[sixties-l] H. Rap Brown/Jamil Al-Amin: A Profoundly American Story (fwd)

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    Subject: H. Rap Brown/Jamil Al-Amin: A Profoundly American Story

    H. Rap Brown/Jamil Al-Amin: A Profoundly American Story


    March 18, 2002

    Die Nigger Die!, the autobiographical political memoir by H. Rap Brown, is
    a vital American historical document, historical almost in the sense of a
    message found in a time capsule, a missive from another age. But it remains
    of considerable interest for what it tells us about social and political
    attitudes, behaviors and expectations of a time, so my students believe,
    long past. The time, in this case, being a discrete, relatively short
    period of domestic upheaval in this country during the late 1960s and early
    1970s, a time of "revolutionary" black uprising in Northern ghettos
    following hard on the heels of the Southern, nonviolent, direct-action
    movement engineered by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee),
    CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership
    Conference), a movement usually associated with Martin Luther King Jr.
    Rap's book has an added dimension of sociological interest, being a voice
    from the frontlines, the personal and political testimony of a radically
    militant chairman of SNCC who came to symbolize the defiance of a
    generation of angry and militant black youth. A third, perhaps less
    compelling, area of interest is the personal: what the voice and language
    reveal about the character and personality, the sensibility, if you will,
    of the speaker. Who is this man, of whom McGeorge Bundy reportedly
    commented at the founding gathering of the National Urban Coalition,
    "Wouldn't you, wouldn't all of us, sleep much better tonight if we knew
    that H. Rap Brown...was somewhere quietly running his own little drugstore?"
    Well, for one thing, the author, H. Rap Brown, is no longer among us. Nor
    has he really been since 1971, when, as a young man in his late twenties,
    he made his shahadah (the Muslim declaration of faith). During a period of
    incarceration by the State of New York, the black activist known to the
    media as H. Rap Brown converted to orthodox Islam and emerged as Jamil
    Abdullah Al-Amin, a Sunni Muslim. Brown went in and Al-Amin emerged. This
    change was by no means cosmetic or strategic.
    By all accounts and the overwhelming preponderance of evidence over years,
    this was a genuine religious conversion, a classically "profound
    transformation of self." Al-Amin embarked on a life
    of rigorous study and spiritual and moral inquiry with the same
    single-minded intensity and
    uncompromising commitment Rap had brought to militant social struggle.
    It is important to mention this because, as we know, not all conversions,
    religious or ideological, are equal. This was a time particularly famous
    for sudden, public and apparently infinitely reversible self-reinventions,
    two of the more dramatic being Jerry Rubin's conversion from the stridently
    countercultural Youth International Party leadership to Wall Street broker
    (from yippie to yuppie) and Eldridge Cleaver's from Black Panther Party
    revolutionary to born-again Christian.
    Al-Amin's embrace of Islam, however, proved neither facile nor expedient,
    as his emergence as a bookish Muslim cleric and his years of work in
    faith-based social improvement have demonstrated. The fiery and impetuous
    young rebel who speaks out of the pages of Die Nigger Die! has long since
    evolved into an austere religious scholar, disciplined by faith and
    projecting the aura of a spiritually disposed ascetic.
    After thirty years, Al-Amin has become, in many important ways, a vastly
    different person from the author of this book. A respected imam, he now
    sees, and for some time has seen, the world, his own role therein and the
    eventual liberation of his people in quite different terms: those of faith,
    self-discipline and spiritual development. This vision is reflected in both
    his demeanor and his language. Consequently he has, at this time, serious
    reservations about the appropriateness of reissuing a book of youthful
    struggle. It is not that he repudiates any aspect of the book, not the
    tone, the defiant struggle out of which it came or even the youthful
    persona of that text.
    While he considers some of the language of the early work "unseemly," his
    reservation is more that he considers his later work, Revolution by the
    Book, far more relevant to his current concerns and the work of thirty
    years, as well as being more indicative of his present personal and
    professional style. No two books could be more different in style and
    subject, but what they share, apart from their common paternity, is that
    both are earnestly addressed to the same audience and purpose: the
    re-education of the African-American grassroots.
    Revolution by the Book is not, as might be inferred from a casual glance at
    the cover, a handbook on guerrilla war. The revolution of the title refers
    very specifically to jihad in its classical Islamic meaning of the daily,
    internal struggle for self-mastery and moral discipline. The book begins
    with a collection of sermons, each explicating one of the foundations of
    Islam, shahadah (declaration of faith), tauheed (the Oneness and uniqueness
    of God), salaat (prayer and worship), zakaat (the redemptive value of
    charity) and saum (purification by fasting and
    abstinence)--and the expression of them in the hajj, or prescribed pilgrimage.
    Liberally illustrated with quotations from the Koran, the Sunnah and other
    secondary Islamic texts,
    Al-Amin's tone is learned and reverent, exhortatory and precise. It is an
    eloquent articulation of the
    fundamental principles, values and practice of orthodox Islam, affecting
    every aspect of life,
    personal and social. The revolution it envisions is a moral one, which
    begins with the individual, stressing awareness of God and self through
    piety, study and self-discipline, and moves through family and out into the
    larger society.

