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The Reverend Al Sharpton, a controversial New York political figure, shared the Harvard Law School (HLS) stage with former New York City Mayor--and Sharpton's former adversary--Edward I. Koch yesterday.
The two seemed on good terms as they, along with Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree, proposed a program to help rehabilitate non-violent criminals by reintegrating them into society.
Sharpton said that, despite continuing differences with Koch on other issues, he is glad they are collaborating on the criminal rehabilitation project.
"America is at its best when people, without losing their identity, work with others, who retain their identities, for a cause bigger than themselves," Sharpton said.
In the program they proposed, offenders could apply to have a judge seal their criminal records--if they get education and treatment for drug problems, thus proving their desire to go back into society.
Currently, Koch said, people who come out of prison are treated as "pariahs" and cannot find jobs or support families.
Sharpton said that while searching for former classmates to interview for his 1996 autobiography, he found that many of them had died or were in jail due to crime.
"We must give the collective community a second chance to go beyond rhetoric and open wounds and help people who have become permanent pariahs," he said.
Their proposed Second Chance legislation would be open to criminals convicted of no more than two non-violent, non-sexual felonies.
Before applying, offenders would have to perform public service, get a GED, complete drug therapy if needed and remain conviction-free for five years. The records would be sealed except for law enforcement and for future criminal proceedings.
However, it was not this proposal, but Sharpton's past actions, that got the biggest reaction from the audience.
Some HLS students called Sharpton "race-bating" and "hate-mongering" and asked him to apologize for comments they said incited violence against Jews in New York.
They were referring to a 1995 case, in which Freddy's, a Jewish-owned store planning an expansion that would have evicted a black-owned store, was set on fire, killing eight people.
After the arson, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, many Jewish groups, and others accused Sharpton of using racially charged language that had inspired the arson.
When an audience member asked him about the Freddy's incident, Sharpton said there are certain misconceptions about the case. The fire occurred months after his remarks, he said, so the remarks could not have been responsible unless the perpetrator (who committed suicide after the fire) had "delayed reactions."
"I'm not going to deal with fabrications. I'll deal with my own errors," he said.
Though Koch said that he and Sharpton both had been guilty of "demagoguery" at times, he said he does not believe Sharpton is an anti-Semite.
Koch and Sharpton punctuated the tense atmosphere with some levity.
When the floor opened to questions, second-year law student Aharon J. Friedman stood and said that one of the panelists was a "hate-monger."
"I don't think you should talk about Mayor Koch that way," Sharpton said, smiling.
Many audience members applauded loudly, drowning out Friedman at the microphone.
Koch showed that he could banter just as well as Sharpton.
"I made Al Sharpton famous," Koch quipped. "I had him arrested because he sat in on my office."
Ogletree, who organized the discussion, said he had no reservations about inviting contentious figures to this, one of HLS's "Saturday School" panels.
The series openly discusses "hateful ideas, scornful ideas and unpopular ideas," Ogletree said.
Before the panel, Sharpton, Koch and Ogletree presented the program to leaders of the state legislature. They will soon present it to Attorney General Janet Reno and the Congressional Black Caucus.
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