Did Church Set Up Merchant as the Fall Guy?
NEW YORK (AP) _ Conflicting statements are flying from politicians, activists and police regarding protests that ended with eight dead inside a white-owned store in Harlem.
But a central figure has fallen silent: The United House of Prayer for All People, a black Pentecostal church that owned the 125th Street building and prompted the eviction dispute that fueled the violence.
The church has issued just two brief statements since a black protester barged into Freddy’s Fashion Mart last Friday, shot and wounded four people, then set a fire that killed him and seven others.
The church’s statements expressed grief at the tragedy, but did not explain why the church had pressured the Jewish owner of Freddy’s, Fred Harari, to evict the black-owned Record Shack from the building.
The attempted eviction sparked hate-filled protests _ which the gunman attended _ and threats of violence, Harari and his employees said. The district attorney has launched a grand jury investigation to determine if a conspiracy led to the attack.
Church spokesmen in New York and at its Washington, D.C., headquarters have refused to comment, citing police investigations.
``I don’t understand how eight people could be dead on your property and you’re not coming forward,″ said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been accused of using racially inflammatory language regarding the eviction dispute.
``Not only does it appear to me (the church) let (Harari) be the fall guy, but they were coaching him on the fall,″ Sharpton said.
Sharpton’s own role in the protests is murky. He attended one protest, and said in September during his weekly radio broadcast, ``We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business.″
The United House of Prayer was founded in Harlem in the 1930s by Sweet Daddy Grace, an evangelist and healer who reputedly amassed a fortune from his followers. The church owns a number of properties in Harlem.
The protests began after the church told Harari it would no longer approve a sublet of half the building to the Record Shack. The Record Shack’s owner, Sikhulu Shange, said the church wanted to raise his $2,500 rent.
Harari said in court papers that protesters used terms like ``cracker″ and ``bloodsucking Jew″ and ``made motions of striking a match.″ Harari also said he wanted to have the protesters arrested, but the church asked him not to, fearing more unrest.
Fliers distributed by a protest leader mention the church along with Freddy’s. But the church was never picketed or threatened _ and it never tried to stop the protests.
Harari’s lawyer, Randy Dusek, said church bishop S.C. Madison claimed to have been unaware of the racial nature of the dispute. ``That’s no more true than that the moon is made out of blue cheese,″ Dusek said.
Yet Harari ``was not willing to embroil (the church) in this.″
``He really held himself as the point guard,″ Dusek said.
Dusek noted that the church had offered the Record Shack another space in Harlem, but Shange rejected it because of a clause that permitted eviction at any time. Dusek said the eviction clause was included because the church was unhappy with Shange’s involvement with protesters.
Sharpton said that on Dec. 2, he got the church’s pastor, H.M. Swaringer, to agree to meet with him, Shange and Harari. But Sharpton says when he tried to arrange the meeting, he was told it would include only him and the church, which Sharpton didn’t want.
In another development, The New York Times reported today that the only fire exit in the store was sealed off with bricks and the sprinkler system in the basement didn’t work.
The store had passed its most recent fire inspection several months ago because no emergency exit is required in a building with a sprinkler system, Fire Department spokeswoman Marilyn Mode said.
But the sprinkler system in the basement where four people died of smoke inhalation did not go off, officials told the Times.