DO THE DETAILS really matter? Ostensibly it was a dispute over a lease. The owner of Freddy's Fashion Mart notified the owner of Record Shack, which sublet the shop next door, that his lease wouldn't be renewed. Freddy's was acting at the behest of the building owner. Record Shack didn't want to move.
No, the details don't matter. What matters is that Freddy's owner was Jewish, and the owner of Record Shack was black. On Harlem's famed 125th Street in the Age of Farrakhan, nothing else is relevant.
By late September, the protests begin. By Nov. 25, they are occurring daily. Every morning, 20 or more demonstrators crowd the entrance to Fred Harari's clothing store across from the Apollo Theater. Every morning, he has to endure the obscenities and the threats:
"Get out, Jew bastards!"
"Burn down the Jew store!"
"Get all Jews out of the neighborhood!"
"Kill the Jew bastards!"
Harari's customers -- the few who dare to brave the gauntlet -- are spat on, taunted as "Uncle Toms" and "traitors." They are advised to "go in the store now because next week it won't be there."
By Nov. 28, members of the mob repeatedly simulate striking a match and throwing it at the store. One demonstrator, loud and menacing, storms into Freddy's and screams: "I will be back to burn the Jew store down! Burn, burn, burn!"
On Nov. 29, a protester yells: "We're going to come back with 20 niggers and loot and burn the Jews." Kareem Brunner, a black Freddy's security guard, goes to the 228th Precinct to plead for police protection. "I repeated what I had heard that morning," he later swears in an affidavit. "The problem was not going to subside, but instead would escalate. . . . I took these threats as directed against me personally also. I was told by them many times that I was a 'cracker lover' and 'would get mine as a traitor' to the black race."
On Dec. 2, "Reverend" Al Sharpton, a race-baiter of long standing, joins the protesters. His name is on a leaflet denouncing "what appears to be a conspiracy to drive another black merchant from 125th Street."
On Dec. 7, Fred Harari turns for help to a New York court. Offering videotapes as evidence of a clear and present danger, he asks for a restraining order to keep the mob at least 50 feet from his shop. The demonstration has become "a racial thing which seems to be feeding on itself," he says. He describes the protesters' mime of lighting and throwing matches. "I can only believe that if they are allowed to continue with their protest up close to my store, at some point real matches will be thrown at me and my store. This is not an idle fear on my part."
On Dec. 8, Roland Smith -- a vendor of African jewelry and one of the wilder demonstrators - bursts into Freddy's with a gun, several dozen rounds of ammunition, a can of paint thinner, a fuse and matches. It is a few minutes past 10 a.m. "It's on now! All blacks out!" Smith shouts. After the black customers leave, he shoots four nonblacks point-blank. He splashes paint thinner over piles of clothing, sets Freddy's ablaze and shoots himself. Seven employees die in the inferno, including five young Hispanic women and Kareem Brunner, the guard who had begged the police for help. At 12:50 p.m., Judge Harold Tompkins signs the restraining order.
On Dec. 9, leaflets are passed out in front of another store on 125th Street. "Now we will drive Bargain World out of business," they gloat. "Bargain World must go!" Bargain World is owned by Arthur Rosen, whose family has been serving Harlem patrons since 1938. Meanwhile, at a press conference nearby, Al Sharpton says he "saw no anti-Semitic, anti-white, or any other expressions of racism" preceding the slaughter at Freddy's.
On Dec. 12, four days after the massacre, The New York Times runs a Page 1 story -- its first -- on the "menacing caldron of anti-Semitic, anti-white racism" that had been boiling outside Freddy's Fashion Mart for weeks. Harlem politicians led by US Representative Charles Rangel claim they never heard any racist threats. The vows to "burn the Jew store down," the daily public cursing of "bloodsucking Jews"? News to them.
A thought experiment:
Suppose ugly demonstrations and threats of violence were taking place outside an abortion clinic. Suppose vile epithets were being spewed, day after day. Suppose protesters kept crowding the entrance, kept yelling "Burn it down!"
How long would it take for the police to react? For the restraining order to issue? For the mayor and governor to mobilize? For the story to splash onto Page 1? Two weeks -- or two hours?
Suppose a pack of Jewish goons were massing at the door to a black-owned business, screaming racist obscenities and motioning as if to set the place afire. Suppose a gang of right-wing militiamen were appearing outside a federal office building, bug-eyed with hatred, shouting, "Kill the government bastards!"
Suppose -- but why suppose? We live now in the Age of Farrakhan, and the rules are clear. Some kinds of racial terror will be fought with unsleeping vigilance; others will be discreetly overlooked. Some hatemongers will be reviled and shunned; others will lead Million Man Marches. Some vitriolic threats will be met with every weapon at society's command. Others -- "Burn the Jew store down," for instance -- won't even be heard. Not until seven victims have been incinerated.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)