Mayor, Muhammad blame each other for march’s chaotic end

Tuesday, September 8, 1998

Khallid Abdul M...
Khallid Abdul Muhammad

While New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Khallid Abdul Muhammad throw stones at one another in media accounts of Harlem's Labor Day weekend Million Youth March, civil liberty advocates say both are to blame for the event's dramatic end.


Now the matter could very well be settled in court, where a judge would have to decide which side was responsible for skirmishes between march attendees and the police.


Four hours of speeches designed to encourage unity among New York's black and Latino youth ended in scuffles between some of the approximately 6,000 people who attended the event and law enforcement officers, some wearing riot gear.


Giuliani has repeatedly praised the police officers, attributing the relative lack of violence and prevention of serious rioting, property destruction and injuries to their abrupt ending of the event.


However, several onlookers say chairs, bottles and debris were thrown only after police seized the stage. Others point to chief organizer Muhammad's words, which prodded audience members to retaliate (if they were provoked) against police, as incitement for the attacks that followed.


Christopher Dunn, a staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that he did not condone Muhammad's statements, but “if what he was reported to have said is true — that if the police attack, try to take their guns away from them and use them in self defense — I don't think anyone can view that as an attempt to incite a riot.


“At that time the event was over. There is no point to believe the police prevented a riot from taking place,” Dunn said. “By all accounts the problems arose only once a ridiculous number of police officers stormed the stage with riot gear. There is a fair question of whether this would have happened if the event took place in a white neighborhood with a white group. It's absurd.”


Last week a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court voted 2-1 to modify the scope of the march, limiting its duration to four hours and scaling it back to a six-block area of Malcolm X Boulevard from the 29 blocks originally sought by organizers.


It was reported that Muhammad, the event's final speaker, concluded his anti-police, anti-white, anti-Jew and anti-Giuliani remarks shortly after 4 p.m., the court's designated ending time.


“Events take place every single week of the year” in New York, Dunn said. “Many of those events go beyond the time [allocated] by the permits. The rally ended five or six minutes after the timeline. The event was over, and Muhammad was leaving the stage.”


Malik Z. Shabazz, legal counsel and national coordinator for the march, did not return phone calls.


Mayor Rudolph G...
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani

“The police handled it superbly,” Giuliani told The New York Times. “They couldn't possibly have done a better job. The lack of violence is really, truly attributable only to the police, given the invocations to violence, the fact that it ended in the last 10 minutes with a call to kill police officers.


According to The Associated Press, five civilians and 16 police officers were reportedly hurt.


“When the police come out with that kind of result, can't you have the decency to congratulate them?” the mayor asked. “If there's another incident like this, I hope it's handled as well.”


Syndicated columnist Nat Hentoff said that there were three people responsible for the violence that occurred on Saturday.


“Two of them were the police commissioner and the mayor, who ordered the cops to rush in riot gear to the stage when there was no reason for it,” he said. “This was an entirely nonviolent crowd who were very angered when that happened, and they threw chairs.


“But Muhammad, seeing what was going on, told the crowd that in self-defense they could take the guns out of the holsters of the cops, shoot the cops, use the railings surrounding them to beat the cops, and shove them up their a..es — Now that falls under the Brandenburg v. Ohio decision of the U.S. Supreme Court,” Hentoff said.


In the 1969 case, the high court wrote that government cannot “forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”


“This is a classic case of Brandenburg,” Hentoff said. “What Muhammad was doing was not protected speech, and he should have been arrested for inciting violence under the Brandenburg decision.”


Shabazz disagreed, telling The Associated Press that any charges brought by the city against Muhammad for inciting violence “won't be worth the paper they're written on.”


According to Deputy Police Commissioner Marilyn Mode, the district attorney's office has been contacted by the city regarding possible legal action against march organizers.