But if you turned off 125th St. and down Malcolm X Blvd., you'd find that Harlem had suddenly grown quiet. The streets were empty; the sidewalks were lined with steel barricades. Every corner bore a squad of cops from different commands. The officers were relaxed but wary. Everything stayed weirdly calm until 118th St. On that corner, you found it: a black stage flying a sign that read "Million Youth March." So here it was. About 1000 to 1500 people stood packed in by the platform, waiting. A street-fair atmosphere played through the air, and the various groups sharing the area?rallygoers, Harlem residents, media crews and cops?were being cordial to each other. Most of the media was penned into an area offstage right. Then Shaunette Daniels hit the stage and opened with a chant. Fists punched the air near the front of the stage and voices screamed, "Black Power! Black Power!" You could almost see hairs rise on the necks of some of the white media guys. Oh, shit. It's on?and I'm here.
I can't say I blame white journalists for having been apprehensive about covering Khalid Muhammad's rally. But in all my years, I've never had a problem up in Harlem, and I figured one little fellow with a nasty message wouldn't do much to change my odds. I walked with a photographer from block to block, talking to whoever would give me the time of day. I've been more scared at the San Gennaro festival. Hispanic guys snaked through the crowds, hawking one-dollar Rosemary's ices. A few people peddled bottled water. A couple barbecue grills were charring up meat. Not one human being was drinking alcohol.
The first man I talked with was Al Glover. He's a lifetime Harlem resident who works as a private engineer in several Harlem apartment houses. Glover was smoking a long cigar. A singing group hit the stage and he rolled his eyes.
"The last thing black people need are music, basketball and pit bulls," he said. "That's all these kids know now. They don't know plumbing. They can't find a fuse box. None of them could install a sink. They all want to be basketball stars.
"Black kids need to learn a trade. That's what they should tell them here today. Learn a trade or you're going to wind up poor or in jail. Look around here. All these abandoned apartment houses. We could fix them up. They all claim to hate the white man, but if they don't learn a trade that's who's going to wind up taking care of them: the white man. Damn, the Chinese 30 years ago, all they did was laundries. Now look at them. They own fish and vegetable stores. That's what we need to do."
I asked Glover if he supported the march. He shot me a wry smile.
"Yes, the community has spoken, and they are all right with it. It can't hurt anything."
The Million Youth March was a misnomer, and not only because the numbers were off. Many of the attendees weren't youths?25 to 30 was probably the participants' mean age?and there was no march.
"Well, there was no march because they weren't allowed to march from 145th by the federal courts, which we think is a constitutional violation," King Downing, a tall, slim lawyer from Newark, told me. Downing attended the rally wearing a yellow Legal Observer arm band. He was there, along with a few others, to ensure that the authorities would respect the court order.
"People have a right to be here," he said. "Last year I was behind the stage as the cops assembled. At 4:01 p.m. they did attack the stage. This year we hope it will be better."
A dredlocked young man took the stage and read the Million Youth March's seven-point program: 1) End police brutality. 2) Build a black militia?or as the speaker put it, "Black man, it's time to get suited and booted." 3) Build independent financial and political institutions. 4) Create black liberation schools. 5) Insist on reparations to African-Americans for slavery. 6) Free all political prisoners. 7) Foster self-determination for a black nation. At one point the speaker digressed in order to discuss those 25-cent plastic-bottled juice drinks that the white man sells in the ghetto, and to mention how those juices are making the asthma rate escalate among Harlem's youth. I heard a cop say he was going to take a break and get something to drink. His partner suggested he pick up a few 25-cent juices.
The crowd was big on t-shirts flashing slogans like "Fuck Giuliani," or "Reason No. 331 I don't trust the police"?the latter right underneath a picture of Mark Fuhrman testifying at the O.J. trial. You had the requisite "Free Mumia" crowd, carrying a big old banner. The Mumia group was led by two young white kids wearing shirts that proclaimed: "I used to be a White American till I gave it up in the interest of humanity." One white guy with a bulky backpack dropped a bottle of soda by mistake. He looked around like he'd busted a church window, then picked up every last piece of glass?to the amusement of the blacks standing around him.
I approached a black man at the corner of 119th St. who held two African flags and looked through his binoculars up at the scores of cops stationed on the roofs of the surrounding buildings. I asked him if he'd talk to me, and was curtly told, "No." But as I walked away, he caught up with me and said, "Put down that?they're watching us, and we're watching them. And Safir and Giuliani lied. They said there would be no steel barricades and no helicopters. They have both."
Indeed, a helicopter hovered above us. I asked him if it was an NYPD aircraft. He adjusted his glasses, looked up.
