I first heard of Jon Beckwith in the mid-1970s, in a question framed by
my genetics professor: Why would anyone willfully disrupt a research
program designed to collect useful information on hu
Though there have been scattered signs of renewed interest in Dwight
Macdonald--a biography in 1994, a collection of letters in 2002--all but a
fraction of his own writing molders unattended in
This essay will appear as an introduction in New York Review Books' new
edition of Prisoner of Love (February 2003).
Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is Daniel
Ellsberg's story of his personal journey from being in the early 1960s a
"dedicated cold warrior" who supported America's e
Gioconda Belli--poet, novelist, society belle reborn as Sandinista
comrade--has written a memoir of the Nicaraguan struggle that reads like
a romance--a romance with politics and revolution, ce
"A war was about to start. Knots of wide-eyed people gathered in
courtyards, in open fields, on street corners....
A few years ago, an intellectual historian uncovered the story of Betty
Friedan's formative years as a Popular Front journalist and activist in
Die Nigger Die!, the autobiographical political memoir by H. Rap Brown, is a vital American historical document--historical almost in the sense of a message found in a time capsule, a missive from another age.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.
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."
It 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 appropriate.
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.
In 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.
About 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 center 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 its 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 rhetoric.
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 "disappear."
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 incident.
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 time.
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 launched.
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'ahservices 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.
TROOPS IN THE STREETS
Nation contributing editor and radio host Marc Cooper was tossed out of the California State University system for antiwar activities in 1971 by executive order of Governor Ronald Reagan--and ended up in Chile, working as a translator for Salvador Allende. What footnote could be more oddly appropriate in Cooper's memoir Pinochet and Me? The book is part diaristic reconstruction of the 1973 coup against Allende, part chronicle of return trips Cooper has made since to Chile and part consideration of that country's--and Pinochet's--fate at century's turn.
Chile "briefly shined as a beacon of inspiration," Cooper laments, the culmination of fifty years of massive campaigning for democratic socialism and the notion that "perhaps, radical social change and resulting improvements in the lives of common people were possible through democratic, peaceful and legal means." His firsthand reporting on the twists and turns of the following quarter-century is by turns chilling and poignant.
Cooper could easily have met the fate of Charles Horman (whom he knew slightly), subject of the film Missing; his account of the coup and its aftermath is fraught with chaos, luck and what he calls the "moment of greatest naivety in my adult life"--assuming the US Embassy would be of help. The American consul told Cooper and a few others that "the armed forces are restoring order but there's still a danger of scattered left-wing snipers." Cooper may be the journalistic equivalent of the latter, but the only danger he poses is that he fosters understanding of the social forces at work in the country he has, in more than one sense, married into. His account of returns to Chile first under an assumed name and, years later, under his own, are compelling: an arrest for photographing an army bus that civilians had tied to random shootings; an encounter with youths who say they are hungry and beg for guns; the effects neoliberal economics have wrought on everyday life; the feelings of Chileans on Pinochet's arrest in London. Cooper ends with the inscription on a Chilean memorial to the disappeared: "The forgotten past is full of memory."
"What we saw in Seattle across those tumultuous days stretching from November 28 through December 3, 1999, and then in Davos, Switzerland, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Prague was the flowering of a new radical movement in America and across the world, rambunctious, anarchic, internationalist, well informed and in some ways more imaginative and supple than kindred popular eruptions in recent decades," write Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn and his co-authors in this eyewitness chronicle of protests against the WTO and other institutions of the new global economic order. The authors have keen eyes for the social ironies surrounding the events: Jeffrey St. Clair's Seattle diary observes not just the segregation of the city's high-tech opulence from south Seattle's old-economy piers and pulp and chemical factories but an account of an officer frisking a woman whose boyfriend was walking her home from work. Just before unloading his pepper spray on her escort, the policeman tells her, "You've no idea what we've been through today." Protest experience at the Democratic National Convention left the authors concluding as well that "America is moving toward the normalization of paramilitary forces in law enforcement." Winking at the old journalistic saw of quoting taxi drivers to get the street pulse, Nation contributor and former senior editor JoAnn Wypijewski, whose DC diary of World Bank and IMF protests is included, quotes an Ethiopian driver: "What is going on is simply the recolonization of the so-called developing world." Adds another: "This is why we are taxi drivers."
A woman left her abusive husband in the middle of the night and, taking their 3-year-old son with her, drove through the dark from Ohio to Boston, reaching across the boy to hold the broken handle on the passenger door to make sure he didn't fall out. The scene stuck with me, like many others I heard in workshops I began leading in writing autobiography a decade or so ago. It seemed to me that these true stories, personal slices of American life, conveyed the feel and taste and sense of this society more faithfully and compellingly than the novels I used to count on for such understanding. Current novels continue to seem to me less revealing of "the way we live now" than the best of the memoirs that appear with increasing regularity on bookshelves and even bestseller lists.
The breakthrough contemporary memoir was Mary Karr's The Liars' Club in 1995, accelerating what was already a popular trend and upping the literary stakes of the genre by the poetic precision of its language and the headlong thrust of its narrative. Now she is back with a sequel to her childhood, the adolescent era whose major symbolic (as well as physical/mental/emotional/psychic) event was losing one's virginity. In typical Karr-like celebration of the vernacular, the title, of course, is Cherry.
