Attack on athletes Trump’s ‘most despicable’ act, says Rev Al Sharpton

US civil rights leader tells UCD students race relations in ‘as much peril’ as during 1960s

Rev Al Sharpton with  the James Joyce Award at the L&H in  UCD. Photograph: Tom Honan.

Rev Al Sharpton with the James Joyce Award at the L&H in UCD. Photograph: Tom Honan.

 

US civil rights leader Rev Al Sharpton has described President Donald Trump’s criticism of American sports stars for kneeling in protest during the playing of the national anthem as “the most despicable thing I have seen him do”.

The veteran campaigner, who was visiting Dublin on Monday, said the president’s description of a protesting athlete as a “son of a bitch” was the most despicable “among some very egregious things”.

Rev Sharpton told The Irish Times Mr Trump’s remarks were “an affront on the right of protesting” and said the president was trying to distract from policies that were “regressive” on police reform and race.

Speaking before addressing the UCD Literary and Historical Society (L&H), he said there was nothing new about the protests which were started by American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick. While playing with the San Francisco 49ers last year he began kneeling during the national anthem in protest at police brutality and the treatment of black Americans.

“When I was a kid, Muhammad Ali stood up,” said Rev Sharpton. “No other president reacted that way. No other president said these guys ought to be fired. For Donald Trump to act like this is a flag issue is to divert attention from how he is dealing with the issues that they are kneeling about.”

He said that for the president of the United States to call the mothers of these athletes “a bitch” when they had raised their sons in desperate situations, facing class and racial barriers, was “absolutely horrific”.

“This is the same president, a few weeks ago, that when we saw neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, he said that there were some fine people on both sides but he calls the mother of pro athletes bitches. It is something that I think is beyond the pale,” said the founder of activist group, National Action Network.

Rev Sharpton, who started his civil rights activism working with Dr Martin Luther King jnr, took questions from students before receiving the James Joyce Award and honorary fellowship of the L&H debating society.

Speaking about the rise of racism, the Baptist minister and TV host said the US was “in as much peril now as we were when I was a kid joining Dr King”.

He said he was often asked by reporters whether Trump is racist. “What he is doing is to the detriment of blacks and to the detriment of Muslims and he is playing and knowingly playing to a racist crowd, which is almost worse,” he said.

He feared Trump’s “divisive game will cause a lot of disrepair” in the US and around the world. His election was “a backlash” to the first black president, he said, and a lot of people “just couldn’t ever come to terms that a black family was in the White House”.

Asked what he would say to Mr Trump if he could sit down with him and talk about race relations, Rev Sharpton said: “Resign,” to laughter and raucous applause from the students.

Could Trump be re-elected, asked another student.

“Yes, if we don’t organise,” he replied.