As an organizer I was completely taken aback by the conduct and remarks of Rev. Al Sharpton on September 29th 2009. What should have been a simple conversation turned into a complete attack and insult on my intelligence and that of my fellow organizer Ashley Rowell. All we wanted to do was try and establish a meeting with The Reverend so that we could actually put forth input into the education reform that was being promoted through the “listening and learning” tour. However, from the jump, Rev. Sharpton got defensive and strongly dodged our simple request of holding a more formal meeting to really delve into the issue of education.
He continued to respond to our request by saying that, “we are meeting right now.” I hardly believe it is fathomable to really discuss education in such a bustling media frenzy that ensued outside McDaniel Elementary School. After what seemed like an eternity of him putting on a show for the media he realized that we were firmly not going to budge from our proposal for a meeting with him and he decided to agree to it. However he continued to put on a show by trying to belittle us and make it seem as though we didn’t understand what it was that we were protesting for. He is sadly mistaken. Just because he has much more experience in civil rights activism doesn’t make him the connoisseur of organizing.
I guess because he is much older than we are he thinks he could just say whatever her wants, but he is wrong. We are fully capable of comprehending the state of education in our schools across our city and our nation, and it doesn’t require a great degree of age and experience to see that students educations are not adequate. The most maddening moment of the entire ordeal was his off the cuff remarks towards me because I graduated from Bodine High School For International Affairs, one of our city’s magnet schools. He proceeded to try and take a stab at my education by calling me part of the “bourgeoisie” and something to the effect of what am I doing down here with the people?
I have never felt more disrespected and hurt in my entire career as an organizer. How dare he have the audacity to try and single me out as anything less than being entitled to have graduated from a good school and care about public education. He also tried to suggest that I don’t belong in the mix of people that are supposed to be “the people.” Just because I was fortunate enough to get an education from such a prestigious school does not make me “bourgeoisie.” I am far from an aristocrat nor am I the least bit wealthy. “The people” are the working people in the communities I stand and fight for, which is much more than can be said about the social class of people that the Rev. is in cahoots with.
I really couldn’t believe that this was how a highly regarded civil rights figurehead would conduct himself towards young activists that are no different than he was when he was trying to right the wrongs he saw in society. Words can’t describe how confused I was as this insult came from someone that I used to have so much esteem for. I take my role as an activist very seriously, and to be challenged and hit with a cheap shot like that from someone I felt had an understanding of how tough it is to stand for something powerful and worth fighting for deeply hurt me emotionally. Is this what young people can expect from our leaders? In hindsight, his actions reinforced the truth that times have truly changed – even those in the organizing world we believe to be in it for “we the people,” really need to be checked and balanced so that change really can occur.
Philadelphia Student Union