Two Weeks With Rachel Noerdlinger, the Movement’s Publicist

It was early June when I first spoke to Rachel Noerdlinger, and she was worrying about the casket. George Floyd’s memorial service in Minneapolis was to be held in 48 hours, and she was considering how images of the coffin, conspicuously placed at the front of the university sanctuary, might impact the national psyche after ten days of protests. It was the family’s call, of course, but she fretted that they might want the casket to be open, as it had been in the case of Sean Bell. (“I can still picture his face,” Noerdlinger says now. “It’s just blech.”) But Noerdlinger wanted to ensure that Floyd remained in the public mind as long as possible, as “a human being, not a lifeless vessel.”

Noerdlinger was in hyperdrive. Officially, she is a communications strategist, but she prefers the designation “media activist,” a label she learned from her oldest and most visible client, the Reverend Al Sharpton. She first heard the chant “No justice, no peace” out of Sharpton’s mouth more than two decades ago, she told me; he first proposed anti-choke-hold legislation after Eric Garner was killed. Noerdlinger has orchestrated press coverage of about 15 instances of Black men being killed by police, but this time was different. A generation of young people raised on cell phones, wanting instant gratification and results, newly politicized since 2016, mistrustful of Establishment institutions, “quarantined in their house, sitting around, not watching sports but watching a Black man be executed on television. The outcry was instantaneous.”

In the frenetic lead-up to the funeral, Noerdlinger made sure the AP journalists Bebeto Matthews, a photographer, and Aaron Morrison, a race-and-ethnicity reporter, would be there. She arranged for Wesley Lowery, the former Washington Post reporter at work on a long piece about Floyd and the uprisings for The Atlantic, to have an on-the-record one-on-one meeting with Sharpton. (“I’ve known him basically since he first got out of college,” she said of Lowery, whom she had worked with closely in Ferguson.) And all this as she tried to figure out how to invite press to a funeral within appropriate social-distancing parameters.

Then, the day before the service, she, together with Sharpton and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who has become a ubiquitous advocate, flew to Minneapolis on a private plane paid for by the actor Tyler Perry. While they were in flight, new, more severe charges were brought against two of the police officers accused in Floyd’s death, and from the plane Noerdlinger organized an impromptu press conference with Sharpton and Ben Crump, the attorney for Floyd’s family and many of the other recent victims of police violence.

Critics accuse Sharpton of chasing publicity, and he concedes the point. Publicity is “exactly what I want,” he said in his Minneapolis eulogy. “Nobody calls me to keep a secret. People call me to blow up issues that nobody else would deal with. I’m the blowup man.”

For over 20 years now, Noerdlinger has been Sharpton’s blowup man, helping turn a provocative but parochial figure from the New York activist fringe, who first came to national prominence pushing Tawana Brawley’s fraudulent accusations of rape, into something like the relentless racial conscience of American liberalism. He and Noerdlinger share the view that even earnest civil-rights causes need actors who understand the value of a good show — and this explains their long, symbiotic relationship. “What made Martin Luther King different from Roy Wilkins?” Sharpton asked me in his midtown office a few weeks after the funeral. “The drama. And I learned, from Dr. King and James Brown, you’ve got to grab their attention. I’m in New York. You’ve got to do something dramatic in New York. I’m not in northern Alabama. I got to grab the spotlight, and I need somebody who knows how you grab the spotlight.” In Sharpton’s Minneapolis speech, he called on white America to “get your knee off our necks.” “It just came out of his mouth,” Noerdlinger says. “I knew that it would be a clarion call.”

After his eulogy, Sharpton, Noerdlinger, and Carr moved to a private room, where celebrities who had flown in for the event were gathered with Floyd’s family and friends. A baby cried in the background, as Will Packer, Kevin Hart, Ludacris, and Tyrese Gibson, among others, stood up one by one, giving condolences and promising support, trying to traverse what looked like nothing more than the awkward and unmeasurable distance between members of an extended family who’ve made it and those who have not. Tiffany Haddish gave unscripted testimony about the importance of laughter in life, but she was crying the whole time. “It seems like every time I walk down the street, someone’s hunting me, or hunting us, and trying to take from us, and I just thought if I could give some joy … and it seems like … I don’t know.” By the time she sat down, she had to put her head on the table, wrecked by the effort of maintaining good cheer. Noerdlinger filmed the whole event and posted it on Facebook, where it got more than 800,000 views. “My job is less making sure the celebrities are okay and more thinking about if I have to use them, then strategically what is that?”

