For all the racial recrimination, court battles and street fights over the "Million Youth March," the event was held today with a crowd even smaller than last year's and with none of the clashes that broke out a year ago when police moved to shut the march down.
Last year's melee broke out when a phalanx of officers in riot gear and on horseback moved in a few minutes after the march's permit expired. Backed by helicopters, police surged toward the stage, where march convener Khallid Abdul Muhammad urged his listeners to defend themselves by seizing police guns, batons and barricades and using them as weapons. In a brief bout of chair and bottle throwing, 28 people were injured.
This time, however, police conceded to the dictates of a court order and did not rush in to clear the crowd when the event concluded. Mimicking the voice of a nerd, Muhammad said to police today as 4 p.m. approached, "Don't get nervous, buddy. Just chill, buddy."
"The people have already said they are not going to take what happened last year. I don't have to repeat what I said last year. They remember."
He then urged the crowd to disperse "in an orderly fashion. We want you to be courteous, polite, and respectful." With that, the rally ended.
The administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani denied a city permit for the march this year, as it did last year, on the grounds that Muhammad and others involved with it espouse racial hatred and violence. But in both instances, Muhammad took the city to court and won. Earlier this week, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that even "bigoted, hateful, violent and frightening" speech such as Muhammad's is protected by the First Amendment.
March organizers had predicted that thousands of people would fill the six city blocks in the Harlem section of Manhattan where their event was held. But today's crowd barely filled a single block and may have been matched in size by the 1,500 police officers--down from last year's 3,000--on hand to control it.
The size of the crowd, however, did not diminish Muhammad's rhetoric. Ostracized in 1994 from Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam because of his unauthorized harsh language, Muhammad used his 75-minute speech to preach on self-respect and black upliftment. But he also ridiculed whites--especially Giuliani--as "crackers," saying they were the same as plantation overseers who cracked the whip on slaves. As for Jews, the group on which he has historically heaped his harshest words, he characterized them as biblical impostors.
He and other speakers also railed against the black political and civic leaders who opposed this year's march and who called for people to boycott it. Premier among them was Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and City Council member Bill Perkins, who said he was taunted with threats of death by Muhammad and his supporters last month because he opposed the rally.
Also missing this year were other prominent black leaders, such as Al Sharpton, a popular New York activist, who spoke last year but did not today. Local churches and civic groups, which last year supported the concept of a youth march if not its organizers, also did not participate.
A sign of the difficulties his movement faces came when his supporters, wearing "New Black Panther Party" badges on the all-black coveralls they wore tucked into black combat boots, moved through the crowd with buckets and plastic shopping bags to take up a collection to cover the cost of the stage and sound system.
Muhammad has fashioned himself as an advocate of black power, with the march as the centerpiece of his activism. He espouses black self-determination, the formation of people's militias and a conservative code of social conduct.
CAPTION: The "Million Youth March" fills a block in the Harlem section of New York City, where the rally was marked by fiery rhetoric, but no incidents.