    On family:
    The first responsibility of the Muslim is as teacher. That is his job, to
    teach. His first school, his first classroom is within the household. His
    first student is himself. He masters himself and then he begins to convey
    the knowledge that he has acquired to the family. The people who are
    closest to him.

    On struggle:
    To be successful in struggle requires remembrance of the Creator and the
    doing of good deeds. This is important because successful struggle demands
    that there be a kind of social consciousness. There has to be a social
    commitment, a social consciousness that joins men together. On the basis of
    their coming together, they do not transgress against themselves and they
    do not transgress against others.

    On society and revolution:
    When you understand your obligations to God then you can understand your
    obligations to society. Revolution comes when human beings set out to
    correct decadent institutions. We must understand how this society has
    fallen away from righteousness and begin to develop, Islamically, the
    alternative institutions to those that are in a state of decline around us.
    But we must first enjoin right and forbid wrong to ourselves. That is the
    first step in turning this thing around: turn your self around.

    There is a directness and, if you will, a sincerity to this language, a
    sincerity that those who know the imam say has for thirty years been
    evident in his life and example. These qualities are said to have earned
    him a fierce loyalty and affection from the Muslim congregation to which he
    ministers in a working-class suburb of Atlanta, respect in the surrounding
    Christian neighborhood and a wider regard in the national Muslim-American
    community. This side of Al-Amin's vocational persona is one I had not been
    privileged to observe until 1998, at a farewell tribute to our brother
    Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), who was stricken with terminal cancer and
    had been about to return to his home in Africa, there to die. Perhaps 2,000
    people gathered in the banquet room of a Washington hotel: family, friends,
    admirers and supporters of Carmichael's, mostly movement faithful, veterans
    of the "heroic days."
    I t would have been a remarkable gathering in any place and any decade,
    though it could probably not have happened in the 1960s, when doctrinal and
    ideological disagreement had loomed so urgent and divisive. Even recently,
    perhaps only respect for Carmichael could have assembled such a gathering.
    Black nationalists next to Southern Baptists; pan-Africanists, native
    Africans, a few Sunni Muslims, and NAACP integrationists next to Nation of
    Islam separatists; former Black Panthers next to former Students for a
    Democratic Society activists; progressive intellectuals, writers and
    editors, socialists, Marxists, liberals, black and white, next to Black
    Arts Movement cultural nationalists; and John Lewis, the assistant minority
    whip of the House, cheek by jowl with Minister Louis Farrakhan, the
    ubiquitous leader of the Nation of Islam. It was a fitting tribute to the
    extraordinary range and reach of Carmichael/Ture's political and personal
    charisma and the affection he commanded across lines of ideology and identity.
    Prominent at the speakers' table were the former chairmen of SNCC (Marion
    Barry, Chuck McDew,
    John Lewis, Jamil, and Phil Hutchens). The talk from the platform was, as
    might be expected, nostalgic, affectionate, political.
    The only real departure, and my only surprise, came when Imam Al-Amin
    spoke. What he delivered in tribute to his old friend was a thoughtful,
    Islam-inflected reflection on the nature of oppression
    and the moral duty, the religious imperative, of the faithful to resist.
    Liberally adorned with Koranic
    quotations, it was, as I recall, an erudite, elegantly constructed, finely
    reasoned explication of the
    categories and nature of oppression, and the moral dimensions and
    complexities of struggle as
    expressed in the prophetic poetry of the Arabian desert some 1,400 years
    earlier. In any terms, culturally speaking, it was scholarly. I found it
    startling in a curious way: It did not quite fit either
    stylistically or culturally with what had gone before, yet was completely
    Its traditional opening in the resonant cadences of classic Arabic poetry
    seemed to me and others a voice and sensibility out of a different culture
    and another time. Its text, taken from Sura 42, verse 41 of the Holy Koran
    - "All those who fight when oppressed incur no guilt, but Allah shall
    surely punish the oppressor" - seemed appropriate as a personal credo for
    both the speaker and the life of struggle being recognized.
    As he spoke, I remember thinking: Ah, so this is what a serious Islamic
    sermon sounds like, huh? Rap really takes this calling seriously. The
    brother is indeed an Islamic scholar, an imam. (I took in the hang-jawed
    look of astonishment and dawning professional respect that crossed Minister
    Farrakhan's face as he listened to be confirmation of my impression.)
    I'd known the youthful Rap at Howard University as the younger brother of
    my friend Ed and, of course, later with SNCC in Mississippi and Alabama,
    before he erupted in the nation's headlines as the black militant from
    hell, the Negro America loved to hate. I remembered a laconic, rangy
    (six-foot-five), hawk-faced youth, mostly silent, a preternaturally
    watchful, almost brooding presence. Said to be an extraordinary athlete, he
    looked the part. "Yeah, the boy can play him some ball, bro. Everything
    from point guard to power forward and some quarterback too," his brother
    told me. "An' there ain't no dawg in mah boy either. He a competitor from
    his heart. No quit in him."
    Given the times, it was natural that the movement would draw him away from
    the courts and any possibility of athletic scholarships. He listened to our
    endless debates, read voraciously, joined our demonstrations and
    volunteered for the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964.
    I n 1965 he was back in DC, where he became chairman of NAG (Nonviolent
    Action Group), the local SNCC affiliate. This led to the infamous White
    House confrontation with President Lyndon Johnson. I believe it was a
