Famed for his rousing rhetoric, flamboyant persona, and oratory prowess, Reverend Al Sharpton is one of America’s most influential civil rights leaders.
The Baptist minister, who was a White House advisor to former president Barack Obama, pulls no punches and is a tenacious critic of race relations in the US.
The talk show host, who has his own radio show Keepin’ it Real, has argued the Trump presidency has emboldened the far right in the country and has described the US president as an “embarrassment” to America.
“I think that Trump represents a backlash of the eight years of President Obama and has given every dog whistle or racial signal to the worst elements in American society,” he told The Independent in a wide-ranging interview.
“He is trying to turn back the clock on voting rights, on health care, and on people’s civil rights and liberties. We are determined that while he can turn back the clock, he will not turn back time.”
Sharpton argued Trump’s divisive and incendiary rhetoric – which has seen the world leader accused of sexism and racism – has inspired the so-called “alt-right” movement in the US to become increasingly brazen in their discourse.
“Trump has emboldened the far right to come out with a lot of racism, xenophobia, and homophobia,” he said. “I think that it is an opportunity for those in the progressive and civil rights community to mobilise because they have taken the covers off and are very blatantly expressing themselves.”
“When you have the president of the United States making a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis – saying there are ‘some good people there’ – and comparing them to people protesting against confederate statues which represent slavery then they become emboldened because they have the imprimatur of the Oval Office.”
This is a reference to a white supremacist rally which took place in Charlottesville last summer and saw neo-Nazis, KKK members and alt-right supporters clash with anti-fascists. A woman was left dead after a 20-year-old man, who officials say had Nazi sympathies, ploughed his car into a crowd of peaceful anti-fascist demonstrators.
Trump prompted anger in the wake of the deadly violence for drawing a moral parity between white supremacists and anti-fascists, saying counter-protesters were as violent as the far-right and the alt-right groups included some “very fine” people.
“It’s embarrassing to have to explain to people in the UK and the rest of the world why we have a president who tweets the most ridiculous and the most divisive stuff,” Sharpton said. “He has lowered the dignity of the office.”
The campaigner, who spoke at Oxford Union and addressed 200 local black elected officials and politicians to discuss gun violence and the War on Drugs in the House of Commons during his visit to the UK this week, argued the rise of Trump was being mirrored in Europe.
Sharpton sought to draw parallels between dispossessed Brexit voters and Trump supporters who both feel spurned by globalisation and misunderstood by the respective Washington and Westminster elite.
“It is complemented by what we see in Italy, what we see with Brexit here. This isolationism and this nationalism. It runs contrary to the globalisation of finance and the globalisation of technology – we now live in one world where you cannot stifle communication or finance and you need to learn and deal with diversity around the globe. Trump is a symbol of them trying to hold onto a world that has passed.”
He argued Trump was exacerbating rather than tackling police brutality in the US – referring to the time the billionaire property developer appeared to endorse police violence in a speech given to law enforcement officials in Long Island, New York, last August.
“Trump has forthrightly said that he is on the police side. He told the police in one speech, ‘don’t even be kind when you are arresting people’. This is embracing that physical police overreaction,” Sharpton said.
Mr Trump went so far as suggesting officers should not protect suspects’ heads when they are pushing them into vehicles during the speech last summer.
“And when you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon – you just see them thrown in, rough – I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice’,” Trump said.
The president added: “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody – don’t hit their head. I said, ‘You can take the hand away, OK?’” The speech prompted loud applause and laughter from the crowd of officers.
Sharpton, who was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the US presidential election back in 2004, was more positive about race relations when discussing last month’s royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Nevertheless, he argued it was important not to get fixated with symbolism and also to look for the tangible consequences of Harry’s decision to marry a mixed race woman.
“I think it is great symbolism. I was very moved by it but I want to see the policies rise to the symbol,” he said. “I think it gave a lot of hope to young blacks – especially in Britain. But again it cannot end with just the wedding ceremony. We need to have a marriage in academia and in government here of inclusion and not just be satisfied with the symbol.”
Sharpton highlighted parallels between race relations in the UK and the US – saying both countries were united by their struggle to deal with “white male authority”.
“Although it manifests itself differently, [Britain and America] basically operate on the same premise that white male authority should not be questioned. That is a notion that is outdated and cannot survive with the globalisation of the world as we know it.”
He argued Trump’s approach immigration was reminiscent of the Windrush scandal in the UK.
“When you have a president that identifies Mexicans as rapists and talks about building a wall and then the Windrush generation scandal pushing people out, it is the same general mood that must be resisted.”
“I want to see why we see a lack of diversity and how we heal it and how we come together,” he said. “It is good for everyone, it is not only good for blacks. You need that to deal with the upsurge of knife incidents in this country. If you have community and law enforcement working together that protects everyone. It is not just diversity for black empowerment, it is diversity for everyone’s interests.”
Figures released by London’s Metropolitan Police this month showed that in the year to March there has been a 23 per cent increase in gun crime and a 21 per cent rise in knife crime.
Crimes involving knives and sharp instruments across England and Wales are at their highest level since 2011, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Sharpton also told The Independent Oxford University lacked racial diversity – saying the prestigious institution has an “exclusionary admissions strategy”.