and her tennis shoes sliced open. She said that she had been abducted and raped by a group of white men.
A trio of increasingly prominent, and radical, New York City black activists represented her and her family: attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason and the Reverend Al Sharpton. Brawley told them said that a cop had been one of her attackers and Sharpton named that officer as Harry Crist, Jr., a police officer from a nearby town who had committed suicide shortly after Brawley was found. Sharpton also named a local prosecutor, Steven Pagones, as one of the attackers. He offered no proof.
Governor Mario Cuomo dispatched a veteran prosecutor, Jack Ryan, to handle the case. Brawley and her advisers refused to co-operate in any way with Ryan and his team. “That was the decision of the lawyers,” Sharpton says defensively in the Times interview. When asked why Brawley’s team would not meet with New York State Attorney General, Robert Abrams, Sharpton said it would be “like “asking someone who watched someone killed in the gas chamber to sit down with Mr. Hitler.” Sharpton later accused Ryan of kicking a blind man in a scuffle with demonstrators. Ryan was nowhere near the scene.
After a six-month investigation a grand jury investigation found that the entire episode had been a hoax, with Brawley having defaced herself to avoid the wrath of her step-father after staying out late to visit a boyfriend.
Subsequently, both of her attorneys had their law licenses revoked (Mason for unrelated reasons) and Sharpton was found guilty of defamation in a lawsuit brought by prosecutor Steven Pagones, who quickly had been able to establish he had been nowhere near the scene of the alleged crime.
The Times documentary shows a wild-eyed Sharpton responding indignantly to a reporter’s question of what proof he had of the policeman’s guilt: “I have Tawana Brawley’s words,” he sneers.
Instead of apologizing, Sharpton still asserts, a quarter century later, that he deserves credit for standing by the teen, asserting darkly in the Times documentary, “something happened.”
The Brawley case inflamed racial tensions in America and left victims like the falsely accused Pagones in its wake. But it helped launch Sharpton’s career. Instead of an isolated incident of bad judgment and hysteria, Sharpton’s behavior in the Brawley case is part of a life-long pattern.
Sharpton was a key player inflaming the 1991 Crown Heights riots following the death of a young African American who was hit by an ambulance driven by a Hassidic driver. Sharpton called Jews “diamond merchants” with “the blood of innocent babies” on their hands. A mob subsequently attacked and murdered an innocent Hassidic Jewish student visiting from Australia. (Twenty-five years later, he wrote a mealy-mouthed not-quite apology for his rhetoric.)
A few years later, an African American Pentecostal church asked a Jewish tenant of a church owned property, Freddie Fashion’s Mart, to evict one of his subtenants, an African American run record store. Sharpton led protests crying, “We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business.” One of the protestors attacked Freddie Fashion Mart, shot several customers and started a fire that killed seven employees.
There are a lot of angry, twisted individuals in America and Sharpton is hardly alone in having spent decades vomiting hate, leaving innocent victims in his wake. What distinguishes Sharpton is the willingness of powerful people and organizations to look past the hate when they believe it may benefit them.
The Democratic Party and its candidates for President in 2004 were perfectly content to have Sharpton appear in Presidential debates. Not one candidate called Sharpton out for his outrageous history of hate.
And today one of the great American news organizations, NBC news, is spending millions of dollars to rehabilitate and promote Al Sharpton. Americans have been pretty good at sniffing out and discarding haters, but here is Al Sharpton on NBC and MSNBC being promoted as a credible source of information. Sharpton has gone from manipulating the news with vile accusations to delivering the news for NBC. When the Boston bombing story broke, there was Al Sharpton delivering breaking news for MSNBC.
“You would think that if he sold you such a terrible bill of goods for such a giant story that dominated the news for such a long time,” says former Village Voice journalist Wayne Barrett in the Times documentary, speaking to his journalist brethren, “that you would not show up at his next news conference with a camera.”
NBC has gone far beyond showing up. They have made the ethical and news judgment that Al Sharpton should be a credible news source for Americans. They have the right to make that decision, but what about the reason?
Here’s a simple test that doesn’t involve market research or complicated board meetings. If you are an NBC exec and have kids, sit down with them and watch the Times documentary on Tawana Brawley. And when your kids ask why your colleague Al Sharpton is working for NBC, you can explain to them why everything you’ve tried to teach them about honesty, fair play and decency is wrong and Al Sharpton is right.
Stuart Stevens was the chief strategist for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. He is the author of five books, and his articles on politics and sports have been published in TheNew York Times, Esquire, Outside, the Washington Post, and others. He has also written extensively for television including the Emmy Award winning series Northern Exposure, Commander in Chief, and HBO’s K Street.