In 1987, the black teenager was one of the most recognizable names and faces in the country, and her story was the impetus for racial strife far beyond the limits of her hometown of Wappingers Falls, New York. Then 15 years old, Brawley claimed she had been sexually assaulted by a group of white men over a four-day period.
Her claims were later proven to be lies. An independent investigator appointed by New York governor Mario Cuomo had to face a demanding press, uncooperative Brawley family members and “advisors,” including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who hurled unfounded accusations with alarming frequency.
But before the findings were presented to a grand jury, which refused to indict any of the accused, America had been pulled into a Charybdis of racially motivated nastiness. Despite the grand jury’s findings, racial tensions remained on edge for months as “community activists” continually fanned the flames of distrust.
And to what do we owe this little look-back into a low point in history? Chalk it up to a couple of recent events, which your humble observer thought warranted a mention, and a reminder of a lesson unlearned.
First: After the Brawley lies were exposed, one of the accused individuals filed and won (after a very lengthy court battle) a defamation lawsuit. In 1998, former prosecutor Steven Pagones was awarded just over $400,000 in damages against Brawley. Fifteen years after the judgment, Brawley has finally been tapped for a portion of the settlement.
In late July, 10 checks totaling more than $3,700 were delivered to Pagones. Brawley still owes $431,000. Brawley, who disappeared from public attention until this payment was announced, is being forced to pay $627 monthly until the debt is settled.
Paying off can be considered a payback, according to a statement from Pagones. “Every week, she’ll think of me. And every week, she can think about how she has a way out…she can simply tell the truth,” he said in an interview. To date, Brawley has not apologized.
Other prominent names, including attorneys/advisors C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox, have already paid or are in the process of paying their settlements.
Next: A new, 15-minute documentary released by The New York Times and Retroreport.org centers on the Brawley hoax, including the part played in the sordid affair by Rev. Al Sharpton. Many think it was this event which launched Sharpton from the friendly confines of New York City neighborhood activism to the national stage.
The documentary shows Sharpton doing his part to inflame black America against whites and demanding something called “justice” while refusing to allow Brawley to cooperate with investigators. In fact, Sharpton made an incredibly stupid and unfounded accusation against Jack Ryan, the state-dispatched special prosecutor, which apparently was intended to destroy credibility of all the investigators.
In the documentary, Sharpton does not admit the Brawley episode was a hoax. Instead, he claims that “something happened.” He does, however, say the rhetoric at the time may have gone a little too far. That does little for those innocent individuals who had to endure weeks of slanderous statements and inflammatory attacks.
Interestingly, Sharpton has been rewarded for his actions. He is still a prominent voice on the American scene and he’s still a go-to guy when just about anything of a racial nature is reported. He has been a candidate for the highest office in the land and was front-and-center when Democrats nominated then- Sen. Barack Obama.
In addition, his face is a nightly fixture on MSNBC where, since 2011, he has hosted “PoliticsNation,” an unashamedly liberal slanted talk show featuring the man his supporters claim “tells it like it is.” Sorry, but Sharpton’s history from Brawley to Trayvon Martin seems to indicate the Rev. quite often tells it like it ain’t and gets downright indignant when it is so proven.
But one must consider Sharpton a real wonder. How many others can leave a trail of strife, lies and deception and still be considered by the media types to be a nationally prominent and respected voice on issues. We might say these traits qualify him for a seat in Congress, but that’s another story.
The lesson: Apparently we have failed to come to grips with a basic part of life in our country. We are all responsible for our actions, because those actions have consequences for which we must also bear responsibility. When those actions are detrimental to the public good, there is a system which protects us.
Pat Culverhouse is a journalist and political columnist who lives in Minden.