If her second effort is not as uniquely satisfying as the first, it is not because Karr has lost any of her considerable powers as a prose stylist or suffered from the ancient curse that allegedly plagues any follow-up with mediocrity. The problem--or at least the difference--is simply that The Liars' Club was based not only on the author's experience but on the soap-operatic adventures of her boozing, man-loving, peregrinating mother. Mary's mom not only blessed her with life but also with as colorful a ready-made character as any author-daughter could wish for to star in her first memoir. Like Mary as a child and her sister, Lecia, the reader of The Liars' Club is carried along by their mother's dramatic ups and downs and outs, providing in the process plenty of plot. Agnes Nixon, creator of the longtime favorite soap opera All My Children (as well as nearly the entire ABC lineup of daytime drama) once defined the basic rule of plot as "the heroine must always be in peril," and Mary's mother followed that rule.
Focusing this time on adolescence, Karr is true to the inherent ennui of the teenage years, which means that Cherry is long on mood and short on plot (for one thing, Mom stays put in this era). Karr explains that "no long episodes from that dull time exist.... There are only brief snippets of memory, outtakes, captured instants where your sagging performance becomes plain." Her teenage best friend shares with teenage Mary "a monastic passion for doing virtually nothing." Reflecting on that era of her life the author reports that "a camera trailing you would find neither plot nor action--two girls laze around on sofas at various stages of torpor reading or talking about what they will read or have read or plan to write or make or do in some vaporous future."
True as this is to adolescent life, and as artfully as it is described, torpor is hardly riveting. Nor does the small-town East Texas setting of Leechfield provide much to write from home about, "with its mind-crushing atmosphere of sameness.... Sometimes you even fancied you could hear the traffic light over deserted main street blink. Time lagged mule-like in muddy tracks."
As if to compensate for the lack of action or drama in her story, Karr jazzes things up with a barrage of the sexual slang of time and place. She tells us of boys "talking about how they finger-fucked you and your ying-yang made their hand smell like tuna fish," a "dick hard as a crescent wrench," a girl whose "knockers" are like "headlights," another who "yanks both her pants and undersancies down," and wonders how Wonder Woman "keeps her D-cup boobs from flopping out of the red strapless bra top she's got on," while "your mother holds loudly forth on any and all pussy-related subjects," and you call your sister "Old moose-boobs." Sexual lore is passed on and learned ("After a date, throw your panties against the wall, and if they stick, you had a good time") as well as proposed initiation rites for a teen sex club ("Blindfold Davie Ray Hawks and tell him he's putting his finger up somebody's butt, but really it's just wet bread wadded up in a soup can"). As Karr puts it, "I had a lot of double-dog fuck-you in me by then."
As well as employing a blitz of teen sex slang, Karr sometimes slips into a kind of collegiate cuteness as she looks back at her adolescent self: "The stoicism I favored was less in the mode of Marcus Aurelius and more reminiscent of the donkey Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh."
But just as she seems to be bogging down in the mire of teenage torpor, dutifully slogging on to close out this era of her experience, Karr taps into a real narrative that gathers speed and carries us breathless to the end. It happens when
one legendary night you travel to Effie's Go-Go, a black juke joint in the bowels of Beaumont behind the shipyards where no underage girl of any color should be granted admission. You drive there flaming so luminously on orange sunshine that dark trees on the roadside seem to rear back to let you pass, and your bare arms and hands glow in the car's hull like fine marble.
Karr returns from what seems a near-death acid trip with the hallucinated illusion that she has found the meaning of life, reduced to one sentence, only to realize it's the kind of commonplace Grandma might have stitched on a pillow. After sharing her revelation with her best friend, adolescent Mary comes down from her illusory nirvana, and Karr the writer looks back to see that what's unalterable as bronze, though, is the image of your radiant friend that morning barefoot on the porch with sun in her rampant hair. She's holding out that bowl of Froot Loops and touching your shoulder as if to bestow the right name upon you, the one you'll bear before you through the world, each letter forged into a gleaming shield.
Stephen King, author of thirty "worldwide bestsellers," was "stunned" by The Liars' Club, and his admiration for the "beauty" and "ferocity" of Karr's memoir seems to have inspired him to try his own, yet he feels he lacks the "totality" of her memory. His own "herky-jerky childhood" seems to him more like "a fogged out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees...the kind that look like they might like to grab and eat you." His father "did a runout" after piling up a lot of bills when Stephen was 2, and he was raised by his mother, moving around to different relatives and different jobs in different places, trying to keep it all together.
King stresses that his own On Writing is "not an autobiography" but "a kind of curriculum vitae--my attempt to show how one writer was formed." It is also an attempt to help aspiring writers with advice, counsel, exercises in writing and even an offer of personal criticism:
When you finish your exercise, drop me a line at www.stephenking.com and tell me how it worked for you. I can't promise to vet every reply, but I can promise to read at least some of your adventures with great interest.
