At Sharpton’s MLK Day event, denunciations of gun violence and stop-and-frisk policing, and varied receptions for actual and would-be mayors

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David Dinkins at the National Action Network. (Dan Rosenblum)
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During a forum on Martin Luther King Day’s legacy at Al Sharpton's National Action Network in Harlem, the city’s major politicians and community leaders spoke out against gun violence and the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, and talked about Barack Obama and how to realize King’s legacy in New York.

Dozens of politicians offered their interpretations on King’s dream as nearly 200 people crowded the “House of Justice” in Harlem. Among them were previous, current and potential mayors, some of whom were better-received than others.

“I try to use my time to remind people that while things are better, Dr. King’s dreams have not yet been realized,” said former mayor David Dinkins, who was warmly received. “The difference between the haves and the have-nots is very great. Most of the have-nots look like us. And so it is important that we remember that.”

Sharpton—whose busy day included a wreath-laying at the King memorial in Washington, a ceremony with President Obama at D.C.’s Kennedy Center and attendance at a union protest against Cablevision in New York—said people in the audience should realize King’s legacy by working to end injustice.

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“Don’t misuse this day,” he said. “Don’t hustle this day. Don’t tempt this day. This is not ‘trick or treat’ Halloween. This is human rights and civil rights and non-violence. This is about standing straight.”

Sharpton also announced plans to lead a voting-rights march in March from Selma, Alabama to protest Voter ID laws growing across the country. He also announced a rally timed to the Supreme Court’s hearing of the Health Care Act.

He then introduced Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who entered through the back door. As he did, many boos drowned out the applause. Bloomberg looked at the crowd and back at Sharpton.

“I’ve got serious issues,” Sharpton said. “He’s got serious issues. We disagree on those. But I want us to deal in the spirit of King and in solidarity together. This bloodshed’s got to end.”

“We might disagree on some things, but I’ve always thought you were right to be wrong,” Bloomberg told Sharpton, who laughed and sat behind him.

As Bloomberg touted progress in dropping murder rates and rising test scores, many in the crowd continue to boo.

“If you don’t want crime to go down and test scores to go up, than we have nothing in common,” he said. “That’s what we all should want. That’s what Dr. King would have wanted.”

Bloomberg outlined his recent proposals, including the union-opposed merit bonuses for teachers and a program to pay off up to $25,000 in student loans for teachers coming to New York City. He then complimented Sharpton for speaking out against gun violence.

“And you read about kids killed senselessly, people sitting on their doorstep and just getting blown away,” he said. “One kid the other day, thank god he didn’t die, he answered the door he didn’t get to open the door and bullets came right through the door. We’ve got to stop this craziness.”

Other speakers criticized the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies, which disproportionately target black and Latino males. Manhattan borough president and semi-announced Democratic mayoral candidate Scott Stringer energized the crowd by criticizing the policy, invoking his newborn son, Maxwell.

“When we were talking about the hopes for our child, we had never ever had a conversation about what would happen when this child becomes a teenager,” he said. “We would be worried about the muggers, worried about the drug dealers, worried about guns; we were not worried about the police officer on the corner and the interaction. That’s because that child’s gonna look like me.”

“That is the next social-justice issue we face in this city,” he added.

Other speakers included City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, retail-workers union leader Stuart Applebaum, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and City Comptroller John Liu.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer and others encouraged the audience to look again to Washington to realize King’s dream.

“In times of great darkness, we look for the bright lights and who are the bright lights among us? It’s President Barack Obama. He is the bright light,” said Gillibrand.

Former comptroller and mayoral candidate Bill Thompson recalled his long ties with Sharpton and the importance of history.

“We have a black president now,” said Thompson. “If you just arrived you’d think that things were great. You’d think there hadn’t been a struggle, that people had lost their lives for the right to vote. You wouldn’t understand where we came from. On this Dr. King holiday and each and every day, so many of us in the room need to let our young people understand where we came from.”

Thompson thanked the crowd and said how good it was to be “home” at the National Action Network.

“Now I hope to be back again, again and again, and definitely in 2014 as the next mayor of the city of New York.”

As an audio feed piped the speeches outside to 145th Street, Harlem resident Greg Allen and Monica Behney, of Queens, held up a banner and handed out fliers decrying stop-and-frisk. They stood on the cold sidewalk as police nearby kept a close watch on the foot traffic.

“This is a sympathetic crowd because this is mainly the people who are subject to stop-and-frisk, whose children who are subject to stop-and-frisk, who are daily subject to illegal harassment and abuse by the NYPD,” said Behney, 28. “So they’re interested in hearing what we’re doing.”

De Blasio and his aide Kirsten Jon Foy, who had his own run-in with the police, walked outside and talked to some audience members who had followed them out. He said the day gave him hope.

“We’re in the worst economy since the Great Depression and yet you can feel Dr. King’s spirit’s alive because people are talking about solutions,” de Blasio said. “They’re very positive and focused on what we can do and I find it reenergizing every year. Because it’s actually the big view of history: remembering what Dr. King was about, trying to make it alive here, not getting bogged down in our missteps, but what our possibilities are. So I found it very energizing.”