Eloquence can be like romance: in honest and loving hands it can ecstatically liberate, and in dishonest and selfish hands it can be the worst kind of betrayal. And you know what they say about believers scorned.
Malik Shabazz appears to be neither eloquent nor abominable enough to qualify for either extreme. As president of the Black Lawyers for Justice, he works and speaks for some causes that direly need and deserve support, including resistance toward racist policing. But as a man with an ego that seems the size of Nebraska and with an apparent tone-deafness to how repugnant it is to use events like the brutal deaths of black ctizens for his own self-promotion, he cannot help but tip his hand as someone whose leadership is suspect.
That is why, at Saturday's Baltimore rally following the filing of criminal charges against six police officers for the death of Freddie Gray, Shabazz, the keynote speaker, was roundly heckled by spectators. Some hecklers were organized, with agendas of their own, but many were clearly spontaneous: strangers in the crowd rolling their eyes at one another and yelling annoyed comments at this shameless guy who just couldn't seem to get enough of using the word "I." At one point after Shabazz bragged about how much of his own money he had spent to sponsor the event, scattered audience members began yelling at him, "It's not about you."
This matters. Not just because manipulative attention-hoggers are obnoxious, but, more importantly, because they are destructive. They give ammunition to the stale old rulers' story of how "outside agitators" are the source of trouble in cities afire, a tale that has been used for ages to try to dissuade well-behaved black folk from aligning with a man named King who led a bus boycott in Montgomery, or a woman named Tubman who led slaves through the woods to freedom.
To paraphrase what Lloyd Bentsen said to hopeless veep candidate Dan Quayle, Shabazz is no King and no Tubman. But the tepidly mixed reception Shabazz received at Saturday's rally with his blend of fiery advocacy and clichéd preening, while parent and advocate Erica Marks brought the crowd to a righteous frenzy when she took the stage and declared that she would spend no more of her afternoon listening to male patriarchy, said plenty. (I missed getting it on my video of her speech, but trust me, she said it and the crowd got it.) Powerfully received as well were the remarks by veteran national organizer Carl Dix, who drew his loudest cheers when he called for women to be treated as full human beings instead of as "sexual objects and punching bags" in the fight for a just society. I will post audio of Dix and others in the coming days.
Meanwhile, here are two videos from Saturday of keynote speaker Malik Shabazz revealing the limits of sheer sloganizing.