IF YOU'RE IN THE REPORTING game long enough, old stories start repeating on you like a bean pie past its freshness date. So it felt as we gathered in Washington, D.C., last week to celebrate the Millions More Movement, Louis Farrakhan's sequel to his 1995 Million Man March. It seems like only a decade ago that we stood on the National Mall, baying and bellowing and clapping each other's muscled shoulders. Or maybe, through the mists of time, I'm thinking of the NOW rally.
Farrakhan had proclaimed the original march a "Day of Atonement," pinching the Jewish holiday's name, perhaps in a bit of turnabout since he's never been keen on how the Jews "leech on us." Attendees made lots of promises to reform their lives that were forgotten by, oh, dinnertime. The Park Service, back then, estimated the crowd at 400,000 strong, while the Nation of Islam insisted it was 2 million.
If we go with the latter estimate, that would mean nearly one-seventh of all black American males turned out, enough to influence the direction of black America. Considering that 68 percent of black children are still born out of wedlock, that nearly 60 percent of black males don't graduate from high school, that blacks are seven times more likely than whites to commit homicide, and six times more likely than whites to be murdered (94 percent of them by other blacks), the Million Man March hardly appears to have been the transformative experience of its organizers' billing.
Which isn't to say nothing came of it. There was Get on the Bus, the bad Spike Lee movie. Also John Muhammad, a Nation of Islam adherent who reportedly worked security during the March, went on to become the Beltway Sniper, shooting strangers as they gassed their cars. The March's most conspicuous legacy, however, was inspiring a million more million-something marches: the Million Mom March, the Million Family March, the Million Youth March, etc. All bipeds were pretty much covered.
But Farrakhan's Million Man March 2.0 turned out to be a different beast. This time, he invited women and children, Indians and Latinos and Oppressed Peoples, even gays, lesbians, and transgenders (who met in a sub-gathering before the event in front of the National Theatre's production of Les Misérables). Farrakhan incessantly points out that this isn't just a march, it's a "movement." Marches are for amateurs, Saturday-afternoon wheel-spinners. A movement connotes heft and permanence. Plus, one must admit, naming the sequel the "Millions More Movement" is a lot catchier than calling it what it was: the "Several Hundred Thousand-Less Disappointment."
Farrakhan critics love to quibble with his numbers, just as they fixate on his Jew-bashing and his having never met a human-rights-crushing dictator (from Castro to Qaddafi to Robert Mugabe) whose throne he wouldn't sniff. But those indictments miss the point. The answer to every Farrakhan riddle, the crude and inelegant truth about his character, boils down to the following: He is nuttier than a can of Planters.
This I was reminded of two days before the big gathering, at a Farrakhan press conference at the National Press Club. After listening to him once again mutter of dark conspiracies that had the government or some other mysterious force deliberately exploding the levees in New Orleans to victimize poor blacks, I took the open mike to ask him if he's worried that people will think he's bonkers. It was a rhetorical question.
In the interest of religious pluralism, many consider it impolite to rehearse the minister's actual teachings. But he is the man, after all, who believes that whites were created 6,000 years ago by an evil black scientist named Yakub, that Farrakhan himself was abducted by an invisible pilot and beamed up to a UFO-type object called the "Mother Wheel," that he took a meeting there with the late Elijah Muhammad, who informed him that the U.S. government was plotting a war, which, Farrakhan figured out, was against blacks, and that the ship deposited him again at either Tysons Corner in Virginia or Fifth Street in D.C.--one or the other--so he could make this important revelation. To label him a mere demagogue is to give him short shrift as a loon.
One might assume such flights of imagination would cause mainstream black leaders (incapable of turning out crowds in Farrakhan-like numbers) to dissociate themselves from Farrakhan, or at least to tell him to button it. But the big Mother Wheel keeps on turning. While many leaders sat the '95 march out, leery of Farrakhan's extremism, they all seemed to have a change of heart after nobody was shot (a success metric not cited after, say, a Boy Scout Jamboree).
In what is a marker less of Farrakhan's relevance than of their own increasing irrelevance, the leaders of every old-line civil-rights organization and mainstream group, from the NAACP to the Urban League to the Progressive National Baptist Convention to the Congressional Black Caucus, couldn't get to the Mall fast enough. Except this time, they didn't have much company (100,000--according to a source quoted by the Washington Post).
I started my march at the middle of the Mall, near the Washington Monument, and walked to the Capitol steps, where the speakers' stage was. It's a walk that took me over an hour 10 years ago, as I squeezed through the throng. This time, I completed the trek in about 25 minutes, making several stops along the way. One of them was at the Solar Decathlon exhibit, a village of solar houses plunked down near the Monument and unrelated to Farrakhan's gathering, where geeky university kids competed to see who had the coolest energy recovery ventilators and photovoltaic systems.
