In his annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, the Rev. Al Sharpton and his parade of guests urged the crowd to fight the modern battle against inequality. And in at least once instance, that meant, for some, booing the person at the podium.
"We must deal with the issues of today," said Sharpton, who flew into the event after spending the morning in Washington DC. He equated the need to update the civil rights struggle today with the 1965 television sitcom F-Troop, which, according to Sharpton drew its humor from the fact that the post-Civil War soldiers "were fighting a war that had already been fought."
"The problem with many of us today is we want to fight the civil rights battle of 50 years ago," said Sharpton. "And not deal with the civil rights battle of today."
As the crowd applauded and occasionally yelled out encouragement, Sharpton said, "We won the battle of segregation. We can sleep in any hotel, we can buy coffee anywhere. The new problem is we can't afford it."
He went on to say, "We won the battle against mob violence in the south. Now our children are acting like mobs in the north." After pausing for some applause, he added, "We won the battle of being able to go to any school. We just don't get equal education and equal results."
After praising Dr. King's achievements in the 1960s, Sharpton told the crowd, "We've got to deal with gun control. We've got to deal with taking this thug, gangster mentality out of our community."
The crowd was boisterous, and welcoming of the elected officials who made their way to the stage during the nearly 6-hour event, including Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, Representatives Anthony Weiner, Jerry Nadler and Charlie Rangle, former Mayor Dinkins, union leader Mike Fishman of 32BJ, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, and Community Board 1 President Julie Menin. Governor Cuomo was unable to attend because he was recuperating from a recent dental procedure. Sharpton said the governor will visit the group at another date.
Mayor Bloomberg was also there, and Sharpton reminded the audience, he's attended the event every year he's been in office. As Sharpton introduced the mayor, he was greeted with a round of applause that was quickly joined by booing, mostly from the rear of the room. Mr. Bloomberg, who spoke rather than yelled into the microphone, was initially drowned out by the reception.
Bloomberg's popularity has plummeted sharply after the city's botched snow removal efforts during the post-Christmas blizzard that left many buses, trains and even ambulances stuck for hours. But nobody needed to remind the crowd of that. There were other, more pressing matters.
By the time Bloomberg was introduced, a few speakers had, perhaps, stoked the crowd's ire at the administration.
City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of Upper Manhattan had blamed the current city administration for not building enough affordable housing, and for the low graduation rates at community colleges.
"Why did Mayor Bloomberg say that affordable housing was his priority," Rodriguez asked, citing the mayor's promise to renovate 100,000 units plus build an additional 60,000.
"In my district, in Washington Heights, only one big building has been built in the mayor's administration," said Rodgriguez. (The building, he said, was located at 204 Street.) "Only one building has been built. And that is a reality citywide," he said.
Then, Rodriquez, chairman of the council's Higher Education Committee, blasted the mayor on graduation rates.
"Drop out at community colleges, where about 90 percent of the students are black and Latino, only 28 percent graduated after six years," said Rodriguez, to the gasps and groans of the audience. Rodriguez reminded the crowd that Bloomberg had called community colleges one of his "priorities," and said, "the money's not there."
Rodriguez ended his speech predicting the city would not invest the same amount of money in poorer communities as they do in wealthier ones. He then added, "Yes, we have two New Yorks. The New York of the rich and the New York of the poor," echoing a slogan used by Fernando Ferrer, the Democrat who ran against Bloomberg in 2005 (and who enjoyed a visibility-stimulating endorsement from Rev. Sharpton).
More crowd-riling came from Rev. David Hampton of Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn, the same place where Sharpton started out years ago. Hampton spoke about the economic disparity between African Americans, who endured slavery and discrimination at work, to whites, who facing no such obstacles, were able to hand down their accumulated finances generation after generation.
"There's a difference between rich, and wealthy," said Hampton. "Oprah is rich. John D. Rockefeller is wealthy."
Then, Hampton invoked Bloomberg's new (and controversially approved) schools chancellor, Cathie Black. He reminded the crowd that she recently said school overcrowding could be solved by using "birth control." (The comment was made in jest and she has since apologized.)
The crowd grumbled at Hampton's telling of the incident, and one woman in the crowd could be heard saying "stupid!" in response. Then, Hampton said, "How about birth control for those who sit in positions of privilege?" The crowd applauded.
For his part, Sharpton's introduction of Bloomberg was earnest.
After noting they differ on some issues, he told the crowd, "We have unapologetically agreed and fought [together] on the things we do agree."
"He has been criticized for working with me. I have been criticized for working for him," said Sharpton, rattling off their efforts on education, juvenile justice and gun control. He noted that Bloomberg showed up at the event each year, "whether we were fighting or not and showed his respect for the community that Dr. King would fight for and fight from."
As he spoke, Bloomberg did manage to draw a quick laugh from the crowd, saying in a movie of their lives, the actor who would depict Sharpton would be Denzel Washington. "And the obvious choice to play me would be Brad PItt," said the mayor, who added a self-deprecating roll of the eyes.
The mayor praised King's resilience in the face of threats and violence, noting that King was treated in Harlem hospital for a stab wound. Later, he drew applause for saying he would "step up" efforts to crack down on gun violence, which, he said, was disproportionately affecting young African American males.
Brief applause came when the mayor spoke about "stopping the practice of sending hundreds of our youngsters from our city every year to state-run juvenile facilities upstate." Youthful offenders incarcerated there are "cut off for months, even years from their families, their schools and churches, which could be positive influences on them."
But when the mayor tried highlighting his accomplishments with city schools, the crowd's ire returned.
"I know everybody complains. Everybody says 'the test is easier,' this that and the other thing. Make no mistake about it," said Bloomberg. "President Obama and his secretary, Arne Duncan, think New York City is the national model for what you do with the school system."
Immediately, the crowd pushed back.
"No, they don't" said one woman in the crowd. Others hissed. Others hissed and murmurs grew louder and Bloomberg promised to make further progress on education.
"Thank you and God bless," Bloombeg concluded. The response was, again, a mixture of applauds and boos.