    Saturday morning a week following the vicious police riot known as "Bloody
    Sunday" on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. I was alone in the
    SNCC office when the telephone rang from the Leadership Conference on Civil
    Rights. Responding to international outrage over the atrocity in Alabama,
    President Johnson had suddenly agreed to a meeting with the national civil
    rights leadership. However, the meeting was that afternoon, and the
    leadership was scattered all over the country. The Washington
    representatives would have to stand in. Would I be representing SNCC? Hell,
    no, I most certainly would not. Just then in strolls Rap, attired, as I
    recall, for athletic endeavor.
    "Hey, aren't you the chairman of NAG? Feel like going to the White House
    this afternoon?" Rap
    considered it for several moments.
    "Well," he drawled, "why not? I ain't really doing much this afternoon."
    Later, when he gave his report, I remember his indignation and amazement at
    the fawning
    subservience toward the President displayed by a delegation ostensibly
    there to represent the urgency of our people's struggle, courtiers so
    effusively grateful for the privilege merely of being there and so anxious
    to preserve their access that none dared be forthright with the monarch. So
    it had fallen to him to raise the questions of presidential responsibility
    for federal inaction in protecting the rights of black citizens that the
    group was there to represent. He described the delegation's shuffling
    during the meeting and their not-very-subtle distancing of themselves from
    his intemperance, in some cases even going so far as to apologize for him.
    Yet once outside they effusively praised his courage for saying the things
    that "really needed to be said." Then, within the week, an insidious column
    in the Washington Post (by Evans and Novak) described how 'deeply
    embarrassed responsible civil rights leaders' were professing to be at the
    'disrespect' shown the President by the young student.
    Rap told me that LBJ had entered the meeting expressing his great
    displeasure at all-night demonstrations outside the White House, which were
    so noisy that "his little girls" had been unable to sleep. The courtiers
    each in their turn had expressed distress and apologies for this
    inconvenience to the presidential family. Rap, when his turn came, said
    that he too was real sad that for one night the presidential daughters'
    repose had been disturbed, but black people in the South had been unable to
    sleep in peace and security for a hundred years. What did the President
    plan to do about that? He had thought that this was what they were meeting
    to discuss. Which apparently so upset the President that the courtiers felt
    a need to run to the press later to put their disapproval on the public
    record. It must have been a generational thing.
    When, in 1967 at the age of 23, Rap succeeded Carmichael as SNCC chairman,
    it was at a tense and desperate moment in the country. SNCC's call for
    Black Power, coupled with its stand against the Vietnam War, had isolated
    the organization and left it exposed. Deep fissures had appeared in the
    civil rights "coalition." The long-simmering anger of alienated black youth
    at racism and economic injustice in the ghettos was erupting into violent
    and destructive urban insurrections. In every case these "riots" were
    triggered by police brutality or misconduct, most usually the killing or
    brutalizing of an unarmed black man.
    The black insurrections traumatized white America, which was further
    divided, usually along generational and class lines, by the Vietnam War.
    Suddenly, middle-class white youth, the ostensible beneficiaries of the
    system, were, to an unprecedented degree, also alienated from their
    government. The New Left, a generation of white student activists, was
    becoming increasingly strident in its denunciation of the American
    establishment and adopting an increasingly anticapitalist and
    anti-imperialist "revolutionary" rhetoric.
    A bout this time, the Black Panther Party made its appearance in Oakland. A
    "revolutionary" organization of urban black youth, they had great style. A
    variation on gang colors, their black leather jackets, black berets and
    blue shirts, with firearms either visible or implied, were an expression of
    ghetto youth culture. Appearing as if on cue out of America's Third World,
    the Panthers were the New Left's homegrown surrogates for the Vietcong.
    Black, virile, menacing, hip guerrillas, the Panthers were, depending on
    one's orientation, the incarnation of white America's most primal fantasy
    or its worse nightmare: angry Negroes with guns.
    Their leadership, with a well-developed sense of theater and an instinct
    for hustle, permitted the white New Left to declare them the revolutionary
    vanguard, with predictable results. Their members
    paid a terrible price: Some were killed and many are still in jail, often
    on very dubious charges.
    All of which, in the media's dependably sensationalist presentation,
    contributed mightily to a
    pervasive mood of racial tension and impending doom across the nation. Wars
    (abroad) and rumors
    of (race) war at home, mere anarchy is loosed, the enter cannot hold?
    Something like that.
    Well, not by a long shot, pilgrim. The response of J. Edgar Hoover's
    Federal Bureau of Investigation, a hard-hitting" national
    counterintelligence program" (COINTELPRO), was of surpassing ruthlessness
    in ts contempt for law and the civil rights of citizens. COINTELPRO cast a
    wide net covering the peace movement, the New Left, student activists,
    black militants ("black nationalist hate groups") and pacifist clergy,
    including even the very churchly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover's
    specific instructions were to use all necessary means to "expose, disrupt,
    misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize...black nationalist hate type
    organizations [sic], their leadership, spokesmen, membership and
    supporters." Programs were designed to "convince them," Hoover instructed
    his agents, "that to be a black revolutionary is to be a dead revolutionary."
    The bureau, taking him at his word, came up with a repertoire of dirty
