Harlem, Dec. 8, 1995.
Roland James Smith, Jr., walked into Freddie’s Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned clothing store, and pulled out a gun. He ordered all the black customers to leave, doused several clothing bins with paint thinner, and lit them on fire.
Eight people died, including a black security guard—who had been labeled a “cracker lover” and “traitor” by protestors of the store—and Smith himself.
The months leading up to the massacre had been marked by increasingly clamorous protests. The most prominent leaders involved were Morris Powell, head of the local vendor’s association, and Al Sharpton.
The protests revolved around the eviction of the Record Shack, owned by Sikhulu Shange, an African American. The popular version of the story claimed that the Jewish owner of Freddie’s, Fred Harari, was evicting Shange because he was black. In fact, the original request for Shange’s eviction came not from Harari but from the owner of the building, the United House of Prayer, a black Pentecostal church. Harari was merely a tenant of the church, and Shange his subtenant. The reason for his eviction was entirely financial.
Seizing on the volatile moment, Sharpton and Powell rallied the protestors and deliberately fanned the racial flames.
On the street, Sharpton decried Harari as a “white interloper”:
We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business.
Copies of his angry protest made their ways to local black radio stations, WWRL, WLIB, and KISS.
Powell, likewise couched the situation in racial terms. At one rally, Powell declared,
We are not going to stand idly by and let a Jewish person come in black Harlem and methodically drive black people out of business up and down 125th St. If we stand for that, we will stand for anything.
Over the following months, Harari experienced scores of protests and increasingly violent threats. The police department even felt it necessary to station uniformed officers at the pickets and opened an investigation into racial bias.
Near the end, one of the demonstrators reportedly said, "We're going to burn and loot the Jews."
Apparently Roland James Smith, Jr., took it upon himself to start the conflagration.
After the tragedy took place, Sharpton vehemently denied any responsibility for Smith’s actions, claiming Smith was a critic of his non-violent teaching, and downplaying his own involvement in the protests:
People are trying to put me in the middle of this. I only came one time. I met with the people from the church. ... I was only there a matter of minutes. I was not the leader of this. I was only in support of Shange.