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by Dr. Boyce Watkins – Your Black World
It has been reported that the National Action Network (NAN) is considering all legal options after evidence has surfaced that the New York Police Department has been spying on the organization and its leader, Rev. Al Sharpton.
According to the Huffington Post, the NYPD has placed spies outside the Harlem headquarters of the National Action Network and even gone as far as trying to discredit Sharpton by spreading the rumor that he is gay. The post alleges that the NYPD placed a spy inside NAN meetings to find out how the group planned to protest the acquittal of officers responsible for the killing of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man, right before his wedding.
Paul J. Browne, the NYPD’s spokesman, has confirmed that the organization sought to gather intelligence inside NAN meetings. He does claim, however, that they weren’t trying to dig up dirt.
“Neither the Rev. Sharpton nor the National Action Network, but a separate individual who was present was the subject of the NYPD Intelligence Division’s interest at the May 3, 2008 meeting in question,” Browne said.
Len Levitt, who wrote the article for the Huffington Post, says that Browne’s statement is inaccurate.
“Two undercover police officers who spied on black protest groups in the 1980s told this reporter in 1998 that the department was so intent on discrediting Sharpton that they were tasked by their superiors to spread rumors that he was homosexual.”
“The NYPD’s spying actions are an intolerable abuse by law enforcement, and remind us of the bad days when J. Edgar Hoover recklessly spied on Dr. King and other Civil Rights leaders in the 1960s,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
NAACP President Ben Jealous said this: “If NYPD is spying on civil rights leaders, it is outrageous and must be stopped.”
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. said: “African American leaders have historically been the subject of unlawful spying by law enforcement officials seeking to discredit our leaders and our movement. The revelation about the New York Police Department spying on Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network in 2008 are wrong — Police Commissioner Kelly, as he promised over a year ago, must issue a full fact finding report on the matter, fully disclose the spying activities of the police department and make restitution to Rev. Sharpton and NAN for this invasion of privacy.”
We all know that Al Sharpton is not perfect. I have given honest critiques of the good and bad of Sharpton in the past. Also, as the son of a 25-year police veteran, I’ve been able to obtain some understanding of that which is necessary to do proper police work.
But these allegations are, without question, disturbing. There’s credibility to what Levitt is saying, in large part because our government has made an historic living by spying on high-profile African Americans. Almost no one can bring a crowd together like Al Sharpton, and there is almost no bigger threat to the NYPD.
While it is not entirely clear whether NAN has grounds for a lawsuit against the NYPD, this should give us a moment of pause to understand the imagery we see when it comes to African Americans who are visible in the public eye. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are presented to us, in some cases, as clowns who are hungry for media attention. Many of these images are manufactured by oppressive forces who become concerned about the idea of African Americans becoming empowered and fighting for their rights. Both Jesse and Al are strong, intelligent men, and many of the media portrayals are highly inaccurate.
I recall being told by a high ranking police official that because speak openly about politics and black empowerment, I was probably in quite a few police files. This comes with the territory and we should never underestimate the degree of treachery with which the state will pursue its objectives. Neither NAN, nor Al Sharpton, deserves to have their rights violated in this way, and this incident should open the door for a broader investigation.
Jesse Jackson has it right that there should be a full fact-finding mission on this issue. I argue that there should be a federal investigation. If the NYPD or any of its leadership went outside the law in any way, heads should start rolling immediately.