'I was no Mob rat' says Rev Al Sharpton. Pull the other one...
The revelation that Obama's friend Sharpton was an FBI snitch in the 1980s has the ring of truth
WAS the Rev Al Sharpton, America’s top racial provocateur, really a 'Mob rat' known to the FBI as Confidential Informant No 7 or CI-7? If he was, can the man who nowadays hobnobs with President Obama and who has his own cable television show live it down?
The answer is almost certainly 'Yes' on both counts.
There is always something left to surprise us about the Rev Al, now 59 years old and a slender, bespoke-suited shadow of his former 300lb self. That is part of the charisma that has kept us intrigued, and sometimes appalled, for the last 30 years.
It has been rumoured for most of that time that Sharpton has had a complicated relationship with law enforcement officers.
The FBI and the New York Police Department persecuted him mercilessly back in the 1980s when he was the rising star of black street protest, coining the mantra 'No Justice, No Peace' and becoming a model for the hustling Rev Bacon in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.
With his bouffant hair-do and Martin Luther King peace medallion swinging from his neck as the ultimate in Civil Rights bling, and with his background as a 'boy preacher' headlining in Harlem store-front churches while hanging out with superstar soul singer James Brown, he made a perfect target.
All they ever got on him were allegations that he had sold complimentary James Brown concert tickets for his own profit, and that he’d fiddled his expenses. But the word went around that he had bought himself some wiggle-room by snitching on some of his more entrepreneurial associates, including Don King, the boxing promoter who made Mike Tyson world champ.
But the trove of confidential court papers published this week by the The Smoking Gun website tells a whole different story.
They have CI-7 running around New York with a briefcase fitted by the FBI with a tape-recorder, setting up some of the city’s top Mafia men on charges from heroin dealing to complicity in murder.
Why would Sharpton have co-operated? He had been caught on video talking with an FBI undercover agent about a buyer for a cocaine deal, although he does not appear to incriminate himself.
Most of the papers to surface are applications put before eight different New York judges for wire-tap and surveillance permits, part of the 'racketeering' cases against the New York Mob families of the Genoveses and the Gambinos which finally broke the power of the Mafia in the late 1980s and 90s. Evidence collected from CI-7 is quoted as justification for the permits.
“Genovese squad investigators - representing both the FBI and NYPD - recalled how Sharpton deftly extracted information from wiseguys,” writes Smoking Gun founder-editor William Bastone.
“In fact, one Gambino crime family figure became so comfortable with the protest leader that he spoke openly - during ten wired face-to-face meetings - about a wide range of mob business, from shylocking and extortions to death threats and the sanity of Vincent 'Chin' Gigante, the Genovese boss who long feigned mental illness in a bid to deflect law enforcement scrutiny.
"As the mafioso expounded on these topics, Sharpton’s briefcase - a specially customised Hartmann model - recorded his every word.”
Those were the days. One of the wire-taps was to be fitted at the Triangle Social Club at 208 Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, from where Gigante ruled the Genoveses, and which just happened to be next door to the Greenwich Village Neighborhood School where my daughter had started at age five. It was 1987.
The Chin used to stroll up and down the street in a dressing-gown and flat cap. His 'capos' and 'associates' would sip their espressos on tin tables set up on the sidewalk outside the blacked-out windows of the club. They wore spectacles and baggy corduroys with cheap windcheaters, and would chuck the cheeks of the kids as we wheeled them up for school.
New to New York, I was told the old boys were part of a 'neighbourhood association'. They kept things nice for local families. Sullivan Street was the only place in town where you could leave a stroller without fear of theft, and a dope dealer who started peddling cocaine on the corner of West 3rd Street suffered two broken legs when he ignored their advice to go away.
It was only when the New York Times published a photograph of the Chin in his eccentric attire that I realised that this was the true-life Mob, all Sopranos and very little Godfather.
At about the same time, I met Sharpton in a casino in Atlantic City. He was there with Mike Tyson and Don King, all spiffed-up in a shiny tracksuit with the big gold medal around his neck. “Who’s that?” I asked. “He’s a local civil rights leader,” the man from the Associated Press answered.
It was just months before the incident that did more than anything to set the course for Sharpton’s career.
Sharpton and a pair of radical black lawyers manipulated into a national scandal the shocking case of how Tawana Brawley, a teenage girl, had been abducted and sexually abused by a group of six white men including a sheriff’s deputy and a prosecuting attorney.
The trouble was, the story was made up and there remains a great swathe of New York which has never forgiven Sharpton for his role in the affair.
I had no idea that the stories of the Rev Al and the eccentric Mafia don were intertwined. But it makes sense that they were. The Mob always took an interest in black entertainment, where there was money to be made, and Sharpton always liked to have at least one foot in the same world for its voice and for the glamour that rubbed off on him.
He sees the caper differently.
“I think they take a lot of leaps here,” Sharpton says of the Smoking Gun story. And although he denies snitching, he adds cheerfully: “If I brought down the Mob, I want my ticker tape parade.”
He says his contacts with the FBI came when he went to them as “ a civil rights kid of 29” seeking protection from threats of violence which had followed a campaign to recover money owed to black singers and songwriters, a plot line which later surfaced in an episode of The Sopranos.
That would be the kind of quid-pro-quo deal that Sharpton has always mastered. That is how you survive the mean streets of the city, and it is his ability to survive and get ahead despite everything that wins the Sharpton his following. He has always been true to life as it must be lived by black Americans.
Much is being made of the irony of the once rebel reverend’s burgeoning friendship with Obama. As controversy over CI-7’s snooping for the FBI rages, that reaches new heights this week when Obama comes to New York as the star speaker at the annual gathering of Sharpton’s National Action Network.
You can’t get much more “establishment” than that. But the true irony is that it is Obama who needs the reflected charisma of the Rev Al, because it is Sharpton, far more so than Obama, who knows from bitter experience what it means to be a black American. ·