Veteran civil rights leader Al Sharpton, who has tried to play the statesman during heated protests over police shootings, now faces accusations of incitement after the killings last weekend of two officers in New York City.
The Rev. Sharpton has worked over the years to shed his reputation as a firebrand, and in recent months, he had provoked the ire of younger protesters who favor a more confrontational approach. Sharpton, for instance, angered some young activists by rebuffing them when they unexpectedly asked to speak at a march his nonprofit group organized in Washington.
But after the deaths of the two officers, momentum has shifted away from the protesters, at least temporarily, and now some of the most intense pressure is coming from those who say police have been unfairly vilified.
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and former New York governor George Pataki have blamed Sharpton for using rhetoric that they said fostered an anti-police environment. Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik said Sharpton and others had “blood on their hands.” Conservative commentators posted pictures on Twitter of Sharpton with President Obama to paint the president as a radical on issues of race.
The 60-year-old Obama adviser and MSNBC talk-show host has endured sharp criticism from both flanks, from conservatives who have long seen him as a race-baiting radical to protesters who accuse him of using their movement for self-promotion.
A less experienced civil rights figure might find these waters perilous, but Sharpton’s legitimacy goes deeper than the currents of public opinion. He has been working on issues of police brutality for three decades, and he is the first call many African American families make when they feel that a loved one was unjustly killed by police.
“All of the critics, those people have to ask themselves: Why, if Sharpton is so bad, are the families standing there with him?” he said in an interview last week.
In the wake of the police officers’ deaths, Sharpton has presented himself as a peacemaker, condemning the killings while defending the rights of protesters to continue to decry what they perceive as racist police tactics.
All the while, he has touted his high-profile role. He even concluded a recent news conference by denouncing death threats directed at him — playing one such voice mail for the microphones. “The language is: ‘Hey, n-word, stop killing innocent people. I’m going to get you,’ ” he said. “I have several like this.”
At the podium, he was flanked by Esaw Garner, the widow of Eric Garner, whose death at the hands of police prompted many of the protests. She implored the public not to commit violence in her husband’s name. Sharpton also used his brief remarks to defend New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a close ally who has been criticized for his vocal efforts to reform the police force.
“At this point, he is probably the country’s most well-known civil rights activist,” said Peniel E. Joseph, a professor of African American studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “He has gone from a street protester from New York in the 1990s to someone who has had his ups and downs but really reinvented himself to now have a seat at the White House.”
Sharpton’s earliest brushes with fame were a result of his activism on the issue of white violence against African Americans, including police killings, beginning in the 1980s. His reputation took a hit in 1987, when he championed the case of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old who said she was gang-raped by a group of whites but who was discredited by a grand jury.
He rehabilitated his image, trading in his track suits for ties and blazers. But for much of the country, his reputation remains that of an instigator who uses racial divisions to further his own fame.
Sharpton’s recent prominence follows a wave of killings of unarmed African Americans. Sharpton was one of the first national figures to travel to Sanford, Fla., after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012. He spent time in Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer earlier this year.
He has emphasized nonviolence and change through legislative action. On Monday, he devoted his hour-long MSNBC show to remembrances of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, the New York police officers, while trying to explain why their deaths should not overshadow the concerns raised by protesters.
Younger activists have criticized Sharpton as too much of an establishment insider and have said that he is riding the coattails of their hard work. They have not forgotten that he has at times been critical of the attitude and behavior of black youth.
“Al Sharpton doesn’t speak for us,” said Erika Maye, a spokeswoman for Freedom Side, an Atlanta-based group that has been involved in the protests. “His focus on respectability, pulling up your pants and getting an education — that doesn’t keep our brothers and sisters safe. You can do everything you’re supposed to do, but if a police officer sees you, they will see you as a suspect, so you can still be subject to police violence.”
Sharpton’s backers emphasize that this is not new territory for him and that he has a long career opposing police brutality.
“His career has been about police-community violence. That’s been his issue for 30 years,” said Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans. “It’s a natural role that he is playing.”
Sharpton has little patience for his critics. After decades as perhaps the most divisive black civil rights figure in the nation, he points to his ability to execute — to secure meetings with top lawmakers, including Obama, to catapult overlooked anecdotes into the national consciousness, and to organize marches that can, at times, draw tens of thousands.