A peaceful rally in Harlem was brought to an abrupt end yesterday when march leader Khallid Abdul Muhammad urged participants to defend themselves against possible attack from police as hundreds of officers in riot gear converged on the crowd.
About 16 police officers — of the estimated 3,000 on duty at the event — and one civilian were injured, two of the officers requiring hospitalization but not reported in critical condition. One person was arrested after police insisted that march leaders leave the stage and the approximately 6,000 participants disperse at p.m., the time a judge set for the end of what was billed as the Million Youth March.
Some in the crowd hurled trash cans, chairs, metal barricades and bottles at police at the intersection of Malcolm X Boulevard and 118th Street.
“The police certainly provoked this,” said Cornel West, a Harvard professor who specializes in race relations and who witnessed the skirmish.
“The whole atmosphere was so fascist. It’s another sad day when we see this kind of hostility and provocation,” he said.
The melee came after weeks of speculation that the event — led by militant black leader Muhammad and fiercely opposed by New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — would turn violent.
Both police and Muhammad seemed determined to fulfill those prophecies.
Under a cloudless late-summer sky, the crowd of mostly African-Americans of all ages heard speeches and chanted slogans peacefully from noon until 4 p.m., the march time limit set by a judge in rejecting Giuliani’s efforts to stop the march.
But at 10 minutes to 4, police backed three patrol wagons to the rear of the stage at 118th Street. Hundreds of officers nearby donned riot helmets and brandished billy clubs even as Muhammad prepared to take the microphone to make the keynote speech.
Several minutes into his speech, Muhammad announced to the cheering, impassioned crowd that the police presence had intensified. Though he urged participants to be peaceful and avoid injury, he repeatedly recommended that they defend themselves and not back down from confrontation with police.
“We have a right, a God-given right to defend ourselves against anyone who attacks us,” Muhammad said. “If you don’t have a gun in self-defense you take their goddammed gun!”
As the crowd cheered and waved their hands, the clock struck 4, and members of Muhammad’s staff enclosed the march’s sound system with metal police barricades.
Police and participants began to shove one another, members of the crowd threw bottles toward police, and about a dozen police officers rushed onto the stage, silencing the speeches. Hundreds in the crowd raised their fists, repeatedly shouting “Black power!” and refusing orders to disperse.
As chairs, trash cans and metal barricades flew, many dashed from the area to seek safety. Muhammad, who was quickly whisked off the stage by his staff, apparently took refuge in a nearby church. But for those who remained behind, the scene of six-deep rows of police advancing on the crowd while march organizers pleaded for the crowd to disperse was tense and volatile.
“I think it’s clear that we basically had a peaceful march, but Mayor Giuliani was embarrassed that the court overturned” his attempt to block the march, Hiram Ashantee, youth minister for the Philadelphia branch of Muhammad’s Black Organizing Committee, said of the police move to clear the crowd.
Indeed, as police slowly urged the crowd north along Malcolm X Boulevard, many participants seemed to realize that the height of the confrontation had passed. Within an hour, most people had left the area around the stage, leaving mostly journalists, discarded trash and a handful of observers shaking their heads and lamenting the negative turn of events.
“They should have left at 4 o’clock like the mayor said they should,” said one elderly woman, whose apartment overlooks the rally area. “He told them what the limit was, and they didn’t listen. They didn’t listen.” She declined to give her name.
The march coincided with a similar gathering this weekend of youth in Atlanta — the Million Youth Movement — organized by such groups as the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Although organizers for both events dispute which was planned first, none dispute that the four-day Atlanta rally is generally perceived as more mainstream and pro-integration than the New York gathering. White people were not invited to Muhammad’s gathering, and many of more than two dozen speakers yesterday — excluding the Rev. Al Sharpton, who urged racial harmony — made anti-white and anti-Jewish statements that some found offensive.
“It’s kind of stupid to attack Jews,” said New York filmmaker Henri Falconi, 32. “I thought it was going to be more multicultural.”