Noerdlinger was born in New Mexico and raised by white parents who adopted her out of a strong belief that racial harmony might be attained through cross-racial do-gooderism. Her mother was an artist who died by suicide when Rachel was in high school; her father was a Jewish-born astrophysicist who denied his Judaism. Together the family (two black children, two white ones) went to Quaker meeting — “a lot of hippie-slippy people holding hands and talking about ‘issues’ when all you wanted to do was be with your friends.” In 1996, she wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing transracial adoption except as a last resort. This wounded her father. “To me,” Peter Noerdlinger wrote in an email to her which was later quoted in the New York Times, “if a person of Irish descent chooses to, or happens to, follow Yugoslavian or Namibian customs, songs, dances, ceremonies, etc., or one of Bantu ethnicity becomes fascinated with Icelandic, or Inca legends and ceremonies, that seems just fine and it does not seem to me that anybody is getting deprived of anything.” Rachel Noerdlinger keeps the newsclip close at hand, and when she reads from it — aloud — she rolls her eyes. She loves her father and speaks with him daily — for years, he edited all her press releases — but she regards her upbringing as having been confusing and damaging, leading to body-image and addiction issues. Her parents taught that skin color didn’t matter, but “when I looked in the mirror, I saw a black child.”

Noerdlinger believes her ouster from City Hall in 2014 was orchestrated by pro-police forces who saw her as an easy target and a threat — “low-hanging fruit,” as she puts it: an ally of Sharpton who was close to the mayor and who also was female and Black. Perhaps you remember her from back then, when her face was printed on the covers of the New York tabloids and local press took aim at her boyfriend and teenage son. “Senior de Blasio Aide Dates Convicted Killer Who Calls Police Pigs,” the first headline read.

At the time, Noerdlinger was working as the chief of staff to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray. On the campaign trail, de Blasio called McCray “my No. 1 adviser,” but in truth she was a problematic political wife. It wasn’t just her spotty résumé: poet, editorial assistant, speechwriter, publicist. It wasn’t clear she wanted to ascend to the power her husband imagined for her. So Noerdlinger was hired with a twofold mandate: to raise the image and the profile of the city’s Black First Lady, to make a diminutive, recessive person not just likable but influential; and to help her formulate a series of priorities that, after a decade of Bloomberg leadership aimed at making New York more livable for the rich, might help improve living conditions for working families. Noerdlinger’s charge was nothing less than to build from scratch a political leader: A Black First Lady who stood up for Black people. After 20 years with Sharpton, Noerdlinger had every community leader on her cell phone: every activist, every church pastor, every local politician.

As public advocate, de Blasio had worked with Sharpton to end stop and frisk. “I’ve watched you,” de Blasio said when he and McCray wooed Noerdlinger at Brooklyn’s Bar Toto before Christmas 2013, she recalls. “ ‘You’ll be perfect.’ He has a way, if he wants to. I was like, ‘I’ve been arrested.’ He high-fived me.” Noerdlinger says now that she had a sinking feeling when she took the job. Sharpton talks about Noerdlinger’s City Hall job as if she were a stubborn child determined to learn her own lessons. “She said, ‘You know I’m always going to be loyal to the movement, blah blah blah,’ ” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Your career is your career. Do what you want to do.’ ”

Six months later, Eric Garner was killed, and Noerdlinger is still proud of the work she did at City Hall in the aftermath. Throughout all the pandemonium, protests, and grief, there remained a sense, at least at Noerdlinger’s end of City Hall, of high morale, hopefulness, and pulling together. But that détente was broken at the end of July, when Sharpton and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton appeared together at a roundtable on policing. Sharpton hadn’t wanted to go, but Noerdlinger twisted his arm, he says, persuading him to agree in the name of her own Black son. Sharpton promised that, if he accepted, he would speak his mind — and he did, telling de Blasio that his son could die from a police choke hold and Bratton that the accused cops should be forced to perp-walk. Bratton was put on the defensive; he later said he regretted going. “It all blew up, and I’m sure it didn’t help Rachel,” Sharpton says. “I think it went downhill from there. All of a sudden, these articles started appearing about her boyfriend and then her son. A lot of that was leaked from inside City Hall.”