While 10 years ago the village would have been overwhelmed by Million Man Marchers, who streamed all the way from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, this time, I meet a single marcher named Jeff Johnson, a young kid sporting an "I'm Black" T-shirt, who is charging his cell phone in one of the solar edifices. As I talk to him--assuming he's one of Farrakhan's disenfranchised, downtrodden, dispossessed--he tells me not to take notes on the text of his neck tattoo. He's a male model. And doing so would be a copyright violation of his Wilhelmina contract.
Non-event that it was, this march did have something the last one didn't: white people, even if they bumbled through by accident. There were tourists pushing baby strollers through the crowd, Smithsonian Sculpture-Garden visitors, twentysomethings playing three-on-three pick-up soccer in the middle of the Mall.
But the marchers themselves are stereotypical. They post themselves along the heavily traveled byways in Nation of Islam faux-military uniforms that look as though they come from the Sgt. Pepper collection in Michael Jackson's closet. They hawk souvenirs such as the Millions More Movement "Certificate of Participation." They form drum-circles and sport unspellable self-appointed names that sound like birth-certificate monikers that have been run through the "Louis Farrakhan African Name Generator" on the Internet (I couldn't resist doing the same, and now have the option of bylining under "Zuwarah"). I am weighed down with literature, from copies of the Final Call to the "360 Reasons to Free Malachi York" (leader of the Nuwaubian sect who's doing time on federal racketeering and child-molestation charges). So many socialist newspapers are jabbed at me that I feel as though I've been buried in Eugene Debs's knapsack.
The dozens of speakers who take the stage, from full-time grievance groups like the New Black Panther party, spike their self-betterment speeches with lots of "Black Power" yawps and blame-whitey asides. I tape most of it, and spend two days transcribing over 25 single-spaced pages. But in charity, I'll spare readers any excerpts. The spiels seemed incendiary at the time, but upon second reading, the material is so depressingly predictable, so broadly belligerent, that it's as if the participants have cast themselves in a '60s-era Black Radical Halloween party, one that lasts all year.
Mainstreamers take the stage too, such as PBS's Tavis Smiley and Princeton's Cornel West (who admitted to me in the media bullpen that this wasn't a movement, "just an attempt at momentum. You go from momentum to a kind of motion, but social movements are very rare"). But there is no shortage of less seasoned spokesmen shooting the message in the foot, such as Jim Jones of the Diplomats. When Jones starts rapping along to a backing track that makes generous mention of "bitches" and "Rolexes" and "weed," he has to cut off his own music. "Yo, they made a mistake and put the dirty version on," he says. "I apologize from the bottom of my heart. . . . We in the struggle too, just like y'all."
The main event, of course, is Farrakhan himself. Mounting the stage with his Fruit of Islam security retinue, looking like a tin-pot dictator about to review his troops and missiles, Farrakhan, to his credit, isn't short on specifics. He essentially advocates a return to segregation, the need for blacks to grow self-sufficient and form a country within a country by starting their own Ministries of Education, Defense, Art and Culture, Justice, and Science and Technology.
Farrakhan students will recognize this as the Nerf version of "The Muslim Program," printed in the back of every issue of the Final Call. It advocates the "descendants of slaves" being "allowed to establish a separate state or territory of their own," with "slave masters" being obligated to fork over land that "must be fertile and minerally rich," while supplying "our needs in this separate territory for the next 20 to 25 years." Some of this, of course, would have to be done through reparations and the federal government turning back tax dollars. But for the time being, the audience can make a good start on this rather formidable project by dropping money into the trash-can donation receptacles that the Nation of Islam stations all over the Mall.
It isn't clear whether the cheerless Buppie crowd, many of them graduates of places like Howard and Spelman, is ready for such a drastic program. But I take it as an indication that they aren't when a large percentage of them start heading for their cars mid-speech, as if they were at FedEx Field and the Redskins were getting blown out in the fourth quarter.
I spy one of these evacuees holding a sign that reads, "Be free, grow your own food, kill your television, boycott sports." His name is Zeus Cosmos, and he looks the part. Zeus is a Greek immigrant who sports Fu-Manchu facial hair, a door-knocker nose ring, and around his neck an Africa pendant and a black-power fist. He's not happy with what he's hearing from the stage. "Slavery was bad, we know that," he says. "But I'm telling you, the groups who preach hate against the white man are destroying themselves."
I find Zeus sensible, and let him go on for awhile. Maybe too long. He starts down tangents about how the Treasury Department can't be trusted and how blacks should be moved from the city to the country, where they should be given wheelbarrows and wagons to make their way in the woods. My impulse is to grab him by the nose ring and lead him to the nearest mental health professional.
But after what I've heard all day, I'm not so sure Zeus isn't ready to assume the dais at the next Million-Whatever-March.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.