Reverend Al Sharpton is one of the most well-known civil rights activists working today. Following in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson, Sharp- ton has made a career addressing racial inequalities in American society. He ap- peared at St. Olaf on Sept. 22 in a highly anticipated event organized by the Political Awareness Committee PAC.
Unsurprisingly, Sharpton’s address fo- cused on the difficult issue of race in the United States. This is precisely what Amer- ican citizens have come to expect from Sharpton. His candid approach to uncom- fortable subjects and his activist work have made him a controversial figure. Sharpton seemed to embrace his role as a public fig- ure telling difficult truths.
“I’m convinced that many Americans don’t really seek peace as much as they seek quiet; there is a qualitative difference between peace and quiet … Quiet means suffer in silence … peace means that all of us are at peace,” Sharpton said.
The reverend has been a highly public figure over the past several months follow- ing the events in Ferguson, Mo. Michael Brown’s family reached out to Sharpton, who was furious after learning the facts of the case.
“I was outraged at the fact that he was so marginalized that he lay there with the whole community in an uproar, and this young man lay there dying or dead for four and half hours,” Sharpton said.
He quickly became the most public critic of the Ferguson police department. He de- livered an impassioned eulogy at Brown’s funeral, calling for justice in the investiga- tion and pleading with protesters to refrain from violence out of respect for Brown. At St. Olaf, Sharpton expressed doubt about the loyalties of the current prosecutor as- signed to the Michael Brown case.
“When you look at the disparity in ar- rests, the disparity in convictions, disparity in sentencing in this country based on race, it’s a huge gap,” Sharpton said. “When you look at cases involving local police, there is always a conflict when you have local pros- ecutors … It is very, very, very unusual for local prosecutors to take on a local police- man, because it interferes with their work- ing relationship with their colleagues in the local police.”
He called for the federal government, which has no loyalty to the Ferguson po- lice, to step in and try the case in Federal Court.
Sharpton focused much of his speech on problems with American policing. Arrests, street stops and SWAT team raids dispro- portionately affect African-Americans and other minorities. In the past year alone, Sharpton has led protests in New York City, where Eric Garner died after police subdued him using a chokehold, and in Los Angeles where police beat a homeless woman along the side of a highway. In both cases, the victims were unarmed, African- American and showed no signs whatsoever of violence.
“We are not talking about people killed because they were armed … we’re talking about in the worst case scenario, one man might have been selling a ‘loosie’ cigarette … and the answer to that is using deadly force?” Sharpton said.
Sharpton also addressed the militariza- tion of American police, an issue that has gained national attention following the Ferguson protests. Americans across the country were shocked at images of tanks on city streets and police armed with as- sault rifles.
One infamous picture shows a heavily armed SWAT team pointing its guns at an unarmed protestor with her hands in the air. Sharpton questioned the morality of supplying police forces with military- grade weaponry while cutting education budgets.
“Can you imagine,” asked Sharpton, “how they cut the education budget in St.
Louis but were spending money buying as- sault rifles and all that, which were never even needed, for a little town called Fergu- son?”
Ferguson certainly paints a bleak picture of American race relations, but Sharpton made sure to acknowledged the progress made in the past 50 years. He repeatedly pointed to the election and reelection of Barack Obama as a sign of hope. Sharpton was emphatic, however, that this progress must continue. The struggle for equality is far from over.
“In my lifetime, my mother couldn’t vote
in her hometown in Alabama until she was 40. Did we make progress? Yes. I ran for president, her son. But you can’t erase the history that had government laws that were enforced and think that, ‘oh well, that was there for 300 years but we took care of that in ten years.’ You can’t in one genera- tion erase generations of institutionalized, systemic inequality,” said Sharpton.
At the end of his address, Sharpton spoke directly to St. Olaf student activ- ists. He urged them to leave their sheltered campus lives and go out into communities and engage with other citizens. He also
encouraged them to focus on one goal at a time in order to achieve tangible results.
“Work on something specific, gauge it, measure yourself, because the only way to make change is to go against measured results and see if you achieved it,” said Sharpton. “Whatever area you are passion- ate about…set some specific goals, achieve them, and set more and keep going.
Photo Credit: KATELYN REGENSCHILD/MANITOU MESSENGER