A day after a white-owned Harlem clothing store was stormed by a black man who turned the store into a fiery tomb, those who had organized a boycott of the business denied that they were motivated by race.
The black-led boycott had targeted the property owner, a predominantly black church, as well.
“The fact is that the landlords are black. The issue was never black and white,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said Saturday. “We never said we were going after whites or Jews … The issue was protecting a member of our community.”
Police Commissioner William Bratton said the crime that left eight dead, including the gunman, had racial overtones - including witness accounts that the attacker fired his pistol only at whites. Three of the four shooting victims were white.
“The ones he was allowing out of the store were all blacks,” Bratton said.
And on Nov. 29, Bratton said, a store security guard had overheard a protester say: “We’re going to come back with 20 niggers and loot and burn the Jew.”
Seven employees died of smoke inhalation in Friday’s attack. The gunman shot and wounded four people who managed to escape the store before setting the place on fire and turning his gun on himself.
The attack followed weeks of demonstrations and threats to “loot and burn” the store. Police said the gunman had taken part in at least one demonstration but it was not he who threatened to “loot and burn.” Boycott leaders denied knowing him.
The attacker carried an ID card bearing the name Abubunde Mulocko, 35, and a photo of a man with a moustache and a goatee wearing a skullcap, but police said the name didn’t check out.
The picketers outside Freddie’s Fashion Mart, on Harlem’s main commercial strip, were protesting an expansion that meant the eviction of The Record Shack, a black-owned store next door.
The demonstrators also urged a boycott because it was believed its Jewish owner did not employ blacks. Police said Freddie’s owner, Fred Harari, did employ nonwhites, mostly Hispanics and Guyanese.
Freddie’s had sublet part of its space to The Record Shack but was trying to end the sublease along with the landlord, the United Church of Prayer, police said.
Sikulu Shange, who runs The Record Shack, said the church had found new space for his business nearby, but he didn’t like the lease and felt the location made him vulnerable to crime. Local officials wouldn’t help, he said, so he turned to Sharpton, a well-known activist.
“It was a simple matter,” said Shange, whose business was damaged in the fire. “We are not hatemongers. I had nothing against Freddie or the church. I just wanted to stay in business.”
The protester marched into Freddie’s on Friday with a gun in one hand and a container of paint thinner in the other. With the words “It’s on now!” he screamed for people get out and began shooting customers and workers, splashed the thinner over racks of clothes and set it all afire.
Saturday, police barricades blocked the yawning entrance to the gutted store at 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, one of Harlem’s busiest intersections.
A bouquet of flowers lay amid charred, sodden debris on the sidewalk. Passersby glanced curiously but few lingered in the sleety rain.
The street, 125th, is one of the most storied in black history. It is the site of the Apollo, a mecca for black performers since the 1930s; the Hotel Theresa, where Fidel Castro once stayed; and many popular stores.
Some Harlem residents have long complained of non-black domination of the street’s commercial life, but former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, a black businessman who has an office on 125th, said racial tensions were not high.
There is no direct link between the protests and the attack, Sharpton said, and if the gunman did have any ties to the boycott “he clearly was not operating in the spirit of it.”