America should never forget their names: Garnette Ramantar, Kareem Brunner, Olga Garcia, Angeline Marrero, Cynthia Martinez, Luz Ramos, and Mayra Rentas. These seven innocent people were murdered on Dec. 8, 1995, when a deranged supporter of Al Sharpton burst into Freddie’s Fashion Mart, shot four people and set fire to the Jewish-owned business on Harlem’s 125th Street. Everyone who knows the story of how Sharpton’s shakedown protests against “white interlopers” incited the Freddie’s Fashion Mart massacre must consider Sharpton permanently tainted as a murderous hatemonger.
Sharpton has never repented for inciting murder and, because he has dishonestly denied responsibility, he ought to be regarded as entirely untrustworthy — falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. No honest person would publicly associate with this race-baiting demagogue, much less provide Sharpton a platform to promote his wicked worldview, and yet there he was on every TV network this week, preaching the eulogy for George Floyd. That his sermon was a species of blasphemy should surprise no one, for Sharpton is a liar and, as Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees, the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44).
The false accusations against Harari were accompanied by implied threats. Powell’s promises to make sure “this cracker suffers … to show them” conveyed a distinct meaning to anyone familiar with what had happened in Crown Heights just four years earlier.
Although he insists on being called “Reverend,” Sharpton is not a man of God, but rather a selfish and sinister extortionist who has gotten rich by promoting evil, profiting from his specialty of inciting racial hatred. Sharpton ought to be regarded as persona non grata not merely because his rhetoric encourages black people to hate white people, but because his dishonest demagoguery actually inflames white racism. If Sharpton represents “the black community” — if his ignorant and hateful rhetoric truly expresses what the average black person believes — why shouldn’t white people fear for their lives? Anyone who would choose Sharpton as their representative thereby implicitly condones riots, arson and murder as a means of advancing “black power” against “white interlopers,” to cite Sharpton’s own words during the 1995 protests he led against Freddie’s Fashion Mart. How is it that America has allowed itself to forget his role in a historic massacre?
Freddy’s Fashion Mart was owned by Fred Harari. His family came to America from Syria as part of an exodus of Sephardic Jews from the Middle East during the post-World War II era, when Arab nationalism inflamed anti-Semitism in the region. Harari’s family settled in Brooklyn and prospered, as explained by Lucette Lagnado in a historical account of this immigrant community:
As the middle class fled New York and department stores shut down, Syrian Jews stayed put, set up family businesses, and prospered by opening bargain stores that appealed to the city’s new working class. The Wiz, Century 21, Conway, and Strawberry are all owned by Syrian Jewish families. These are adept businessmen who mastered the art of sales in the souks of Damascus and Aleppo.
Harari’s maternal grandfather, Abe Cohen, founded a successful discount chain (Conway Stores, which sold out in 2014) and Harari’s first job was as a shipping and receiving clerk at Conway’s Brooklyn location. By 1988, however, Harari was ready to strike out on his own and, at age 24, launched his own store in the Bronx. By 1992, Freddy’s Fashion Mart was ready to expand, and Harari opened two more stores, adding a second Bronx location and another on 125th Street in Harlem. The site Harari leased for his Harlem store was in a building owned by a black Pentecostal church, the United House of Prayer, and part of the space Harari rented was sublet to the Record Shack, a music store owned by a South African immigrant, Sikhulu Shange. This arrangement — the church as landlord, Harari as tenant and Shange as Harari’s subtenant — eventually produced a conflict. The church raised Harari’s rent, which in turn led him to raise the Record Shack’s rent; Shange disputed the rent increase and sought help in this dispute from Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN).
By 1995, Sharpton was already notorious for trafficking in lies and hatred. There is no need to recount here Sharpton’s leading role in the 1987 Tawana Brawley hoax, but his role in the 1991 anti-Semitic riots in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn is relevant to the Freddy’s Fashion Mart story. The rampage of violence against Jews in Crown Heights has been called a “pogrom,” and many have pointed the finger of blame at Sharpton. What began as a tragic automobile accident, in which a car in a Hasidic rabbi’s motorcade struck and killed a seven-year-old child, turned into a three-day riot. Businesses were burned or looted, more than 150 police officers and nearly 40 civilians were injured, and a 29-year-old graduate from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was fatally stabbed by a gang of black teenagers. When it was announced in 2011 that Sharpton would be included in a 20th-anniversary discussion of the Crown Heights riots, Rosenbaum’s brother was furious. “It’s just an absolute disgrace,” Norman Rosenbaum told the New York Post. “His vile rhetoric incited the rioting.”
