Like many of those who jammed the National Mall for this week’s historic Million Man March, Mark Brown came in the spirit of atonement and redemption, to hear a message of hope and empowerment.
And like many, the 27-year-old resident of Chicago’s south side gave a shrug to some of the anti-Semitic and racist views of the event’s sponsor and keynote speaker, Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan.
“I really don’t care because it doesn’t pertain to me,” Brown said of Farrakhan’s rhetoric.
The largest civil rights demonstration in American history brought out an estimated 400,000 black men who listened to speakers condemn white racism and implore them to accept responsibility for their lives.
The 12-hour demonstration under a cool Washington fall day was marked by a general tone of forthright, friendly and fellowship among participants.
But on a day designated for reconciliation, strains of anti-Semitism could be seen and heard beneath the surface, pointing to a palpable rift between blacks and Jews.
Nowhere was the division more apparent than when two Jewish protesters – indeed the march’s only protesters – stood in the middle of the mall on Sunday and Monday intent on raising a voice of Jewish moral conscience.
“Farrakhan is a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic hater,” Ronn Torossian, national spokesman for AMCHA – the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, told a crowd gathered around him on the mall on Sunday.
The march, he asserted, “is truly ruining the dream of Martin Luther King.”
Despite initial plans to hold a larger demonstration, AMCHA in the end decided to send only two protesters – Torossian, 21, and Moshe Maoz, 22, both from New York – in order to appear less confrontational, according to the group’s national president, Rabbi Avi Weiss.
The two said they were met with a barrage of anti-Semitic remarks, verbal threats and even a few flying plastic bottles Sunday and Monday from passerby who, at times, stopped to form a ring around them.
One exchange, which occurred within minutes of their arrival on Sunday, was typical of the hostility they encountered.
“During the slave trade, y’all financed the ships,” said a black man who asked not to be identified and claimed no ties to Farrakhan or the Nation of Islam.
“You can say that didn’t have nothing to do with you personally, but I always say you are what your forefathers were. And since your forefathers were financing the slave trade, the only reason you’re in the position that you’re in is through the oppression of my people.”
When Torossian and Maoz began chanting “Farrakhan is David Duke,” a crowd of about 100 people countered with fist-raising and its own chant of “Farrakhan! Farrakhan!”
When the Jewish protesters said that “Farrakhan has lauded Hitler as a great man,” some blacks in the crowd responded with “Hitler was a great man” and “he didn’t finish the job.”
“It was continuous,” Maoz said of their encounters. “It wasn’t like it was a few people here and there. It wasn’t just one group. It was women to professionals to everybody. That was the thing that bothered me the most; you could really feel the anti-Semitism.”
The protesters, who were repeatedly warned to “watch your backs,” were not the only Jews threatened.
The Washington Jewish Week last week received a threat from Earl Turner, a national spokesman for the Nation of Islam.
“One hundred police departments could not hold back what would happen to your people” if a counterdemonstration took place, Turner had told a reporter at the newspaper.
The National Park Police ordered the two protesters to leave the mall on Sunday and again on Monday, saying they could not ensure their safety. AMCHA said it plans to challenge the police’s action on the grounds of violating their right to free speech.
As hundreds of thousands packed the mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, conversations with several march-goers revealed that although most were not there to support Farrakhan or his ideas, many were quick to defend him.
“It took a man like him to spearhead this,” said James Lee, a Philadelphia evangelist, asserting that Farrakhan’s speeches are often taken out of context and skewed by the media.
“The man has apologized for his shortcomings, and it takes a great man, it takes a leader to step back and look in the mirror and see himself and apologize,” Lee said.
A Washington Post poll based on interviews with 1,047 march participants found Farrakhan to have an 87 percent favorable rating.
At the same time, 41 percent said they had a favorable opinion of Jewish people.
Despite his high rating, only 5 percent of those surveyed said they attended the march to show support for Farrakhan. The figure deflates claims made by the Nation of Islam prior to the march that the turnout would reflect support for Farrakhan.
“It’s bigger than Farrakhan,” said Danny Miller of O’Fallon, III. Miller said he condemns some of Farrakhan’s “vile” ideas and downplayed the impact of his rhetoric.
“He’s been saying it for years, and I think he likes to hear himself talk or something,” Miller said.
Others, however, defended some of Farrakhan’s rhetoric.
Grady Radford, a medical student from Vineland, N.J., speaking about Farrakhan’s recent reference to Jews as “bloodsuckers”, said, “He didn’t actually mean to say they were bloodsuckers, but that they were taking from the community and weren’t giving anything back, and I think that was fair statement that really should have been maybe worded a little better the first time.”
Larry Broussard, a pastor from Arlington, Va., spoke in great length about the spirit of reconciliation and the opportunity to show unity.
“The whole idea of Louis Farrakhan and what he says has nothing to do with the reason why we’re here,” Broussard said.
But he also implored Jews to look within and ask themselves, “Does he have a point?”
“What we’ve got to do is turn around and start looking in the mirror and ask why would he call me that? If I’m a Jew, why would he call me a bloodsucker? Am I a bloodsucker? That’s the question that needs to be asked.
“It’s got nothing to do with what he said because he might be like a million other people that might say the same thing. If I am a bloodsucker, I’m gonna get upset if someone calls me a bloodsucker because the truth hurts.”
Broussard added: “But I think we should get back to the point of this, which is the peace, the love and the unity.”
But that was not the point for Torossian and Maoz, the Jewish protesters who, from their vantage point on the mall, heard and entirely different message.
“You can’t separate the message from the messenger, and we saw that yesterday from people who were passing us by and the screaming anti-Semitic remarks throughout the day.” Maoz said. “They were all raising their fists to Louis Farrakhan.”