Al Sharpton's Strong Suit Is Making a Statement

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006


On Monday morning, Al Sharpton was photographed alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly during a news conference at New York's City Hall. The tableau of men and women -- almost all in dark suits -- was in response to a shooting that had occurred over the weekend. Twenty-three-year-old Sean Bell, an unarmed African American man, was shot and killed by undercover police officers hours before his wedding. In a car with two male friends, he was leaving a nightclub after his bachelor party. He died in a barrage of gunfire. The other men, also unarmed, were wounded.

The mayor stood behind a lectern offering his assessment of the shooting, answering questions and attempting to quell community outrage over a death that some, including Sharpton, saw as part of a pattern of overzealous city cops gunning down unarmed black men.

The activist preacher is often seen leading marches, stirring up grass-roots protests and decrying the establishment. But it was impossible to miss Sharpton at Bloomberg's side. The mayor was in the standard dark business suit. Sharpton was wearing a three-piece, caramel-color windowpane-checked suit . . . with a matching striped tie.

His hair was brushed back in its usual homage to James Brown. Although over the years, the 52-year-old Sharpton has become more conservative in both dress and grooming. He no longer wears rap star track suits. And his signature hairdo lost much of its dramatic bouffant-icity during his 2004 presidential campaign.

The reverend stood out not so much because of his locks, but because of his suit. Its tailoring was straightforward, but against a backdrop of so many sober suits, it might as well have been yellow. The trousers were full and fluid and puddled generously at Sharpton's ankles. The matching vest was striking because so few men still wear them. Occasionally one sees someone sporting a tweed waistcoat with a suit -- a style that suggests he is a country gentleman and a bit of a dandy.

But the vest worn by Sharpton was reminiscent of old-fashioned decorum, leavened with a bit of swagger. It is both formal and fly. It calls to mind the attire of certain men of the cloth, who see themselves as preachers who deliver the Word more than theologians who parse it. The vest reads like a statement of exaggerated dignity and pulpit-pounding righteousness.

For his photo opportunity with the suits of City Hall, Sharpton dressed in the expected tailored attire, but he made sure that he would not be seen as part of the establishment. He was a little too flashy, a tad too loud. He positioned himself as a peacock of moral clarity.

Sharpton donned more conservative attire with Sean Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre.
Sharpton donned more conservative attire with Sean Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre.(Stephen Chernin - Via Getty Images)
Two days later, Sharpton accompanied the deceased bridegroom's fiancee to the scene of the shooting. He was dressed in a dark suit with subtle pinstripes. Certainly, it was a more somber occasion and his attire conveyed that. But Sharpton's dark jacket and pants also delivered the message that he was The Man in charge.

The difference between a dark suit and one the color of butterscotch has as much to do with formality and tradition as with rebellion. A man's dark suit is the surest way to convey propriety. It acknowledges the accepted code of conduct and gives a nod to the status quo. It can be a sign of appeasement or serve as bespoke camouflage. Wearing a dark suit doesn't mean that a man plans to kowtow to the establishment, but it suggests he plans on playing the social, economic or political game as it exists.

Sharpton's butterscotch-colored suit was almost a visual taunt, a signal to onlookers that his presence should not be construed as an indication that he has become part of the team -- despite the group portrait. He has agreed to play by the rules, but do not underestimate him as an adversary.

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