    tricks, authorized by the director and usually illegal, ranging from
    character assassination, disinformation, false arrest on bogus charges,
    manufactured evidence, perjured testimony and cynical frame-ups to physical
    assassination by either uniformed officers or hired agents. All this has
    been documented by Congressional investigation, but none of the
    perpetrators, the so-called rogue agents, in the bureau have ever served a
    day of jail time.
    This being the context in which H. Rap Brown undertook the SNCC
    chairmanship, it is therefore not surprising that his term of office, a
    succession of indictments and arrests, was spent mostly in court, out on
    bond or in jail. Some of this is recounted in Die Nigger Die!:
    It began in July 1967 after an appearance in Cambridge, Maryland, where he
    had given an "incendiary" and, in the presence of the media, politically
    ill-advised speech in which he urged black people to arm themselves, to be
    "ready to die" and to meet violence with violence. "This town is ready to
    explode.... if you don't have guns, don't be here.... you have to be
    prepared to die." This proved rather quickly prophetic: Immediately after
    the speech he and two companions were fired on from an ambush, and the
    community exploded.
    After I spoke people were just milling around. A young lady who lived up
    towards Race Street where a bunch of white policemen were gathered asked
    for an escort home because she was afraid to walk by herself. Myself and
    two other people were walking her home and some dudes opened fire on us
    with shotguns from some bushes. We found out later they [the shooters] were
    black policemen. They were shooting at us a long time. I was hit, I dove to
    the ground, rolled into a ditch and made my way into someone's yard.
    After the shooting there was a lot of commotion. People went into the
    street and just started tearing everything up. A few hours later they
    burned the school again. Two weeks earlier people had burned the black
    elementary school because it had been a rat infested, roach infested place.
    People were paying taxes and their children were forced to go to school in
    those conditions. It is these conditions which cause riots. Not anybody's
    Shortly after this incident, Brown was charged by the State of Maryland
    with incitement to riot, beginning a succession of charges and protracted
    legal maneuvering drawn out over a two-year period.
    I can remember following the process as it unfolded in almost Kafkaesque
    absurdity in
    the press. It seemed like every few months Brown would be hauled into court
    in a new jurisdiction on a different charge and held under an oppressively
    large bond. His attorney, the late William Kunstler, would struggle
    mightily to win a reduction. Rap would eventually come out and in a matter
    of days be reported somewhere else making even more "incendiary" utterances
    and be back in custody, there to begin the dismal cycle all over again. At
    least that's how it seemed to me. I can remember saying, "I guess you're
    right. Rap don't have no quit in him after all, but maybe he should." And
    Ed growling, "That boy hard-headed, bro. Jes' too damn stubborn."
    Subsequently released FBI documents make it clear that this process of
    paralysis by indictment and legal intimidation was by no means limited to
    H. Rap Brown. It was a deliberate, across-the-board COINTELPRO strategy
    designed to cripple radical organizations by misusing the courts. First,
    there were arrests of targeted activists on serious charges carrying
    potentially long sentences. It was of little importance to the government
    whether it had a legitimate case, strong enough to secure a conviction. The
    point was to silence and immobilize leadership while forcing groups to
    redirect energy and resources into raising funds, organizing legal defenses
    and publicizing the cases. It was a government subversion of the American
    justice system resulting in drawn-out Soviet-style political show trials
    that became commonplace in the America of the 1970s: the Chicago Seven, the
    Panther Twenty-One, etc., etc.
    Although the overwhelming majority of these cases did not result in
    convictions, government documents show that they were considered great
    tactical successes. They kept the movements off the streets and in the
    courts. However, a few convictions were attained, and it is clear that at
    least some activists who ended up serving long sentences, some of whom
    remain in jail to this day, were simply framed by the government. People
    were convicted on perjured testimony as witnesses were bribed or coerced
    into lying. Exculpatory evidence was withheld from the defense and made to
    As I write, Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement is still in
    jail. Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt of the California Panthers, a decorated
    Vietnam veteran, was recently released after spending nearly half his life
    in jail for a murder that the FBI had clear evidence he could not possibly
    have committed. Richard Moore (Dhoruba Al-Mujahid Bin Wahad), a New York
    Panther, has only recently been freed after a review of his case indicated
    similar government misconduct. Have you heard of the Angola Three?
    These are two black men in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Herman Wallace
    and Albert Woodfox, who have been held in continuous solitary confinement
    for twenty-nine years. They, along with Robert King Wilkerson (who was
    freed in February 2001) are responsible for organizing a functional chapter
    of the Black Panther Party among the inmate population of Angola prison. In
    1972 the men were convicted of the murder of a guard and have been held in
    isolation ever since (see www.prisonactivist.org/angola). These are only a
    few cases that have surfaced into public awareness. But there remain a
    great many such cases that seem irretrievably buried in the catacombs of
    legal bureaucracy. There are activists of that generation, in other words,
    fellow human beings and American citizens, who are in effect political
    prisoners, still serving time in an American gulag, often on very
    questionable evidence indeed.
    Back to the Rap. In April 1970, after two years of tortuous legal jousting,
    he failed to appear in court for trial on the incitement charge and simply