In memos circulated internally in the fall of 2014, Noerdlinger pointed out that her boyfriend, Hassaun McFarlan, who had served time for manslaughter as a teenager, had grown up in the roughest of all circumstances: His father was a drug dealer who had died of AIDS; his mother had died by suicide. McFarlan learned drug dealing as a boy and “spent his entire juvenile years being transferred around [detention] facilities,” Noerdlinger wrote in an email. McFarlan regrets saying “pig,” the email continued, and “I do not in any circumstance condone that statement.” In another memo, Noerdlinger wrote that Khari, her only child, had been pursued and profiled by police since he was a kid in Harlem, “stop-and-frisked and arrested when he was 11 on his way to a football game.” But none of the contextualization mattered. After he was picked up for trespassing, reporters discovered a tweet Khari had written earlier: “Pigs always killing people.”

The mayor made a show of defending her for a while — he called the press campaign against her McCarthyism — but in the end, he caved. The week before Thanksgiving, almost a year after he’d wooed her at “that fucking Bar Toto,” as she puts it, de Blasio cut her loose in a conversation at Gracie Mansion, as McCray, whose public voice and image Noerdlinger had been hired to amplify, waited mutely upstairs.

Today, Noerdlinger and Khari still live in the same small New Jersey townhouse they lived in back then, and Noerdlinger reps Sharpton under the banner of Mercury Public Affairs, a bipartisan Washington-based firm whose partners include Bryan Lanza, the comms man on Trump’s transition team. “It’s amazing to be in this full-circle moment where everybody’s talking about the cops,” Noerdlinger said. “The things that they railed on Khari for — which, in retrospect, he shouldn’t have said on social media, ‘Cops are pigs’ and stuff like that — everybody’s saying it now.” The mayor she served, she felt, had moved in the opposite direction. On the night of May 31 this year, she says, she watched in disbelief as de Blasio defended the cops who had mowed into protesters with their squad cars. “I think I had whiplash,” she says. “I was shaking my head. I was just, Wow. I remember thinking to myself, What is this? Who is this?” Khari, now 23, is lounging on a couch nearby, scruffy from three months of isolation. He’s marching sometimes, he says, but mostly not. After all that happened — cop cars parked out front, reporters knocking on the door — he’s wary of getting picked up by police. Besides, this fresh anger out in the streets isn’t new to him. “I like the fact that everybody’s finally acknowledging what’s happening, but just because they’re acknowledging it now doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been happening for a very long time. And everybody just now is getting hip to it and trying to throw their voice into it. I like that everybody is talking about it, but it should have been talked about years ago.”

In 1998, Noerdlinger was working at the Terrie Williams PR agency, which repped Janet Jackson, Eddie Murphy,  “you name it,” she says, when Sharpton walked in. She took a liking to him immediately. “I was fascinated. He was a little bit heavier. He has this bellowing voice, kind of growly. He just took the room. It was overwhelmment.” She saw her mission. “I started thinking, How can we navigate different spaces?” She thought of her father. “How can Peter Noerdlinger think about him differently?”

Sharpton wasn’t as sure about her. She was 29 years old and “basically doing entertainment press,” he says now. Initially, Sharpton didn’t know about her white family — “That explains a lot,” he says, describing her as a young leftist discovering her roots. “She understood the white world and how they perceived me,” he says. Back then, “the average white only knew me by 60 seconds on Eyewitness News. She understood, Yeah, let’s put the fact that he’s got kids out there. I’m like, ‘Movement, movement, movement.’ She’s like, ‘But it’s good for the movement to show that you are multidimensional and that you really do preach in a church.’ ”

In 1999, just months after they met, Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea who sold videocassettes off a table on 14th Street, was shot, unarmed, in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building. Noerdlinger scoured the local assignment desks looking for reporters who were people of color and might be inclined to cover the story sympathetically— Deepti Hajela at the AP (“Nobody knows who she is”), Ayana Harry at WPIX, Leonard Greene at the Daily News. Even now, Noerdlinger finds the bench of reporters of color at Establishment outlets shockingly thin. “I can count on one hand the people I go to at the Times. I can’t even count on one hand the people at the tabloids.” From her brownstone in Harlem, Noerdlinger just faxed the local assignment desks over and over. She still has those fax numbers memorized.

Another way to rouse a somnolent press, she found, was to put forward the families, especially the women. Kadiatou Diallo, Amadou’s mother, and Nicole Bell, Sean’s fiancée — they made good stories even to editors consciously or unconsciously allied with police. “These women,” Noerdlinger says warmly, “regal, poised, in pain but articulate about what has to change.” Noerdlinger was there when Kadiatou Diallo emerged from a car in front of her son’s building, the site of his death, after flying to New York from Guinea. “Amadou, Amadou!” Kadiatou said as she fell to the ground. When asked by a reporter whether she had anything to say, she said yes: “Justice must be done.”

“I identify with the mothers,” Noerdlinger says.