One day after the Rev. Al Sharpton said he might run for the White House in 2004, the civil rights leader was behind bars in Puerto Rico.
It's hardly a traditional stop for a presidential hopeful, but Sharpton's career as agitator and activist has rarely followed the usual path. A federal judge sentenced Sharpton to 90 days in jail today. for trespassing on U.S. Navy property as part of a May 1 protest against bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
Political analysts say the jail time will broaden his support among New York City's vast Puerto Rican community — and further raise the national profile Sharpton has carefully cultivated in recent months.
"He will get a lot of attention and that's something he's always coveted as a community activist," said Lee Miringoff, a pollster at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"His actions are not necessarily calculated to appeal to all of the electorate." This protest, Miringoff said, "is one he calculated, or understood, would be intensely supported by some of the electorate."
Nine other Vieques protesters were sentenced to 40 days in prison and given $500 fines. They included city councilman Adolfo Carrion, state Assemblyman Jose Rivera and Roberto Ramirez, chairman of the Bronx County Democratic Party.
Judge Jose Fuste sentenced Sharpton as a repeat offender because he had prior arrests for civil disobedience in New York. He also was fined $500.
"If Martin Luther King were alive, he would have come to Vieques and raised these issues," Sharpton said during his appearance in court.
Sharpton was taken to a federal prison in Puerto Rico. His spokeswoman, Rachel Noerdlinger, said Johnnie Cochran is assembling a team of lawyers who plan to file an appeal with the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
Sharpton Said to Feel 'Victimized'
Noerdlinger said Sharpton appeared in court this morning after he was subpoenaed on Tuesday. She said Sharpton was not prepared for the sentence, which he thinks is unfair.
"He strongly feels that he's been victimized by the justice system," Noerdlinger said.
Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic strategist, said Sharpton's sentence will be seen as significant among Puerto Rican activists in New York and nationwide. New York City's Puerto Rican population tops 789,000, according to the 2000 census, the largest such concentration in the nation.
"Sharpton has positioned himself as a civil rights leader, and civil rights leaders in our history go to jail. This is consistent with that and it makes him a kind of martyr," Sheinkopf said. "What better position to be in if you want to be a martyr for a group that is growing as a community?"
Sharpton has built a career out of speaking his mind — inspiring both devotion and loathing.
He has toned down in recent years, distancing himself from a controversial past that included falsely accusing a state prosecutor of taking part in the alleged rape of a black girl.
Sharpton was ordered to pay civil damages in the ensuing slander lawsuit, but he allowed the debt to go largely unpaid for years. Ten years ago, during the infamous Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, Sharpton was seen by many as a polarizing figure.
Yet he has remained a political force in New York, seeking Democratic nominations for U.S. Senate in 1994 and mayor in 1997. Though unsuccessful, he proved to analysts that he commands the solid support of a quarter to a third of Democratic voters here.
Most of Sharpton's activism, until recently, has revolved around local cases involving racial violence or police brutality.
But in the last few months he has traveled to Florida for the presidential recount, to Cincinnati to protest a police shooting, and to Sudan to investigate reports of slavery.
Jesse Jackson Supports Sharpton
Many observers suggest Sharpton is seeking to become a new leader of the national civil rights movement. The man who has long held that mantle, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, immediately came to Sharpton's support today.
"We have to first determine what the legal options are, but we stand in support of two things: one, his early release, and two, stop the bombing of Vieques and respect the territorial integrity of the people of Puerto Rico," Jackson said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel, called the sentence "excessive."
"It seems very inappropriate," Siegel said. "Civil disobedience is a long and honored tradition in American political discourse and I think that it's a mistake to increase the sentence because someone has been involved in peaceful nonviolence before."
Other high-profile protesters arrested during the demonstrations included environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. A spokesman for Kennedy, who was traveling in Japan today, said the judge handling Kennedy's case had not yet set a court date.