---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 12 Mar 2002 14:19:29 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: H. Rap Brown/Jamil Al-Amin: A Profoundly American Story
H. Rap Brown/Jamil Al-Amin: A Profoundly American Story
by EKWUEME MICHAEL THELWELL
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a vital American historical document, historical almost in the sense of a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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Fri Mar 15 2002 - 05:45:47 EST