    disappeared. For seventeen months, despite the best efforts of the FBI and
    an international dragnet, he appeared to have dropped from the face of the
    earth. To my knowledge he has never publicly discussed this period, so it
    remains something of a mystery. At the time, speculation was rife. None of
    our mutual movement friends seemed to know, or would admit to knowing, his
    whereabouts. He was variously rumored as being in Cuba, in Algeria, in West
    Africa or deceased. His brother Ed was "pretty sure" he was alive, but so
    completely incommunicado that even he had not a clue as to where Rap might be.
    When he finally surfaced in late 1971 it was in truly astonishing
    circumstances and surprisingly close to home, Manhattan, in fact. His
    friends and supporters in the movement were stunned when
    large New York Times headlines proclaimed his capture, gut-shot and
    seriously wounded, following
    a running gun battle with police during "an attempted holdup" of a westside
    Manhattan bar. To us this made no sense. Armed robbery of a bar? C'mon,
    that was completely at odds with the political
    principles we considered ourselves to share with Rap. Indeed, had he not
    been in critical condition in a Harlem hospital, one would have been
    tempted to simply dismiss the entire story as false identification.
    To many black Americans, this was an astonishing and dismaying development.
    The young SNCC
    chairman seemed to have crossed the line between militant political
    defiance and flat-out criminality.
    Much of the support he had enjoyed, both within the movement and in the
    general community,
    evaporated. But not all. According to a report from the Harlem street, "It
    was some black nurses who saved that boy's life. Them sisters made sure he
    got proper treatment in that hospital." Also, according to street lore, the
    bar holdup was really more of an ill-advised, armed sortie against reputed
    drug dealers and their police partners. After recovering from his injuries,
    Rap served five years in prison. Having theoretically discharged his debt
    to the law and re-emerged into society as Jamil Al-Amin, H. Rap Brown, for
    all intents and purposes, should have been history.
    Jamil Al-Amin, after making the hajj to Mecca following his parole, settled
    in Atlanta, where his brother Ed was director of the Voter Education
    Project, and set out to construct a new life outside the glare of the
    media. The imam, peaceably studying his religion and building an Islamic
    congregation, became, not that McGeorge Bundy was prescient, the proprietor
    of a small community grocery store cum culture center in Atlanta's West End.
    The next episode in this remarkable tale might be seen as that of two
    utterly incompatible and mutually exclusive stories. One is the narrative
    of H. Rap Brown, the armed militant, prone to violence"revolutionary" or
    "criminal," depending on your take. This old narrative is preserved alive
    and well in the computerized memory banks of law enforcement and the film
    clips and soundbites of the media, a convenient ghost to be summoned up at
    will over the next thirty years.
    "Y'know," his brother Ed explained, "something happens. Say the first
    attempt to bomb the Trade Center, right? They feed their infallible profile
    into their computer. Muslim...radical...violent...anti-American, whatever,
    who knows. Anyway, boom, out spits the names, H. Rap Brown prominent among
    them. Next thing the Feds come storming into the community and haul Jamil
    in. This actually happened. Of course it's stupid. And every time they have
    to let him go. But how do you stop it? A goddamn nightmare, they never quit."
    Then there is a more contemporary contending narrative, that of the Imam
    Al-Amin, pious, ascetic scholar/teacher and community leader widely
    perceived to have renounced violence, only to have his hard-won peace
    plagued at regular intervals by the ghost of the past persona, conjured up
    to that end.
    Or, some suggest, could not the narratives sometimes merge: with the
    clerical robes and books
    of the imam being occasionally discarded for the weapons and fatigues of
    the militant?
    One person has no doubt. "No, bro. It was just continuous harassment, pure
    and simple," Ed Brown says. "Harassment, sometimes routine and petty,
    sometimes pretty serious. Just one damn thing after another. No matter how
    absurd. The police simply would not leave my brother alone...an ongoing
    police vendetta."
    Out of this series of low-level annoyances two incidents stand out.
    Immediately after the 1993
    bombing of the World Trade Center, Imam Al-Amin was arbitrarily hauled in,
    interrogated and released under heavy and continuous surveillance, all in
    the absence of any evidence at all connecting him to the bombing, at least
    none the authorities cared to disclose.
    Another such incident took place in August 1995. A month after a local
    shooting, agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
    converged on Atlanta and arrested Imam Al-Amin as the shooter. At a press
    conference, they informed the press that the victim had identified the imam
    as his assailant. The charges were dropped when the victim, who
    subsequently joined the imam's mosque, told the press that he had not seen
    his assailant but had been threatened by the authorities with jail if he
    did not implicate Imam Al-Amin. He also told the Atlanta
    Journal-Constitution and the New York Times that it was the police who
    first presented him with the name and photograph of Imam Al-Amin. The
    whole thing stank of a setup and police impropriety. However, the
    mainstream civil liberties establishment was silent, so it was left to the
    national Islamic community to question the irregularities surrounding this
    On August 28, 1995, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic
    Relations (CAIR), joined by several other national Muslim organizations,
    held a press conference in which they called for a Justice Department
    investigation. The groups represented included the Islamic Society of North
    America, American Muslim Council, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and
    CAIR. Imam Al-Amin was also in attendance. The joint statement they
    released raises some interesting questions:

    1) Why were agents of the FBI, the FBI's Counterterrorism Task Force
    and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms involved in a case that the
    police themselves described as a "routine aggravated assault"?
    2) Why was the victim in this case, as he himself has stated and the
    Journal-Constitution reported, threatened with legal charges if he failed
    to identify Imam Al-Amin as his assailant? And why did authorities refuse
    to accept the victim's repeated statements that he did not see who the
    assailant was?
    3) Why would the authorities in Atlanta wish to implicate Imam Al-Amin
    in this case?
    4) Why was Imam Al-Amin arrested weeks after the alleged incident,
    even though he was easily accessible to law enforcement officials at his
    public place of business? Why was he arrested in his car and not called in
    for questioning at police facilities?

    Good questions. I am not aware of a response from the Justice Department.
    Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends.
    Five years later, on Thursday night, March 16, 2000, the troubled
    relationship between the brother and the various law enforcement agencies
    would escalate from farce to tragedy. As I write, Imam Al-Amin sits on
    trial on four felony murder charges, for which the state is seeking the
    death penalty. By the time you read this, part of the trial will have taken
    place, so we will have learned something of the quality and extent of the
    evidence the state has been able to produce in support of the thirteen
    charges it has brought. Here is the background, what we know of it at this

    On the night of March 16, an exchange of gunfire between two Fulton County
    sheriff's deputies and
    persons unknown resulted in the death of Deputy Richard Kinchen and the
    serious injury of Deputy
    Aldranon English. The incident took place in the vicinity of the community
    mosque founded by Imam Al-Amin. According to the authorities, the deputies
    were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on Al-Amin, who had missed an
    earlier court appearance. (The charges, impersonating a police officer and
    receiving stolen property, while not insignificant, were relatively minor
    compared with the ones he now faces. Imam Al-Amin maintains that he never
    received notification of the court date, even though his residence and
    business address were well-known to authorities.)
    In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, the Atlanta police released in
    rapid succession, and the media reported, four significantly different
    accounts of the incident. The precise location, the sequence of events, the
    description and even the number of assailants were all revised in these
    early accounts, the only constant being a "trail of blood."
    Deputy English was certain he'd seen, spoken to, shot and seriously wounded
    his attacker. The investigators reported following a "heavy trail" of
    blood up the steps and across the porch of an empty house. From photographs
    shown him, the wounded officer identified the shooter as Al-Amin, although
    there were discrepancies in his initial description. A regional manhunt was
    The local media had a field day with H. Rap Brown, whom they identified as
    a former Black Panther leader and all-around desperado. Apparently the most
    recent picture they could find was a police mug shot of a fierce-looking
    Black Power militant out of the 1960s. This image saturated all media
    (except radio) and is indicative of the general tone of the coverage.
    However, a few days after the shooting, when Al-Amin was arrested in
    Alabama, he was found to be completely free of physical injury.
    Subsequently very little was heard of the "wounded assailant" and the
    "trail of blood" motif, until it emerged in the first days of the trial.
    There are other significant discrepancies between police and media reports
    and the known facts, but there is no need to recapitulate those here. They
    will come out in court, and I am no more the imam's lawyer than you are a
    jury of his peers. There is, however, one important dimension to this story
    that seems to have escaped the notice of the media.
    Neither I nor the media commentators, having not been present, can say
    exactly what happened that night, who was present, or why and how things
    happened as they did. All that is indisputably clear is that an eminently
    avoidable human tragedy took place. One young black man was dead, another
    seriously injured. Somebody shot them. And a leader of the community is on
    trial for his life. Was this inevitable? Did any of it have to
    happen? Recall with me the prevailing context in which these events unfolded.