King is not only a popular but also a populist writer who believes that "large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that these talents can be strengthened and sharpened." And he seems to have written this book primarily for the purpose of helping them. Maybe this generosity of spirit comes from memories of his own down-and-almost-out days, when he pieced together a living teaching high school English and writing stories for magazines like Cavalier at night and on weekends, barely able to pay for his daughter's needed medicine.
Prickly from nonappreciation by the literary high priests, King complains that "critics and scholars have always been suspicious of popular success" and cites Dickens, "the Shakespeare of the novel," as a victim of "constant critical attack" because of his "sensational subject matter," his prolific output and, "of course, his success with the book-reading groundlings of his time."
It is to the groundlings that King speaks here, not in the memoir-writing manner he admires in Karr, who shapes and re-creates experience into novelistic scenes and dialogue, but rather in chatty, informal talk. Perhaps the best of that talk--and the most useful--is on one of the subjects King feels most strongly about, his own recovery from drugs and booze, and the mythology of those substances as useful muses.
King had fallen so far into addiction that "in the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding." The intervention that saved him was organized by his wife, Tabitha, who emerges as King's favorite character in this book as in his life. Mrs. King and his children gave him the ultimatum of rehab or leave, and he chose life.
"The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time," King writes.
Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers--common garden variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I've heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.
If his prose lacks the beauty he admired in Karr's memoir of her childhood (a gift, I suspect, that can't be taught), King dispenses good common sense on life as well as writing.
The calling that led to Frank Rich's career as chief drama critic of the New York Times not only helped him survive a turbulent childhood but provides the theme and narrative line of his memoir: "I was now destined to trace my childhood almost exclusively through an accelerating progression of plays, good and bad, that would captivate and kidnap me in circumstances both mundane and dramatic, in different cities, in the company of a multitude of audiences."
More than the story of Rich's childhood and adolescence, Ghost Light could well be described as the memoir of a calling. It began even before he was born, when his mother felt "transformed" by the songs of South Pacific, the premier musical of its era (and perhaps of the entire American theater). She listened to the record "over and over, she liked to recall, when it was time to go to the hospital and have her first baby." One of the child's earliest memories was of his mother singing songs from the musical and playing the record, explaining that it was from a Broadway "show" in New York and therefore "magical" to her; and so, it turns out, to her son.
Successive records of musical shows his parents brought home heightened the child's fascination, and though Broadway was far from his suburban DC home, young Frank was taken to a road company performance of Damn Yankees at Washington's venerable National Theatre. He went home to play the record and relive the show, wanting to learn "how each piece of the whole big Tinkertoy worked."
The "ghost light" of the title refers to the old theatrical superstition that if the stage is left dark a ghost will move in, so a single bulb is kept burning at center stage after everyone goes home. The term also has an eerie relevance to this memoir, for the author as a child suffered from night fears and insomnia, and a truly fearful menace entered his life when his mother remarried. Rich's mercurial stepfather, Joel, at first bears a harrowing resemblance to the nightmarish stepfather of another compelling memoir of the first rank, Tobias Wolfe's This Boy's Life.
The wheeling and dealing, larger-than-life lawyer Joel was alternately generous and abusive with his own children as well as his new wife and son. Though he never physically attacked Frank's sister, he lashed out at the boy in brutal scenes like this one in front of a crowd of onlookers at a family summer camp:
Joel slapped me to the ground with his huge hand. My brain felt as if it was knocking against my head. Then he grabbed me by the ankles and started dragging me up the road on my back, the dirt and gravel scraping against my skin. We were at the next building--some fifty yards away--before he dropped me in a heap in the center of the road.
Yet unlike Tobias Wolfe's stepfather, the volatile Joel was supportive and encouraging of Rich's talent and ambition, taking him to the theater, sending him to New York with tickets for Broadway plays, cheering his achievements and acceptance to Harvard. Rich is somehow able to give a balanced portrait of this brilliant and deeply troubled man who ended in a nursing home with terminal dementia.
Through the tension and fears of his stepfather's outbursts and his mother's tears, the theater served as solace, haven and home. When he got his first job as an usher at the National Theatre in high school and walked past the line of ticket buyers, he felt as if "some powerful, nameless spirit were rising within me, raising my whole being to a more elevated place, the sort of heaven people talked about in religious school but that I had never glimpsed before." He knew from then on that no matter what bad scenes erupted at home, "whatever else happened, I'd be remembered at the National Theatre and be at home there, if nowhere else."
Rich is able to convey the excitement for the theater he felt as a child, watching spellbound as
The lights shining on the curtain dimmed, too, plunging the theater into complete darkness. Then, just when the suspense became overwhelming, the whole audience holding its breath, the curtain did rise, ascending heavenward so fast (where did it go?) and revealing such an explosive cacophony of light and costumes and people singing and dancing that it was more than I could absorb. The whole whirligig of sights and sounds and bodies rushing forward seemed to be aimed directly at me.
The words of his compelling memoir seem aimed directly at us. Perhaps it's that quality of direct experience, without the artifice of fiction, that makes the memoir so popular now and has earned it a respected place in our literature.