Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Al Sharpton Should Not Become the Public Face of the Protests

Change comes from adding people to the coalition, not polarizing the movement.
June 9, 2020
Al Sharpton Should Not Become the Public Face of the Protests
Reverend Al Sharpton speaks at a press conference calling for a ban on police chokeholds in Foley Square on June 2, 2020 in New York City. Over a dozen elected officials from the federal, state, and city level spoke at the conference, citing the killings of George Floyd and Eric Garner by police officers as examples of chokehold tactics leading to fatal interactions between unarmed African Americans and law enforcement. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Last last week it was announced that a big march on Washington is scheduled for August to commemorate the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march and help further the cause of addressing police brutality and injustice in law enforcement.

All of which sounds like a very good idea.

The march is being organized by Al Shaprton.

This Al Sharpton.

Which sounds like a very, very bad idea.

It is never wise to speculate about the condition of another man’s soul, so I’m happy to stipulate that the Reverend Sharpton may be a fine human being and a good man. My friend Matt Labash thinks so and if you’re only ever going to read one profile of Sharpton, it should be his. (Among other glories, it reveals that Sharpton’s entourage had their own catchphrase for the boss: “Rev gotta eat.” Which functioned nicely in all circumstances.)

Sharpton is in his autumnal years now and perhaps he’s no longer the hotheaded agitator and hustler he was in his youth. People change.

Then again, if you were going to put together a list of public figures most likely to transform the George Floyd protests from a nonpartisan, broad-based movement to another front in the culture war, Sharpton would have to be near the very top.

Conversely, it would be easy to identify inspiring black leaders across the political spectrum better suited to expanding the movement: Cory Booker, Colin Powell, Michelle Obama, Van Jones, Oprah, Denzel Washington, John Lewis, Don Cheadle, James Clyburn, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael Steele, Skip Gates, Chris Rock, Cornell West, Shaq . . . we could go on for quite some time before we got to the Rev.

Social movements, like political coalitions, are exercises in addition. You do not achieve change unless you can add enough people to your cause, who then apply ballot-box pressure at all levels of government over a sustained period of time.

What has made these protests different from all of the protests of the last 20 years—the anti-war protests of the Bush years, the “Occupy” movement of 2011-12, the Ferguson protests of six years ago, the Women’s marches since 2017—is that they have attracted a broad array of support: blacks, Hispanics, whites, city-dwellers, suburbanites. The polling shift over just the last two weeks is shocking. Here’s Tim Alberta explaining the magnitude:

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found that “Americans by a 2-to-1 margin are more troubled by the actions of police in the killing of George Floyd than by violence at some protest.” A survey for USA Today last week showed white Americans’ favorable impressions of police declining by double-digits week over the week. Most notably, a Monmouth poll released June 2—conducted in the days after Floyd’s killing—showed, for the first time, that a majority of Americans (57 percent) and a plurality of whites (49 percent) believe police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans. This represents a tectonic shift in public opinion: After Eric Garner was killed by New York City police in the summer of 2014, Monmouth found that 33 percent of Americans believed the black community was more likely to be abused by police; among whites, that number was just 26 percent.

“It’s almost a sea change,” said Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, one of three black members of the U.S. Senate. For years, Scott explained, “the response from so many well-intended people was to overlook the brutality brought to African Americans at the hands of the police. . . . But I look at the public’s response to this situation and it feels like the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard law enforcement agencies coming out with strong rebukes and condemnation of the officers in Minneapolis.”

The senator added, “Without question, this is different. It feels different. It sounds different. The protesters are different. . . . I look out my window in Washington and see 10 protesters. Seven of them are white, and three of them are black.”

From where we stand right now, the current movement shows a great deal of promise. But change is hard even in the best of circumstances. Because inertia is a bitch.

Going forward there are two dangers for the movement. The first is apathy. If the movement were to peter out, or be moved to the back-burner of peoples’ minds, then it will be difficult to exert enough democratic power to produce change.

This isn’t to say that protesters need to stay in the streets forever. At some point, everyone goes back to normal—or whatever “normal” is these days—with the protests having (hopefully) established a beachhead on the political priorities of a majority of Americans.

The reason a march in August is a good idea is because it’s the perfect moment to re-energize this coalition going into the November elections. And it’s important to note that we’re not primarily talking about national politics here: The fate of Donald Trump bears a mostly symbolic relationship to the cause of police reform. Notwithstanding House Democrats’ announcement of a reform bill on Monday, the federal government will have a relatively small role solving the problems that the protesters are upset about. The real heavy lifting is going to be done by state and local governments, which would have to adopt specific reforms targeted at correcting the problems within their own law enforcement organs.

The August march might be able to help amplify and channel the present energy.

The second danger for this movement is the possibility that it will be transformed in the public consciousness into something else—something more divisive, something that will cause some people to leave and prevent others from joining. In short: that it will become another front in the culture war.

Which is why Al Sharpton is unlikely to be helpful.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Sharpton’s heart is in the right place and that he wants to lead this march for purely altruistic reasons. Even so: Every high-level person who agrees to participate will be asked, “Do you endorse the entire career of Rev. Sharpton?”

Of all the people who could plausibly become the face of this movement, Sharpton is one of the least likely to help it grow and the most likely to regress it to the pre-2020 battle lines.

It’s enough to make you think, “Well crap. Why don’t they stop him?”

And the answer is: There is no “they.”

The advantage of an unorganized, distributed movement is that it can grow organically, attracting people from all different points on the ideological and socioeconomic spectrums—because there is no central face of it to cause negative polarity. If you are, say, a libertarian, or a Christian, you are every bit as likely to be drawn to the Floyd protests as you are if you’re an African American or a Democrat.

A distributed movement lowers the political and psychological barriers to entry in important ways.

But precisely because it’s distributed, the movement is vulnerable to hijacking. Because if someone steps forward to say “This is what we’re all about,” there’s no organizational authority to push back against it.

You saw that happen over the last week when “defund the police” went from a fringe Twitter slogan to a semi-serious position that was being ascribed to much of the protest movement. In just a few days, anyone who was supportive of the movement was being asked to answer for it, as if defunding (or abolishing) the police was somehow an official position of the protests.

This same dynamic will set in when someone eventually steps up to become the public face of the organized version of the movement.

Which is precisely what Sharpton is doing.

And just as there was no organization positioned to say, “No, these protests do not endorse the specific policy of abolishing police forces” there will be no one who can say, “These protests are not an endorsement of Al Sharpton and his entire public history.”

If you’ve studied Al Sharpton’s public history, then his play to take over this movement makes a great deal of sense. He is a man who has always been looking for angles.

If you’d like to be charitable, you can say that he was in it for the greater good. And yet, it would not be unreasonable to take a less charitable view.

But in this case, the stakes are larger than they have ever been for any movement which Sharpton sought to be a part of. There is a chance—a very real chance—for Americans to reform law enforcement. To professionalize a category of government that has often been egregiously unjust and to exercise a proper degree of civilian control over the institutions to which we delegate the legal use of force against our neighbors and ourselves.

There’s no one to tell Al Sharpton that he has to step back and let someone else lead this movement.

But if he really does have his heart in the right place, he’ll do it on his own.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.