Sharpton has vehemently disclaimed any responsibility for the riots or the murder of Rosenbaum, but what happened after the riots ended is beyond dispute. At the funeral of Gavin Cato, the boy killed in the accident, Sharpton “gave an anti-Semitic eulogy, which fueled the fires of hatred,” as Jeff Dunetz recounted:
“The world will tell us he was killed by accident. Yes, it was a social accident.… It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights.… Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid.…
“All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise, no meetings, no kaffe klatsch, no skinnin’ and grinnin’. Pay for your deeds.” …
Sharpton and the lawyer representing the Cato family counseled them not to cooperate with authorities in the investigation and demanded a special prosecutor be named.
When Sharpton was asked about the violence, he justified it:
“We must not reprimand our children for outrage, when it is the outrage that was put in them by an oppressive system.”
The first Sabbath after the funeral, Sharpton tried unsuccessfully to kick up tensions again by marching 400 protesters in front of the Lubavitch of Crown Heights shouting “No Justice, No Peace.”
Shouldn’t a man of God be expected to know the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”? By defaming the Jews as perpetrators of “apartheid,” a word deliberately chosen to inflame racial hatred, Sharpton earned the permanent contempt of every decent American. And there’s another commandment any minister of the gospel should know: “Thou shalt not covet … any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” Envy is condemned by God, and what else was Sharpton’s “diamond merchants” remark but an incitement of envy?
Certainly not every Jew is rich — there are plenty of working-class Jews, and many more who struggle to maintain middle-class status — but no other people on Earth have been so maligned for their wealth as the Jews. Never mind, of course, that most Jews in America are descended from impoverished immigrants who came here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The wealthiest Jews in America today are, in almost every case, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants who came to these shores with little more than the clothes on their backs, who toiled long hours in factories or small shops to feed their families. Anti-Semitism was quite virulent back then, and those Jewish immigrants faced no small amount of prejudice, but they were willing to suffer this as the price of living in the land of opportunity. However much hatred they experienced, America offered Jewish immigrants more hope than they ever had in Europe, and best of all, free public education!
It is difficult for anyone in the 21st century to appreciate what America’s public school system once meant to immigrants. The idea that their children could receive a free education, and perhaps even attend college, was considered by those “huddled masses” who came through Ellis Island to be worth however many hours they had to work, however much they had to scrimp and save, however much prejudice they had to endure. America’s public school system was one of the best in the world, and Jewish immigrants pushed their children to pursue education as the key to success. In his 2006 book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell showed how, over the course of three generations, several Jewish families went from working in New York’s garment factory to being doctors, lawyers, and millionaires. In a nation that valued and rewarded their intelligence and hard work, Jews had ample reason to be proud of their success.
Sharpton’s “diamond merchant” smear was an expression of prejudice, the belief that somehow any Jew who is rich must have gotten that way by wrongful methods. Anti-Semites view Jewish success as the fruit of a sinister conspiracy. Of course, nothing good can come from such beliefs. The failed artist Hitler, living a squalid existence in Vienna, blamed his misfortunes on the Jews, and the deadly result was enough to inspire a vow: Never again, the Jews promised the world.
So it was that the 1991 Crown Heights pogrom gave birth to the Jewish Action Alliance (JAA). Founded by Beth Gilinsky, JAA made a point of monitoring Sharpton’s activities, including his media appearances. When the infamous hate-hustler began promoting protests against Freddy’s Fashion Mart in the summer of 1995, JAA’s recordings of Sharpton and his NAN colleague Morris Powell captured the proof of his role in the ensuing catastrophe. The store owner had gone to court seeking an injunction against the protesters, the New York Times reported after the massacre:
In court papers filed the day before the fire, Fred A. Harari, the owner of Freddy’s, and two employees described weeks of protests outside the clothing store in which demonstrators threatened employees, hurled obscenities at “bloodsucking Jews” and talked of burning down the store.
And yesterday, the Jewish Action Alliance, a New York-based civil-rights group, released audiotapes of several of Mr. Sharpton’s weekly radio broadcasts in which Mr. Powell and Mr. Shange can be heard using racially laced language to encourage Harlem residents to boycott Freddy’s.
“We are going to see that this cracker suffers,” Mr. Powell is heard telling a crowd on one tape, which Alliance officials said was recorded on Aug. 19. “Reverend Sharpton is on it. We have made contact with these crackers. We don’t expect a lot out of them. They haven’t seen how we feel about anything yet. We are going to show them.”
Mr. Powell also calls Freddy’s “the Jewish department store.” Mr. Harari is Jewish.
At a rally the group said was recorded on Sept. 9, Mr. Sharpton is heard telling a crowd: “I want to make it clear to the radio audience and to you here that we will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business on 125th Street.”
The rallies were broadcast on WWRL-AM (1600) …
Throughout the tapes, both Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Powell are heard repeatedly mentioning the plight of Mr. Shange: that Freddy’s was trying to evict his business from a prime location on 125th Street, a thoroughfare that Mr. Sharpton said symbolized the heart of Harlem and black America.
Mr. Sharpton also accused the Giuliani administration of “trying to change the color of New York.”
