Prelude to an Election: Sharpton’s Diallo March Builds Anti-Rudy Troop

As she ruminates about whether to jump into a bruising Senate race, Hillary Rodham Clinton has thrilled dozens of the state’s Democrats by phoning them up for advice. Yet despite her infamous attention to detail-How many Jordanians in Yonkers? What are the state’s top crops?-she has yet to touch base with the one New York figure who has inflicted more damage than anyone else on her likely opponent, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

“No, I was not called,” the Rev. Al Sharpton admitted to The Observer .

That’s gratitude for you.

On the surface, Mr. Sharpton’s two-month-long campaign in the aftermath of the police killing of Amadou Diallo has seemed like a spontaneous, nostalgia-driven outburst of civic outrage reminiscent of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. But it also is a carefully orchestrated effort to break Mr. Giuliani, driven by an elite cadre of top Democrats-many of whom are actively promoting Mrs. Clinton’s possible candidacy.

Indeed, mayoral allies have already begun to spread rumors that its puppetmaster was none other than Mrs. Clinton’s chief adviser, Harold Ickes. It’s only a matter of time until Mr. Giuliani goes on The Today Show to complain to Matt Lauer of a “vast left-wing conspiracy.”

Of all people, Mr. Sharpton has helped accomplish a long-elusive goal: the resurrection of the left-liberal coalition that ruled the city for decades until it was left for dead after Mr. Giuliani’s rise to power in 1993. Ruth Messinger failed to do just that in her disastrous 1997 mayoral bid. And Mr. Schumer’s 1998 victory over Senator Alfonse D’Amato owed more to costly advertising than to old-fashioned Democratic coalition building.

But throwback Democratic politics were back in force on April 15, when Mr. Sharpton, in his newest incarnation as sober spiritual leader, kicked off a protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge with an exhortation of nonviolence worthy of Gandhi. There, striding across the East River, were a newly energized cadre of high-level Democrats-many of whom are salivating over Mrs. Clinton’s prospective candidacy: State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, former Mayor David Dinkins, Local 1199 hospital workers union president Dennis Rivera and Democratic National Committee vice president Bill Lynch, who orchestrated the entire rally.

What’s more, the day had been bankrolled by a dozen top Democrats-including Representative Charles Rangel and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer-who dipped into their political war chests especially for the event. It had been organized by party operatives who had toiled for weeks behind the scenes-including some who had worked on in the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996, and others who worked in the City Council operations department.

In other words, Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a potential mayoral candidate, was quietly lending his troops to the effort-despite his public display of cautious centrism.

The theme of the march was police reform; among the marchers were bereaved mothers carrying pictures of their sons slain by police officers. But there was no escaping it: The march, as well as the weeks of events leading up to it, was the first serious effort to even the score with Mr. Giuliani.

“There is little doubt that this is a well-organized, well-thought-out and well-planned effort that looks just like a political campaign to me,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “And I’m a pretty good judge of that.”

As for rumors that Mr. Ickes is the secret puppetmaster of the protest, Mr. Lynch, a close friend of Mr. Ickes and a draft-Hillary cheerleader, denied them.

“I talked to Harold Ickes once in the last three weeks,” Mr. Lynch told The Observer . “If we were trying to put something together, I’d be talking to him three or four times a day.”

“I haven’t talked to Harold Ickes in two years,” added Mr. Sharpton. Mr. Ickes did not return a call for comment.

Not that Mr. Sharpton isn’t more than happy to talk about the favor he has done for Mrs. Clinton if she challenges Mr. Giuliani.

“Well, you know, I like boxing a lot,” he told The Observer . “Whoever the candidate is-Hillary Clinton or [Representative] Nita Lowey-we can definitely say if they knock him out, we were the ones who did the body punches. They’ve got a weaker opponent because of the movement.”

Mr. Sharpton has a weakness for metaphors evoking the fight game. But this time, he may be on to something. By drawing attention to the underside of Mr. Giuliani’s war on crime, he has given the long-suffering Democratic Party a means of exacting vengeance on its Republican nemesis.

Mr. Giuliani was very much on the minds of Messrs. Sharpton, Lynch and Rivera as they made preparations for the April 15 rally. Several days before the event, the three men, accompanied by media ringmaster and former Dinkins aide Ken Sunshine, made a pilgrimage to the Upper West Side home of Harry Belafonte. The raspy-voiced calypso singer and civil rights legend gave a starry-eyed Mr. Sharpton a pep talk about keeping it real as he took him on a tour of his apartment, showing off his favorite movement memorabilia, such as original letters written by Martin Luther King Jr. and a personal note written to Mr. Belafonte by Eleanor Roosevelt. As they dined on takeout Chinese-Cuban food (this is supposed to be a multicultural effort, after all), the talk turned to Mr. Giuliani.

“We talked about getting rid of him as Mayor, and making sure that he does not become the representative of this state as U.S. Senator,” Mr. Belafonte recalled. He added: “I believe genuinely that the energy unleashed by this can be channeled into challenging Giuliani … If we don’t want him as Mayor, we damn sure don’t want him as a Senator.” Mr. Belafonte joined them at the April 15 march.

“I would say it was one of the high points of my life,” Mr. Sharpton later gushed. “He is like the penultimate cultural hero of [the civil rights] movement.”

The visit was one of many red carpets unrolled for Mr. Sharpton, who has a host of new friends now that bashing of the lame duck Mr. Giuliani has caught on among once-fearful Democrats.

