Political leaders, athletes, and musicians headed to the city of Baltimore this past week, making headlines for their kind words, ideas, and inspiration after peaceful demonstrations turned violent following the funeral of Freddie Gray on Monday. Gray, 25, died from a spinal injury while in police custody. While the chaos of arson and looting took over headlines, one group’s efforts to prevent it all peculiarly went unnoticed – The Nation Of Islam.
Since its formation more than 80 years ago, the Islamic religious movement has dedicated their mission to bettering the mind, heart, and economic state of African-Americans. While the group has faced criticism for its harsh militancy position during the civil rights movement, some group members were seen on the front lines of the Baltimore riots, preventing possible looters from invading stores and bringing together Crips and Blood gang members in a photo that went viral over the weekend.
The Nation of Islam just dispersed a crowd in front of a business. And WBAL anchors *marveled* that they were able to use reason to do it.
— stacia l. brown (@slb79) April 27, 2015
In an exclusive interview with NewsOne, Dr. Ava Muhammad, the spokeswoman for The Nation of Islam, gave a perspective on police killings, the deep-rooted crisis in Baltimore, and why the problem with police politics stems deeper than the loss of Black lives.
Muhammad, who currently holds the same position the late Malcolm X once held, has been part of the Nation for 30 years. After a fulfilling career as an attorney in New York, a breast cancer diagnosis led her to an internal journey and a meeting in Harlem about the Nation of Islam. After attending the meeting, Muhammad says she knew it was where she belonged. In 1998, she became the first African-American woman to hold the title of spokesman in the Nation’s history.
Muhammad’s path to the Nation is something critics believe is the reason behind a growing interest in the group. In an op-ed published by Salon earlier this week, Mathew Pulver points out the attraction possibly stems from the need for a Black leader dedicated to the people; a position Black intellects like Dr. Cornel West claim President Barack Obama hasn’t fulfilled. Muhammad says the influx comes from time and circumstance.
“Because we’ve been a presence in the community since the early 1930’s and based on the politics and circumstances, what White America does is try to pretend we’re not there,” she told NewsOne. “We stand for the truth, while others believe the actuality that Black people are the descendants of slaves. Black people never were intended to be assimilated in this society. It goes all the way back to the days of the Founding Fathers. This country is not a melting pot if you’re White. What has happened is the masses of people have begun to marry and socialize and things of that nature. And it’s becoming troubling to those who want to uphold the ideals of the Founding Fathers.”
In a 2012 study from John Hopkins University, the health and life expectancy of residents in Baltimore city stands at 73.5 years, while African-Americans is 70.2, five years lower than the national average. With 20 percent (600,000) living below the poverty line, Muhammad says the trouble in Baltimore was present long before the death of Freddie Gray.
“This has been a part of the Black experience from day one,” she said. “From being mangled on the coast of West Africa to being brought here. [The trouble in Baltimore] has never stopped, but the advent of cell phones and 24-hours-news cycles [has brought it to the forefront]. There have been 109 police killings since 2010. Millions of dollars of settlements. Grandmothers having their arms broken by the police. That is why Baltimore is the way it is. I was recently there for a speaking engagement and I stayed in at the Marriott down at the riverfront. Everything is glitzy, stunning with shops, and you go into the Black communities and it’s desolate, it looks like Afghanistan. Chicago, same way. New York, the same way. L.A., the same way and every country all over the word. Black people, the dark people, are always at the bottom. We have a race problem and when you have a race problem, you have a color problem.”
The Baltimore Sun revealed last month that between 2010 and 2014, African-Americans were killed at the hands of police at five times the rate of Whites. With 40 percent of them unarmed, the report states the number is either on the rise or decline, since there hasn’t been a constant focus on police killings in Maryland or any other state until now.
Since the start of 2015, 392 people have been killed by police. The number rose in March (115), but declined just by 14 deaths in April. When it comes to police reform, Muhammad believes a lack of jurisdiction by the hands of law is just one of the many problems the country is facing.
“What frustrates me about all of this is the willingness of government officials,” she said. “Tragically we have a Black president, we have a Black attorney general, followed by another attorney general who is a woman. We have all these Black officials in Baltimore and yet, there seems to be a preference for all that’s going on over compliance with the law. Compliance of the law means that someone should have been taken into custody for the death of Freddie Gray. Someone should have been arrested and taken into custody for the death of Eric Garner. Darren Wilson should have been prosecuted for the death of Michael Brown and the list goes on and on and on.”
Demonstrations have continued all over America for Freddie Gray. In Baltimore, the Nation has continued to help ease the tensions in the city by preventing some from acting out of emotions rather than logic.
“These demonstrations, the anger, the outbursts are over the blatant refusal to follow constitutional of state and federal laws when it comes to Black people as victim,” she said. “That’s the problem. The problem is not someone burning up CVS. That’s an emotional response to the deprivation of justice. So for the media to sit around and say ‘Why are they doing this to their communities? Why are they doing that to their community?’ First of all, it’s not their community. It doesn’t belong to Black people. It’s owned by White people who are just simply not there. So our communities are crawling with police. They aren’t there to protect and serve the people. They’re there to protect and serve the property and business interest of White America. The refusal to deal with the so-called elephant in the room means that these events will continue to escalate. If we want to refer to the destruction of property, the looting as criminal behavior, why are not the men who broke Freddie Gray’s body into pieces criminals? We need to stop playing games. We’re doing it at the risk of our own demise.”
In the midst of protesting in New York, Baltimore, and Ferguson, on Wednesday evening a report was released by the Washington Post that another person arrested in the police van witnessed Gray bringing harm to himself. The report was met with detectives and even medical professionals disproving the theory in a matter of 24 hours. On Thursday, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts held a press conference announcing findings of the Freddie Gray investigation were turned over to Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby a day early. It isn’t known if the huge backlash from the Washington Post report changed the timeline, but the case of Freddie Gray will be viewed carefully by the nation.
“This country is so vehemently racist,” Muhammad says. “So everything Black people do is negative. There’s something wrong. I heard someone talking on the radio the other day about Toya Graham for beating her son in the Baltimore riots. Someone called into the show to call her abusive. [Laughs]. Which I think is outrageous to say that of her. We’re accused of not parenting, but when a young sister goes to grab her son, and grabs him away, she’s guilty of child abuse. You just broke a man’s body into pieces and you’re talking about abuse. The hypocrisy is stunning.”
Earlier this morning, Ms. Mosby announced that criminal charges will be brought against six Baltimore police officers for the death of Freddie Gray. Read more here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Instagram, Getty, Facebook