"It's a Channel 2 News chopper."
A crew dressed all in white held a Muslim prayer rally, flying a banner proclaiming themselves "Thug Nubeins." A lady handed me a flier that identified her as Dr. Delois Blakely, the Community Mayor of Harlem.
"I've been telling all the police that if they have any concerns out here about security with our young people, to please seek me out and I can take care of it. This is a very nice rally."
I thanked the Mayor, and she walked away smiling. Another man, Stephon Omarr, distributed pamphlets exhorting people not to use the "n" word.
"It's a negative word," he explained, "and too many people are now using it. It's no longer a joke. I just became a grandfather, and by the time [my grandson] is my age, I hope this word will be stomped out from daily usage."
A Scoutmaster in full uniform stood against a steel barricade, looking at the rally. I asked him where his troop was. John Fredrick, 72, sighed and said, "Last year I had 50 here. This year the mothers all got scared and I only have two here. I think this rally is a good thing. Khalid Abdul Muhammad is not the serpent the media makes him out to be. You can learn from him."
An hour into the rally, that same Khalid Abdul Muhammad finally appeared. He stomped up the boulevard with a South American dictator's determined gait. I was surprised by just how little he is, and by how his head's shaped just like a bullet. I thumped my chest as he passed right in front of me, and said, "Hey Khalid, what's up." He looked through me like I was a grafted snake and turned away. Camera crews chased him back to his hideaway on 118th St.
I needed a break before Muhammad spoke, so we headed up to a restaurant called Louise's Home Cooking. A few kids sat at the counter. They asked us how we liked the rally so far. We opined that it was a bit dull, and they agreed. Marvin came in and took our orders. The big man served us some delicious cheeseburgers, and I asked him if he'd made any money from the rally.
"Last year we did better because I think more people came," he shrugged. "It's been quiet."
The cops said 800 people were present on Saturday, but they always lowball it unless they're talking about a PBA rally. The Daily News took their word for it, and reported the same figure. The Post clocked it at 1000, while the Times played it safe, placing the crowd more accurately in the thousands. AP estimated that 2000 showed. Myself, I'd say 3000 people attended the march. Steve Dunleavy wrote his inevitable rally story for the Post. Now, I was making a point of looking out to see which media people might have shown their faces, but I didn't see any Steve Dunleavy. Maybe I missed him; maybe he was there. He wrote on Sunday that one or two Bloods or Crips walked by him. How would Dunleavy have known that? Elite NYPD squads have trouble identifying Bloods and Crips?but Dunleavy, that ancient Aussie bloodhound, can pick them out like bikers at a church social? Dunleavy also called Muhammad an engaging speaker, one almost as good as Farrakhan. Not true. Farrakhan is an amazingly hypnotic speaker. Muhammad is not. His rambling speech at rally's end bored even some of his most ardent supporters.
It was comical, though. During the speech, a phalanx of security guards onstage kept their own movements synchronized with Muhammad's. Good stuff. He'd hopstep, and then a second later 10 bodyguards would hopstep in imitation of him. The photographer who accompanied me said: "You know, all I hear when this guy talks is German," and he had a point. Muhammad warmed the crowd up with a few good digs at white women, and insisted that black athletes need to stay with black women. At one point he referred to white women thus: "stringy-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned, buttermilk complexion, grafted, recessive, depressive, iron-board backside, straight-up-and-straight-down, no frills, no thrills, Miss 6 o'clock thing."
That riff's one of Muhammad's favorites. He's said it countless times before. It always generates a big cheer from the crowd, especially from the black women. What followed was all familiar material. An explanation of the import of the word "cracker"; a defiant claim that Muhammad wouldn't stop calling white people "devils" because, after all, that was an expression of his religious beliefs. You know: the whole story of the mad scientist Yacub, and all the rest.
You elect a Rudy Giuliani, you have to expect a Khalid Muhammad. You want one, you get the other. They go together. Whites tend to underestimate the resentment and hostility with which blacks view them, and the bitterness with which they listen to white politicians telling them whom they should listen to. Enough, already. Blacks accept the good things Muhammad says?and he does have some useful things to say?and leave the trash behind. Hardly anyone's going to run out and buy arms to follow this fool.
Muhammad's speech wound down, and I figured it was a good time to leave. The trouble time at public events?rallies, concerts, sporting events?is usually when people are thronging together, bottlenecking, trying to get out and get home. I walked up to 120th St. and grabbed a cab. When we hit Central Park, we witnessed a squad of about 100 mounted cops galloping into Harlem like Crusaders hell bent for Istanbul. Hitler was taking issue with Franco. Thank God few people took either of them very seriously.