NEW YORK – One day after the Rev. Al Sharpton said he was mulling a run for the White House in 2004, the civil rights leader was behind bars in Puerto Rico.
Although it is an unusual stop for a presidential hopeful, one political analyst says the jail time will help Sharpton elevate the national profile he 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. He said the protest is one that Sharpton "calculated, or understood, would be intensely supported by some of the electorate."
A federal judge sentenced Sharpton to 90 days in jail Wednesday for trespassing on U.S. Navy property as part of a May 1 protest against bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
The Navy has used its range on Vieques for six decades and says the practice is safe and vital for national security. Critics say it poses a health threat.
Sharpton stood by the protests during his court appearance in front of Judge Jose Fuste.
"If Martin Luther King were alive, he would have come to Vieques and raised these issues," he said.
Fuste sentenced Sharpton as a repeat offender because he had prior arrests for civil disobedience in New York.
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 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico.
Noerdlinger said Sharpton was not prepared for the sentence because he was subpoenaed only one day before the court appearance.
"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 Ricans 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.
Sharpton served time in New York in 1993 as part of a 45-day sentence he was given for civil disobedience after being convicted of organizing an unruly 1987 demonstration to protest a white mob's slaying of a black man.
He has toned down in recent years, distancing himself from past controversies that also included falsely accusing a state prosecutor of taking part in the alleged rape of a black girl, Tawana Brawley. Sharpton was ordered to pay civil damages in the ensuing slander lawsuit, but he allowed the debt to go largely unpaid for years.
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 he commands the solid support of a quarter to a third of Democratic voters here.
Although most of Sharpton's activism has revolved around local cases involving racial violence or police brutality, he has broadened his scope in recent months. He traveled to Florida for the presidential recount, to Cincinnati to protest a police shooting, and to Sudan to investigate reports of slavery.
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 Wednesday.
"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.
Other high-profile protesters arrested during the demonstrations included environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, and actor Edward James Olmos. Those cases weren't handled Wednesday.