    In March 2000, there was a particular mood in working-class
    African-American communities across the country. Our communities had been
    traumatized by a series of shootings of unarmed black men at the hands of
    police in urban centers, most of them innocent of any crime. In black
    Islamic communities in particular, feelings were extremely raw over the
    police shooting of a devout, law-abiding, unarmed young African Muslim
    named Amadou Diallo as he stood in the foyer of his apartment building in
    New York City. Although more than forty shots were fired at or into the
    young man, the four police perpetrators were found innocent of wrongdoing.
    The Diallo case was the subject of sermons in mosques across the nation,
    and the Atlanta mosque was no exception.
    The Atlanta shootout took place within a month of the acquittal of the
    police officers in New York. One has to wonder, therefore, why, in the
    climate created by those events, the Atlanta authorities chose to act as
    they did. Why was it necessary to send into a Muslim community, under cover
    of darkness, heavily armed men wearing flak jackets to bring in a respected
    and beloved religious leader, a figure of fixed address and regular and
    predictable habits? And this in service of a warrant for charges they
    describe as relatively minor. Who authorized this action and in this
    manner? Was this abysmally poor judgment or deliberate provocation?
    Al-Amin's neighbors also found it passing strange. "He understood the
    process, how City Hall works, how federal government works," one lady
    recalls. "So he was like a mayor to many people. Someone people could go to
    to make things happen." Another pointed out that "Jamil walked up and down
    the street all day, from the house to the shop to the mosque. So why would
    they wait till 10 o'clock at night? The man certainly wasn't hard to find."
    There was a conference marking the foundation of SNCC a few months after
    the Atlanta shootings. The prisoner's colleagues from the movement said it
    well in a statement they issued there:
    While we are deeply saddened by the bloodshed and loss of human life in
    this tragic and very avoidable incident, we are equally concerned by the
    presence in the record of a number of factors which threaten to compound
    tragedy with injustice. We refer to the number of glaring discrepancies in
    the official version of events and what appears to us as a precipitous and
    uncritical rush to judgment by the public media.
    What further distresses us is that the facts as alleged are so completely
    out of character with the man we have come to know as Imam Jamil Abdullah
    Al-Amin. For twenty years, our brother has shown himself a serious student
    of religion, a devout spiritual teacher as well as a public spirited
    community leader.
    We ourselves know him as a principled, compassionate, mature black man
    committed to justice for his people and the moral welfare of his community.
    These allegations are totally antithetical to the character of a man we
    greatly respect. We urge therefore a suspension of judgment pending a
    thorough investigation, not only of the tragic events of March 16, but of
    the chain of events preceding them.
    Imam Al-Amin has been incarcerated since March 2000 under conditions that
    seem unnecessarily draconian. In solitary confinement, he was for a time
    deprived of his Holy Koran, and he has never been permitted to participate
    in weekly Jumu'ah, services with other members of his faith. He has been
    silenced by a court-imposed gag order. Before the order, however, he was
    able to make a personal statement. In the manner of his vocation and faith,
    the statement is issued in the name of his God, which inclines me to assume
    its sincerity. We should let him speak in his own voice, excerpted below:

