"Burn the Jew Store Down"

By Hy Drusin

On Friday, December 8, at 10:12 a.m., Roland James Smith, Jr., 51, a Harlem resident with a criminal record going back 30 years, walked into Freddy's Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned clothing store at 272 West 125th Street, pulled out a gun, ordered all the black customers to leave, spilled paint thinner on several bins of clothing and set them on fire -- a fire that resulted in killing 8 people including Smith.

Smith had been part of a group of picketers, led by Al Sharpton , head of the National Action Network and Morris Powell , leader of the 125th Street Vendor's Association, who had been protesting the eviction of Sikhulu Shange, owner of the Record Shack who was subletting from Fred Harari, the Jewish owner of Freddy's.

The picketing, which had gone on for months, had led Harari to seek relief with the State Supreme Court. In papers filed just one day before the fire, he said, "Recently, the protesters have made motions of striking a match and throwing it on outside clothing displays or in the doorway of the store." An affidavit by Kareem Brunner, a black security guard killed in the blaze, said that he had been called a "cracker lover" and "would get mine as a traitor [to the black race]." Brunner, was the only black that Smith did not order out of the store before setting it afire.

Besides Smith and Brunner, all the other victims of the fire were Hispanic and Guyanese. Store manager, Steve Brodsky, described how a particularly vicious demonstrator called Shabazz would force his way into the store, pushing Brodsky aside and shout "I will be back to burn the Jew store down -- burn, burn, burn." It has been reported that there is evidence that Shabazz worked for Mr. Shange.

Ironically, although the picketers had characterized the conflict as a racial, almost all the issues involved were economic -- and indirectly caused by federal intervention to improve Harlem! Last year when Harlem was included as part of a new Federal Empowerment Zone, more than $300 million in Federal, state and city funds was slated to flow into Harlem. To prepare for this expansion, the city removed scores of illegal street vendors to side streets, saying they clogged the sidewalks. Morris Powell, head of the 125th Street Vendor's Association, and Roland Smith, one of the street vendors, bitterly opposed the move. Mr. Shange, the owner of the Record Shack, was not involved in the protests -- in fact, he had been known to threaten with a machete street vendors who sold bootlegged tapes, saying that they were hurting his business.

Another effect of the anticipated improvement in Harlem was the dislocation of many long-established stores by landlords looking to replace their tenants whose leases had expired with higher-paying tenants. The property at 276 West 125th Street, next door to Freddy's, was rented for over 30 years by Windsor Drugs, owned by Irving Katz. Mr. Katz, who had a 10-year lease with the United House of Prayer for All People church, was told in July 1993 that his lease would not be renewed and he had to leave in 60 days. The church is a black Pentecostal church based in Washington, and founded by Bishop C. M. ("Sweet Daddy") Grace in the 1920's, is one of the largest landlords on 125th Street.

The New York Times reported that at first Mr. Katz thought that the decision was racially motivated, since he is white, but that he concluded that "it was just a question of money" since the church had refused to renew the leases for the black-owned Pace shoe-repair shop and a tennis clinic. Mr. Katz said that it's ironic that Mr. Shange went to the Vendor's Association for help since, "Shange was well known to tip over the peddlers' tables and to refuse to let them set up in front of his store." Mr. Katz said Shange's troubles went far beyond his dispute with Freddy's. "The record store across the street, Bobby's Record World [which is black-owned], had been taking away all of his business." Newspaper reports describe Mr. Shange's store as dusty and very poor-looking.

The church also owns 272 West 125th Street, site of the fire. It recently began a $4.5 million renovation of the building. Mr. Katz said "They were looking to kick out any businesses that were in the way of the renovation, that looked crummy, or that weren't paying as much rent as they felt could be earned. Kentucky Fried Chicken -- a high-rent-payer -- was forced out so they could build an entrance facing 125th Street. The Jewish-owned meat market lost their lease, and their space was given to Freddy's." Mr. Katz said that "Shange was in our store every day" and had always been outwardly polite. He said that the "real villain here was the church's real-estate broker, Malcolm Barksdale [who is black]. I can imagine how he must have pressured Shange. I was a good tenant. I paid my rent on the first of the month, every month for 30 years. Yet, when Barksdale came to see me about terminating my lease, he was very arrogant and rude. He treated me like ape-s---, and you can quote me on that."

Although all the protests revolved around the role of Freddy's in Mr. Shange's eviction, none of the protesters focused on the fact that Freddy's was not the landlord, but was a tenant of the church was just subletting to Mr. Shange. Mr. Shange was reported to be paying rent of $2,500 a month, well below the market rate in a location where rents have recently been soaring. After much negotiation, Mr. Barksdale offered him a lease with a rent of $5,000. Mr. Shange turned it down because he felt the rent was exorbitant and, more importantly, because it had a clause which allowed the landlord to cancel the lease and evict him at will for the first year. The New York Times reported that Mr. Shange, who never mentioned the church in his speeches, felt that church had "double-crossed" him.

When the tragedy occurred, Al Sharpton denied all responsibility and said "People are trying to put me in the middle of this. I only came one time. I met with the people from the church. ... I was only there a matter of minutes. I was not the leader of this. I was only in support of Shange."

However, the Jewish Action Alliance released copies of a tape containing speeches broadcast on black radio stations WWRL, WLIB and KISS attacking Freddy's, made by Sharpton and others during rallies going back to August 19, 1995. The tape was presented by Beth Gilinsky to the police and to the media, including the Jewish Post. Short excerpts from these tapes were printed in the New York Times, New York Post and Daily News. (This reporter has transcribed the complete tape. All the relevant material on it has been reproduced on page 4.)

The transcript contains demagogic language: Fred Harari is called a "cracker" by Mr. Powell and a "white interloper" by Rev. Sharpton. It contains threats: Mr. Powell says of Fred Harari, "We gonna see that this cracker suffer." Mr. Shange says he "had to tell the lawyer for Freddy, ... Jeff Sutton, that you are tampering with something which you will be so sorry, that you open up a can of worms which you can never close any more."

Mostly, however, it contains evasions or outright lies. The "vendors" (unlicensed peddlers) are mourned -- but Mr. Shange's role as one of their strongest persecutors is forgotten. No reference is made to the actual landlord, a black church, or the church's black real-estate broker, Mr. Barksdale [who is black]. Mr. Powell says "... these people [Freddy's] haven't been there no more than a year and a half, because they bought the lease off of the meat market that was in the same place". In other words, he's sorry that the "old" stores, like the meat market, have been replaced by a new store owned by a Jew. However, he neglects to mention that old meat market (evicted by the church, not "bought off" by Mr. Harari) was also owned by a Jew. If Mr. Morris is sentimental about old stores, then why is his Buy Black Community Mass Action Network currently subjecting the Bargain World -- which has been in Harlem for over 40 years -- to the same vicious, extortionate picketing he perfected at Freddy's? The impression the tape gives it that there are hardly any black-owned stores in Harlem. However, according to The 125th Street BID -- Business Improvement District -- 158 of the 322 stores on 125th Street are black-owned.

Questions remain. Why hadn't Mr. Shange opened his store at his usual time that day? Was Shabazz being paid by Mr. Shange? Do the language and activities used by the organizers of these actions merit an indictment on a charge of incitement to violence? Civil rights or RICO violations? Mayor Giuliani has promised a thorough investigation of the Harlem Massacre by the city, and the Jewish Action Alliance has called upon the Justice Department to determine if any Federal laws were broken.

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