“It is clear that their intentions are trying to retake anything they can and to eradicate and eliminate any semblance of black power or black stronghold in the city,” Mr. Sharpton said. “And if we sit by and allow it to happen, we can blame no one but us.” …
“These people don’t kick nothing back or help do nothing except sponge and parasite off our dollars,” Mr. Powell said on a tape that was dated Sept. 23. “And they are going to drive a man out of business that is stationed here? And we are going to sit back and allow that to happen? That cracker got to be insane.”
The First Amendment protects even the most hateful forms of speech (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969), but it could be argued that the words of Sharpton and his associates were slanderous toward Harari and that the protests they organized were an illegal interference in his business. Freddy’s Fashion Mart was not part of a conspiracy to “eradicate and eliminate” black-owned business in Harlem, “to change the color of New York.” Harari simply was involved in a rent dispute with a tenant, the kind of situation that happens every day, and there was no evidence that race played a role in the dispute between Harari and Shange.
The false accusations against Harari were accompanied by implied threats. Powell’s promises to make sure “this cracker suffers … to show them” conveyed a distinct meaning to anyone familiar with what had happened in Crown Heights just four years earlier. If this was not extortion — a shakedown operation, with an implied threat of retaliatory violence — what was it? In his book The Future Once Happened Here, scholar Fred Siegel called it “the riot ideology, a racial version of collective bargaining,” backed by the threat of destructive violence: “Be prepared to pay up or be prepared for trouble.”
Trouble finally came to Freddie’s Fashion Mart in the fatal form of Roland J. Smith Jr. A native of Harlem, Smith had embarked on a life of crime as a teenager — he was first arrested in 1957 at age 13 — and quickly racked up charges for multiple car thefts, inciting to riot, and receiving stolen goods. In 1966, police arrested him for possessing a variety of weapons, and in 1967, he was sentenced to federal prison for draft evasion. After serving two years, Smith later moved to Florida to live with his sister. He was known as a devotee of black separatist ideology and African nationalism, and at some point began calling himself “Abubunde Mulocko.” In 1989, during a routine traffic stop in Tampa, Smith became belligerent with police and was sentenced to probation on a variety of charges. Two years later, $20 behind on his court supervision payments, Smith skipped out and returned to New York.
Smith became one of the unlicensed street vendors who peddled their wares in Harlem, whose cause was championed by Sharpton and Powell after newly elected Mayor Rudy Giuliani sought to clean up the streets. Smith later joined the Sharpton-led mob protesting at Freddy’s Fashion Mart. The New York Times described Smith as “steeped in perceived victimization and deep distrust, in conspiracy theories, poetry and lots of anger.” Other street vendors said Smith “often ordered white tourists in Harlem to stay away from his table,” quoting one of his acquaintances: “Everything to him was a conspiracy against black people. It was always, ‘Cracker this, cracker that.’ He would say, ‘These crackers come through our town looking at us as if we were caged animals.’ ” Such was the hateful spirit that animated the fatal attack on Fred Harari’s store in December 1995, as described in Siegel’s book:
When he entered the store, Abubunde … shouted, “It’s on now!” Armed with a .38, he shot three whites and a Pakistani in cold blood — he had mistaken the light-skinned Pakistani for a Jew — and then set a fire that killed five Hispanics, a Guyanese, and a black, the security guard whom the protesters had taunted as a “cracker lover.”
The recordings by the JAA documented the role played by Sharpton and Powell and, quoting a “senior investigator” for the NYPD, the New York Times reported:
The investigator said there was “absolutely no doubt” that Mr. Smith was well known to Mr. Powell, the vendors’ confrontational leader with the criminal past and taste for racist language, and that Mr. Smith’s action was an outgrowth of the anti-Semitic atmosphere that prevailed among the protesters outside Freddy’s.
Roland Smith died along with his victims, and no charges were ever filed against Sharpton or Powell in connection with the Freddy’s Fashion Mart massacre. But how is it that, less than 25 years after this hateful crime inspired by the “anti-Semitic atmosphere” in the protest against “white interlopers” in Harlem, Sharpton is now treated as respectable figure? Why is he on the payroll of NBC News?
On his blue-check “verified” Twitter account, Sharpton posted video Monday of himself boarding a private jet en route to Texas for George Floyd’s “final memorial service.” At that memorial, Sharpton invoked scripture (cf., I Peter 2, Psalm 118, and Isaiah 28) to declare that God had chosen Floyd as “the cornerstone of a movement that’s going to change the whole wide world.”
What sort of movement is this, and what sort of change does the race-baiting, Jew-hating “Reverend” intend to achieve? Shouldn’t we expect any movement led by Sharpton to produce the kind of deadly hatred that claimed the lives of Garnette Ramantar, Kareem Brunner, Olga Garcia, Angeline Marrero, Cynthia Martinez, Luz Ramos, and Mayra Rentas? The ghosts of Freddy’s Fashion Mart still haunt us. We can expect America to pay a high price for forgetting their names.