    My name is Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the former H. Rap Brown. I am a
    devoted servant of Allah, and an unwavering devotee to His cause. For more
    than 30 years, I have been tormented and persecuted by my enemies for
    reasons of race and belief. I seek truth over a lie; I seek justice over
    injustice; I seek righteousness over the rewards of evildoers, and I love
    Allah more than I love the state. On March 16, 2000, Fulton County Sheriff
    Deputy Ricky Kinchen was killed and Sheriff Aldranon English was shot and
    injured in the neighborhood where I have lived, worked, and prayed. Indeed,
    this tragedy occurred across the street from the Mosque I founded. I have
    been accused by the State of Georgia of having committed these crimes. Let
    me declare before the families of these
    men, before the state, and any who would dare to know the truth, that I
    neither shot nor killed anyone. I am innocent of the 13 charges that have
    been brought against me. Let me also declare that I am one with the grief
    of this mother and father at the loss of their son. I am joined at the
    heart with this widow and her children at the loss of a husband and a
    father. I drink from the same bitter cup of sorrow as the siblings at the
    loss of a beloved brother.... [The police] have sought to
    marginalize my humanity and humiliate my family. They have done their level
    best to reduce me to a one-dimensional monster.... I am no monster. I am a
    human being created by Allah and am an instrument of his purpose. I am
    entitled to every right and every consideration as every other
    human being including fairness, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

    The trial currently under way may not prove particularly inspiring, but it
    will certainly be instructive. It doubtless can do little to resolve, or,
    in the fashion of the day, deconstruct, the prevailing paradox of the
    Brown/Al-Amin personas. Thus it will tell us less about the accused than
    about justice and the state of the nation in its present mood. Less about
    guilt or innocence than about respect for human rights.
    For, as Jimmy Baldwin, our late Prophet, warned, "In the private chambers
    of the soul, the guilty party is identified and the accusing finger is not
    legend but consequence.... A people pay for what they do, and still more
    for what they allow themselves to become. And they pay for it simply by the
    life they lead."
    It is now for the state and Al-Amin's fellow citizens to speak. In the
    national mood following the horrific events of September 11, it will be
    instructive to see what they say.

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