Time Out New York, December 7, 2006
Hot Seat: Charles Rangel
The feisty septuagenarian lawmaker is ready to rumble.
By Bruce Kluger
opening session of the 110th Congress next
month, Harlem’s Charles Bernard Rangel will
be settling in for his 19th consecutive term as
a Democratic representative from New York
City. Over nearly four decades, the
outspoken legislator has raised his gravelly
voice on behalf of tax relief for the poor, the
revitalization of urban neighborhoods, and
landmark legislation to protect minorities and
veterans across the nation.
He is also prone to the dramatic. Arrested for participating in protests against
human-rights abuses in Sudan, apartheid in South Africa and the 1999 police
shooting of Amadou Diallo, Rangel has alternately—and publicly—labeled Bill
Clinton a “redneck,” George W. Bush “our Bull Connor” and Dick Cheney “a real
son of a bitch.” TONY had hoped to ask Rangel, 76, about his role in the new
Congress, where he will chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and
propose the reinstatement of a military draft. But three days before our scheduled
interview, New York undercover police shot and killed Sean Bell, an unarmed
Queens resident, just hours before his planned wedding and, predictably, Rangel
became embroiled in the public outcry. We caught up with the legislative firebrand
in his car, on his way to a radio interview.
So is this the Amadou Diallo fiasco all over again?
As it relates to what appears to be the unwarranted shooting of innocent people,
yes. But the police department can’t investigate what happened, because of a fear
that it would jeopardize the Queens district attorney’s investigation. We don’t know
what the facts are, but it is hard for me to see whether any factual situation can
justify the shooting of people who obviously have not been guilty of any wrongdoing.
Experts are labeling the incident a “contagious shooting,” in which gunfire
escalates when the shooter feels he is under threat. Could this just be a
sad reality of police work, when cops feel ambushed—
[Impatiently] Please! I’m not trained to tell you why anyone, subconsciously, would
fire 31 shots, and why a total of 50 shots would be fired! I do know that in combat, if
people are frightened, there’s a tendency for them to lose their professionalism,
and not just shoot anything that is moving, but things that are not moving. This
“contagious firing” is a psychological problem that’s indicative of unprofessional
conduct. We have no idea what really happened. And the worst thing is, the police
commissioner and the mayor cannot share [information] or investigate at this time.
And the longer it takes, the more difficult it is for the community to understand. I’m
frustrated and very anxious for the district attorney to conclude this investigation.
Understood. Yet this incident brings up the question of race in America
today. Just days after the groundbreaking for the Martin Luther King
memorial in D.C., actor Michael Richards spewed a racist tirade in a
comedy club. What—
That’s too much of a stretch for me.
Still, what does that tell us about race relations in our country?
I don’t know what sickness leads to this sort of thing, but racism is a serious
problem in America! And I’m not going to make the stretch to hook up a memorial
with some sick, unfunny comedian.
Our past two secretaries of state have been black. For all of your issues
with President Bush, do you at least credit him with helping to advance
racial progress with these appointments?
I’ve never looked at it that way. When someone reaches a position of authority, you
have to look beyond race and into policy. If you’re executing the Bush domestic and
foreign policy, and that execution isn’t in your country’s best interest, then the color
of the person executing that policy is not a factor.
In most articles written about Barack Obama, he is called a “black
politician.” Is consistently referring to Obama by skin color inherently
There are so many Obamas in this country, and unfortunately, when one of them
manages to break through and get national attention, America is so surprised that
a black has these attributes! So it’s not racism. It’s crashing through the wall of
racism that allows the Obamas to get the attention that they’re getting.