When he learned the Central Mosque on the Upper East Side was hosting the February 12 memorial service for shooting victim Amadou Diallo with Rudy Giuliani in attendance, Khallid Abdul Muhammad must have decided he couldn’t stay away. Bringing a group of masked demonstrators, the guiding force behind last fall’s Million Youth March stormed the mosque’s gate shouting, “Self-defense!” He called the NYPD’s street-crimes units “organized death squads,” and one of his group’s placards said the mayor should burn in hell. For a guy who had his own brush with the NYPD just a few months earlier, it should have been the ultimate I-told-you-so moment.
But afterward, Muhammad was all but ignored – a footnote in the Times story; a page 49 mention in the Amsterdam News. Why the cold shoulder? “Khallid Muhammad is not a major player,” explains AmNews publisher Elinor Tatum, whose paper defended Muhammad after his September march’s violent conclusion. Diallo’s death seems so outrageous, so unexplainable, that the public reaction to it has locked out the most extreme political voices while co-opting their rage.
Stepping right into the center of the outrage, meanwhile, is Al Sharpton, who doesn’t come to the moderate role naturally, either. But the universal shock over this case has had a thawing effect on him. The closer he gets to Diallo’s family, the more his image seems to improve. And as a practiced media hog, he gets results, chasing cameras as expertly as he attracts them: The Daily News reported that the Reverend Al got three local TV news stations to air one of his press conferences live by guaranteeing the appearance of Diallo’s parents. Without Sharpton, Diallo protests seem to go cold: At the start of the shooting’s grand-jury proceedings last week, around 1,000 people gathered peacefully outside the Bronx Supreme Courthouse. By the demonstration’s end, protesters even started more animated mini-rallies for the benefit of news cameras, but the next day, practically all the coverage focused on Diallo’s funeral in Guinea, where Sharpton had made sure to turn up.
As media attention dwindles, will the Reverend Al stay a centrist? A clue comes courtesy of one voice that emerged at the end of the Bronx rally. “Your water supply is vulnerable!” shouted Aton, a man who claimed that white-supremacist groups are amassing biological weapons. Aton was passing out leaflets publicizing an “urban preparedness forum” hosted by the National Action Network. That’s Al Sharpton’s group. The fringe might no longer have a monopoly on outrage, but its ideas are still within reach – to be used in case of emergency.