Even the White House seemed to offer him its tacit approval. In early March, just days after Mr. Sharpton spoke out against police brutality at a press conference held by the National Urban League in Washington, D.C., President Clinton discussed police misconduct in one of his Saturday radio addresses. He told Hugh Price, the League’s president, he was responding to the press conference, according to a League spokesman. So when is Hillary going to pick up the phone and grace the Reverend with a personal call?

Mr. Sharpton’s outmaneuvering of Mr. Giuliani started just hours after the Feb. 4 shooting. Shortly after Diallo, a 22-year old Manhattan street peddler, was fired at 41 times by city cops in the vestibule of his Bronx home, Mr. Giuliani called Diallo’s father overseas and offered his sympathies and services. Mr. Sharpton, however, won over the victim’s charismatic mother. The result? He ended up with the entire Diallo family under his wing.

His next steps, though, were less than sure. On March 3, he and 10 other activities were arrested for blocking traffic at Wall Street and Broadway to spur the arrest of Diallo’s alleged killers. “We’ve come to upset and disrupt the business district of New York City,” he told a gathering of supporters outside the New York Stock Exchange.

The symbolism was confusing, Mr. Sharpton now readily concedes. There was a debate over their next move. Everybody agreed there should be daily protests. But where? “Some people said Gracie Mansion or City Hall, and I said that would look political,” Mr. Sharpton recalled. “I thought 1 Police Plaza, because that was the symbol of what we were talking about: police abuse. One of the things I think is effective activism is, keep it simple.”

On March 9, Mr. Sharpton led a group of 12 people to 1 Police Plaza, where they were arrested for blocking the entrance. Similar sit-ins followed that week and, just as Mr. Sharpton had hoped, Mr. Giuliani reacted angrily, belittling the protesters and assailing the moral legitimacy of their activities. That stiffened the resolve of Mr. Giuliani’s enemies.

Mr. Rangel, for one, went nuts when he saw the Mayor on New York 1 ripping into several women who had been arrested, including a Harlem AIDS activist and a church official. “I just thought, ‘What will it take to get him to take that scowl off his face, to remove that mean smile that he has,'” Mr. Rangel told The Observer .

Mr. Rangel called Mr. Sharpton and said he would get arrested at 1 Police Plaza the following Monday. Over that weekend, he heard from former Mayor David Dinkins.

Mr. Sharpton was so inundated with black leaders-including Kweisi Mfume, president of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-clamoring to be handcuffed that he had to draw up a schedule.

“I said to Kweisi Mfume: ‘I’m gonna need you to come in. I’ve got Charlie going to jail Monday. I want you to come in,'” Mr. Sharpton said. “He said, ‘I’ll come in with Charlie,’ and I said, ‘No, I need you about Thursday,’ ’cause I was pacing it.”

On March 15, Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Rangel were arrested. The following day, a picture of the two handcuffed politicians was splashed above the front-page fold of The Times invoking images of the civil rights movement, just as Mr. Sharpton had intended. Enter former Mayor Ed Koch-no stranger to the art of winning attention by whacking Mr. Giuliani-who promptly joined the outrage parade.

“When I saw Mayor Dinkins in handcuffs and Charlie Rangel in handcuffs,” he said, “I thought to myself, ‘This is a fucking outrage!'”

Mr. Koch’s announcement signaled that the demonstrations were safe for whites and Jews who might have steered clear of Mr. Sharpton in the past. What followed was a veritable anti-Giuliani carnival. Sharpton ally Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, convinced actress Susan Sarandon to lend her telegenic presence to one of the massive demonstrations. Angels in America author Tony Kushner made the scene with a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

“In every photo and every event, there would be some sense of a rainbow,” said Mr. Sunshine. “If we had to drag someone in at the last minute to complete the photo, then we would do it.”

In the waning days of the protests, Mr. Rivera of Local 1199 showed up to be taken into custody. While waiting to be handcuffed, he and Mr. Sharpton hit on the idea for a larger demonstration to highlight the need for sweeping reform within the Police Department. In meetings around the conference table of Essence Communications above Times Square, Mr. Sharpton plotted the rally with Messrs. Rivera, Lynch, Dinkins and Sunshine. Ed Lewis, chairman of Essence Communications, raised $100,000 for advertising. New York’s liberal neighborhoods were saturated with mailings for the march.

By April 15, what had begun as an Al Sharpton sideshow had evolved into a must-attend event for just about every ambitious Democrat in town. Mr. Lynch had a busy morning, his phone ringing nonstop with queries from top Democrats like Mr. Rivera and anxious young operatives. Later, heading to the march, as his black car wove through traffic around City Hall en route to the Brooklyn Bridge, he fielded a call on his cell phone from Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic boss. Mr. Ramirez wanted to know how things were going.

“My only concern is that we look organized,” Mr. Lynch answered. “One of the things right now that would give Rudy a win is if this thing looks raggedy.”

Mr. Giuliani tried to give that impression by noting the rally’s disappointing turnout. Liberal Party boss Ray Harding, a key mayoral adviser, joked that the organizers would have benefited from a hidden White House hand. “If Ickes were involved, then I would say the demonstrations would have been a lot more successful in terms of number.”

Mr. Sharpton insisted Mr. Giuliani hasn’t seen anything yet. Just wait, vowed Mr. Sharpton, until the trial of the police officers who allegedly manhandled Abner Louima.

“When Abner gets on that stand, it’s going to be front and center all over the world,” he said. “Rudy can burn candles or do whatever he wants to do. Police brutality is not going anywhere.” Prelude to an Election: Sharpton’s Diallo March Builds Anti-Rudy Troop