The news reports at the time, in the late 1980s, were horrific. Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old African-American girl from New York State, was said to have been abducted and repeatedly raped by six white men. She was found with “KKK” written across her chest, a racial epithet on her stomach and her hair smeared with feces. She was so traumatized, according to reports, that at the hospital she answered yes-or-no questions by blinking her eyes. Making the crime even more vile, if that were possible, she and her lawyers later claimed that two of the rapists were law enforcement officials.
Enter a relatively unknown (at the time) African-American activist named Reverend Al Sharpton. Rushing to get in touch with young Tawana, Reverend Al became her mentor, spokesman, and leader of the mass protests demanding justice for Brawley, the victim of an apparent white racist attack. In the process, Sharpton accused the police officer — who Sharpton said had actually attacked her — along with the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, Steven Pagones. “The evidence,” Sharpton said, proved that “an assistant district attorney and a state trooper did this.” Sharpton led mass picket lines at New York state offices, which I recall at times included the always gullible folk singer Pete Seeger.
We all know the outcome, although with this new short documentary, a new generation may be hearing about it for the first time. The Times notes: “After seven months, 6,000 pages of testimony and 180 witnesses, a grand jury found Ms. Brawley’s story to be a lie. Neither the police officer nor the district attorney accused by Ms. Brawley and Mr. Sharpton had been involved in any way, the report concluded.” It was too late for Officer Harry Crist Jr., who committed suicide because of the false accusations made against him, or for Assistant DA Pagones, whose career was ruined and whose reputation was smeared.
Writing today at The Daily Beast, Stuart Stevens calls it a “shocking reminder of the toxic mix racial exploitation and personal ambition can produce.” It should be, he writes, “required viewing for the NBC News executives who are heavily invested in rehabilitating a key culprit of this loathsome episode: the Rev. Al Sharpton.” Stevens is correct, and let me put it more boldly: It is time for MSNBC and its parent, NBC News, to fire Rev. Al Sharpton.