Thursday, April 30, 2015

RIOTS NEVER MAKE SENSE, YET THEY DO

NY DAILY NEWS HEADLINE 1935

BALTIMORE, 2015
RIOTS NEVER MAKE SENSE BUT YET THEY DO
By Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid

            Like dark clouds gathering on a stormy horizon, the specter of anger and violence erupted this week in Baltimore, Maryland, and threatens to engulf  the nation. Once again we have witnessed images of black youth rioting in urban America.  Still pictures and video footage have been broadcast throughout the nation and beyond, via global media.
            When I was a teenager in the 1960s those same images were beamed into American homes on seven T.V. channels. Now my electronic remote reveals to me that there are 2,000 channels.  The irony though is that neither the sights  of uprising nor their accompanying narratives have changed in 50 years or more.
            On Monday, April 27th, 10,000 predominantly Americans of African descent and those in solidarity with them, protested peacefully in the streets of Baltimore in affirmation of the belief that “Black Lives Matter”, and protesting the police killing of 25 year-old Freddie Gray. However news coverage of the event was totally eclipsed by that of nighttime rioters, who raged, looted, burned, and destroyed public property in the neighborhood where they lived. 
            Both the governor and mayor described the young black men and women as “thugs”. During a T.V. interview that night, former N.A.A.C.P. president Ben Jealous called them “our children”, meaning our sons and daughters.  Community residents were shown in one video clip after another, lamenting the destruction of a pharmacy and other businesses, and an exacerbation of their already poor quality of life.  “I hate it,” they declared. “But I understand”.  The fact is that those Baltimore youth and adults were engaged in the same civil unrest and urban uprising in the 21st century, as others had done in the 20th century, and for the same reasons.
On March 19, 1935 rumors of the killing of a 14 year-old Black youth named Lino Rivera by a Harlem storeowner, sparked a riot on 125th Street in Harlem. Several hundred unto thousands of black men and women shattered plate glass windows, fought hand to hand with police officers, threw rocks, stabbed White men, and fired gunshots with illegal weapons. The incident was then described as “the worst race riot in Harlem in twenty-five years”.
It was later discovered that the rumor was false. The boy had been accosted by a storeowner for attempting to steal a 10-cent pocket knife, and was released after he bit two of the store’s proprietors during the ensuing scuffle. A high school student named Lloyd Hobbs was killed as the result of the riotous violence.
On July 18, 1936 The New York Amsterdam News published a 36,000-word report detailing what  happened.  It was chiefly authored by E. Franklin Frazier, with such notable contributors as Countee Cullen, A. Philip Randolph and others. The Am News chose to print the report in full, which had been prepared by a special commission at the behest of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Subsequent to its completion however, the Mayor, now considered one of New York City’s greatest by some, refused to release it in total.
Then as now, the reasons cited for the outbreak began with a “long felt hostility towards the police (NYPD) “, but expanded to include “resentment at the inability to get economic opportunities in the midst of plenty”.  The Commission recommended measures to prevent and eliminate racial discrimination in employment, encourage improvements in the system of public relief (i.e. social services, welfare) , the improving of housing conditions, increase in recreational opportunities for youth, the hiring of African American physicians in all city hospitals - especially Harlem Hospital, and formation of  a citizen’s committee to facilitate complaints against the NYPD. (New York Amsterdam News; A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, Vol. 4) These are almost the exact same underlying reasons and reccomendations currently linked to the revolts in Ferguson and Baltimore.
 An even worse riot erupted in Detroit on June 20, 1943. By the time the violence was quelled, 25 Blacks and 9 Whites had been killed, and several hundred thousand dollars (in the currency of the time) worth of property damage occurred. During those World War two years Detroit was the munitions capital of America, and the city was a cauldron of racial tension fueled by discriminatory hiring practices limiting the employment of African American men, who insisted on being hired in factories. During outbreaks of violence, zoot-suited Black men openly fought gangs of equally tough White men, in the streets.  (A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, Vol. 4)
            Currently, national demands for police reform, and the elimination of police brutality and use of excessive force in the killing of young Black men and women, have produced outrage throughout the nation.  In 1960, the renowned writer James Baldwin wrote,
            “The White policeman…finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world. He is not prepared for it – naturally, nobody is –and what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him…
            “One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like [humans].” (Fifth Avenue Uptown, Esquire Magazine, 1960).
            During this past week, the New York Times  published a report revealing the virtual disappearance young Black men between the ages of 25 and 54,  from the everyday life of American society. The Times article primarily attributes the disappearance to incarceration, early deaths and higher mortality rates..  Where is this outrageous phenomena the greatest? Again according to The Times, it is in New York , Chicago, Philadelphia, Georgia (these are four out of the top five Black population centers according to the 2010 U.S. census), Alabama, Mississippi, and yes, Ferguson, Missouri.
            Throughout the country, young people are “tired of being tired” of the on-the ground-reality of all of this. They are expressing their righteous indignation through hundreds of daily posts on Face Book. Others are in the streets of America in increasing numbers, responding viscerally to a systemic conspiracy of consignment to a living death.
            The history of struggle against this oppression is that whenever leaders have emerged, or do emerge, who can connect with the Black and Brown masses and inspire and lead them towards effective change of their condition within and without themselves, those brave men and women are either silenced, killed, marginalized, criminalized, or otherwise opposed by any and all means. Then when an outbreak occurs, those in positions of authority in society - the rich and powerful exploiters of the poor and vulnerable ask, “Where are their leaders?” As it is written in the scriptures,  they are the true purveyors of mischief in the land, constituting “evil in high places”, operating from a position where we see them not.
            Keen observers noticed that the same night of the Baltimore uprisings, hurricane force winds raged off the coast of Alabama (where racism still abounds). That same night in Louisiana  (where last year a text message from a 15year police veteran officer was made public,  declaring "I wish someone would pull a Ferguson on them and take them out. I hate looking at those African monkeys at work ... I enjoy arresting those thugs with their saggy pants.") 10 rail cars were blown off an elevated railroad track, destroying property. No one was killed.
            At the same time a state of emergency was declared in Baltimore, which today remains under a curfew enforced by law enforcement authorities and the national guard, just like America’s urban communities during the mid to late1960s.   Those of us in the faith community see the Hand and Will of Almighty God (whom we Muslims call Allah) moving inexorably to establish justice in the land, by any divine means necessary, as He reveals His signs calling for a national repentance in America, from the sin of racial bias and institutional racism.
            Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." So even as media pundits ask “When will the insanity of Black riots stop?” One can only think that they will not until fundamental changes in American society’s inequities based upon race and class, are eliminated.
            Until then religious leaders (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, otherwise) and politicians can decry injustice and lament the seeming illogical venting of anger and frustration by young people, who paradoxically express their despair while longing to live more productive lives . Most  of these young people are still listening to various leaders encouraging both patient perseverance and adamant resistance. This was demonstrated in Baltimore when people came out the day after the riots and cleaned up their neighborhood, and simultaneously stood post between police and dissenters. Unapologetic gang members, religious leaders both Christian and Muslim, as well as just plain ordinary folk, affirmed their commitment to peace, progress, and change.
God bless them, but not all of our youth are resigned to non-violent resistance in perpetuity, regardless of who does or does not see their actions as logical.  Those who engage in riotous actions may have never heard of James Baldwin, but they echo his words in action, if not speech. “The fire next time” he wrote. And God help us all.

Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid is the imam of The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (Harlem, NYC), the Vice-President of the Muslim Alliance in North America, and the former president of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York

Saturday, April 11, 2015

HARLEM COMMUNITY MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR DR. YOSEF BEN-JOCHANNAN


 
The following is the complete, unchanged text of the original remarks prepared by me for the communal celebration of the life and work of Dr. Ben. There were many speakers (see program) and so by the time I spoke we were asked to keep our comments brief. I did so (five minutes, see here  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vch7r9r9g0I ) but decided to publish what I wanted to say but couldn't, as a testimony to our widely beloved elder, an affirmation of his acceptance of Islam, and an address unto those who weren't aware of this (evidently because they really hadn't known what's been going on with him over his last years, beyond reports of his declining health) , but upon receiving the news of Dr. Ben's acceptance of Islam years back (something which I for one stated after his death as a matter of record, nothing more or less) have responded with outright hostility - even going so far as to publicly accuse me of intentionally lying about such a thing (what madness !) . 
Both Baba James Small and Dr. Leonard Jeffries, renowned students of Dr. Ben, are witness that I was called upon for inclusion not only in the event, but the intimate meeting with family members which preceded it. I did not call beyond an inquiry as to the family's arrangements. I was called upon to participate as I did by those close to Dr. Ben who knew and understood. I thank them, and Allah knows best and is Witness to all things.

Bismillaahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim. We thank Allah, reflecting upon the life’s work of our elder , Yosef Ben Jochannan, and his invaluable contribution to the healing and empowering of us, of a people in need of  communal and global restoration.  Our elder, along with his friend and colleague professor John Henrick Clarke not only trod the path of those noble ancestors who lived before him -  of  J.A. Rogers, Drusilla Dunjee Houston, John G. Jackson and others - but he labored mightily to bring us all to that path, and to extend it, to stretch it further into the continuum of our people’s struggle for freedom.
            There are those, although certainly no one here,  who will not understand the blessed nature of Dr. Ben’s work, or who will underestimate the true scope of it. In his magnum opus entitled Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology, Our master teacher Cheikh Anta Diop, whom our modern day scholar Runoko Rashidi identified as “…regarded by many as a modern Pharoah of African Studies”,  taught us what Cheikh Diop identified as the “components of collective personality”. They were a historical factor, a linguistic factor, and a psychological factor. “The historical factor” he wrote, “…is the cultural element that unifies the disparate elements of a people to make then into a whole, by the particular slant of the feeling of historical continuity lived by the totality of the collective.”
            When one wants to ascertain the state of one’s health, the first thing one does is look at history.  When we walk into a doctor’s office the forms enrolling or registering us for treatment , first question us as to our identity (What is your name? Where are you from?  i.e. what is your address?) We are then questioned as to our history, even before the examination begins, and if needed, treatment commences.
            Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan was a physician who took on the African people of the global diaspora as his patients. Blazing a path for us, a people in quest of a healthy collective personality, seeking psycho-spiritual regeneration, Dr. Ben understood the importance  again, of what Cheikh Diop identified as “ historical conscience”. That conscience is essential to the process of Africans distinguishing ourselves as a people, from an amorphus black population.
As our teaching physician, Dr. Ben asked us “how will you know who you are if you don’t know who you were?” “How will you know the full extent of your current health  if you don’t know  your previous state or condition?” he queried.  So as a people in treatment we thank  the Creator for him. We thank Allah for our doctors who seek to heal us.
            It amazes me to witness in the Village, those who would lay claim to Dr. Ben. One side of the room says “ He was ours and therefore we claim him in exclusion of others”, and the other side of the room declares “ No, he was ours and we claim him in exclusion of others”. Foolish people, do you not understand that no one has more of a claim on any of us than the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and all things in between?  We come from Him, we belong to Him, and unto Him will we return - all of us, living our life in between our first breath given by Him, and the last one granted by Him.
            This marvelous historian, physician of African people, scholar-warrior wielding historical continuity and consciousness as a cultural weapon, practiced what he preached. he preached, “Physician heal thyself”, and never stopped practicing that as long as he lived.
            When one looks at Dr. Ben religiously and spiritually, it is clear that he had a life-long commitment to worship of The Creator, our Creator. and when I say “our Creator” I mean The One described in the ancient sacred writings, the Metu Neter, as  “…incapable of being imagined by man, even as the hand of man was incapable of making a figure that could be considered to be an image or likeness of  Him; The One Who could not be sculptured or seen, nor contained in a habitation… the Great Unseen, Unknown and Incomprehensible Creative Power, which had existed forever and was the source of all created things” ( Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism, E.A. Wallis Budge)

It was the Almighty Who was worshipped by our highest-consciousness ancestors, and He is The One Whom Dr. Ben worshipped.  When we look at his personal life we see that Dr. Ben worshipped as a younger man according to the traditions of Beta Israel , as did others in the territory of Ethiopia where he was born.
I admit openly that no one was more surprised than me, when several years ago I finished leading prayers and delivering a sermon during an Eidul-Adha (feast of the Abrahamic sacrifice) Muslim high-holy day worship service, and I was informed that Dr. Ben was there , and had been present for the entire service,  and worshipped according to Islamic tradition as one of us.
 I spoke to him and he affirmed his faith and what I would call his expanded or evolved identity to me, personally.  Or another time when he came to the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood for Friday prayers , and prayed in the ranks behind me.
Or his frequent attendance at Friday prayers at Harlem Hospital when his health still allowed it and before he was moved to the Bronx nursing home. This is the truth and many are witness to this in the Muslim community within the Village, although there are others in the Village who bite off the tips of their fingers in rage and call me a liar for relating what I have just said to you , because they  can’t comprehend as a student what their teacher did.
However regardless of  the outer form of his worship, the object of Dr. Ben’s adoration was always the same; the One Creator of all. And as a self-determined free African human being, he exercised his right to worship as he pleased, and let none of us be so narrow-minded or arrogant as to deny him his choices as he walked on the path of submission to The One who was, is, and shall ever be.  Dr. Ben has now moved unto what my own late teacher, Ash-Shaykhul-‘Allama Al-Hajj K. Ahmad Tawfiq called “the evolutionary path of our ancestors”.
He said to those of us who were his students, “ No teacher can lead a student all of the way to enlightenment. He or she guides him or her to the Path, walks with them a little way upon it, and then says, ‘That which you seek is that way. Pursue it. I must leave you now as I have others to attend to'..”  We thank Allah for our visionary leaders and teachers, those who have left, and those who are still present, and we pray that we will continue to walk the Evolutionary Path, to Glory.
And now I conclude with a traditional Islamic prayer:
Allaahum-maghfir lihayyinaa, wa mayyitinaa, wa shaahidinaa, wa ghaa'ibinaa, wa sagheerinaa wa kabeerinaa, wa thakarinaa wa 'unthaanaa. Allaahumma man 'ahyaytahu minnaa fa'ahyihi 'alal-'Islaami, wa man tawaffaytahu minnaa fatawaffahu 'alal-'eemaani, Allaahumma laa tahrimnaa 'ajrahu wa laa tudhillanaa ba'dahu.
Translation

“O Allah forgive our living and our dead, those who are with us and those who are absent, our young and our old, our menfolk and our womenfolk. O Allah, whomever you give life from among us give him life in Islam, and whomever you take way from us take him away in Faith. O Allah, do not forbid us their reward and do not send us astray after them, Aameen”.