A proposal to hire security guards affiliated with the Nation of Islam, the organization headed by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, to patrol 15 federally subsidized apartment buildings in Venice's Oakwood section has thrown the crime-embattled neighborhood into the middle of controversy.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday received a bid from a security agency affiliated with the Muslim organization to provide night patrols under a contract estimated to be worth several hundred thousand dollars.
The proposal comes after several months of confidential discussions among HUD and managers of the apartments, representatives from the Nation of Islam, tenants and others.
Residents of the 256 Holiday Venice apartments, which are scattered through the community of bungalows and apartments between Lincoln and Abbot Kinney boulevards, said they came up with the idea because they have concluded that only the Nation of Islam can rid their buildings of the gang activity and drug dealing that have plagued them for years.
A special task force of the Los Angeles Police Department assigned to Oakwood and a security consultant hired by the company that manages the buildings have tried and failed, the tenants contend.
But critics of the plan are outraged that HUD has been holding private meetings and is considering doing business with an organization they consider racist and anti-Semitic--charges the Nation of Islam has repeatedly denied--and an organization that has until recently maintained that black people should formally separate themselves from white America and its institutions.
So far most of the protest has come from groups outside the Venice neighborhood, including the Jewish Defense League and the Anti-Defamation League, which in a letter to HUD said that hiring the Nation of Islam to patrol the buildings would be as inappropriate as hiring the Ku Klux Klan.
Tenants of the buildings are nearly all black or Latino, in roughly equal numbers. A few Latinos in the apartment buildings voiced nervousness at the proposal, although others said they had never heard of it.
Jewish neighbors of the apartments are concerned that the proposal could exacerbate tensions between blacks and Jews, and between black residents and the growing number of whites who are moving into the neighborhood.
"I don't understand how the federal government would contract with an organization that is perceived as racially prejudiced--this could further split the community," said Phil Raider, a neighbor of the apartments and a member of the Oakwood Beautification Committee, which is split on this issue.
An intensive campaign against the proposal--including letters and phone calls to HUD Secretary Jack Kemp and Washington politicians--has infuriated residents of the apartment buildings, who say they resent outside interference in their efforts to defend their homes.
"Let the Jews come here and get shot up," said Regina Hyman, the founder of the Holiday Venice Tenants Action Committee.
Neighbor Lisa Smith, who this Christmas will put her tree on the grave of a son killed in the streets less than two years ago, agreed.
"We have to live here," Smith said. "This is our lives and our decision."
The bid from the Nation of Islam's security agency, NOI, was one of four to Alliance Housing Management Inc., the Los Angeles-based firm that manages the buildings. Alliance has submitted its recommendation to HUD for final approval, but officials from both HUD and Alliance would not say which company Alliance selected. The other bidders were Los Angeles-area security firms.
At HUD, special assistant Bill Christiansen said the agency is unlikely to make a decision on the NOI proposal until after the holidays.
For years the three-story Holiday Venice buildings have been home to not only scores of working poor, but to a small but tenacious number of family groups who have dealt in drugs and gangs for two and even three generations, according to police.
Tenants say they are tired of their children walking past drug deals in foul-smelling stairways, of gang gunshots in the alleys behind the buildings, and of the warfare in their yards. Last September, for example, a former resident was shot and killed while chatting with his grandmother outside her Holiday Venice apartment on Indiana Avenue.
Officials with Alliance Management say they are dealing with forces beyond their control. "It's a jungle down there," said Ron Nelson, regional property supervisor. "We're dealing with a national epidemic."
Four years ago Alliance hired William (Tony) Steinhart, a former Los Angeles police sergeant, to provide security service for $50,000 a year. Steinhart said he can do only so much.
"What can I do? I can't put a moat around the buildings if the people who live there condone lawlessness and drug addicts," he said during a recent interview.
Residents say Steinhart and their managers can do more. A recent visit to the apartments found many of the entrances were unlocked and the intercoms broken. At one building, young men were dealing drugs openly. A call to the tenants' emergency number was put on hold.
Tenant activist Hyman has made it her mission to get rid of Steinhart.
"This white man has got $50,000 for the last four years and he ain't done (nothing)," she said. The last straw came last May, Hyman said, when a drug dealer she had shooed off the premises returned and threatened her with a gun.
She called on the Nation of Islam, phoning a member of the organization who visits Oakwood regularly on weekends to hawk the organization's trademark bean pies and religious literature.
By last September, a series of mediation sessions had been set up between the management company and tenants to discuss security. The last few sessions turned into discussions about the hiring of the Nation of Islam, said Vermont McKinney, a mediator with the Department of Justice. HUD officials were at those meetings.
At a November meeting, a man identified as the captain of the Nation of Islam's local security force, Brother Halim, handed HUD and management officials copies of a preliminary proposal put together with Hyman's help. In the proposal, obtained by The Times, a group identifying itself as NOIS suggests hiring four men to patrol the apartments and parking lots from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. The proposal recommends that the guards, who would be unarmed, be given an office on the premises and that they be on call via an emergency number.
At that same meeting a Nation of Islam representative from Washington, Daniel X, told officials of the organization's successful program of 24-hour patrols and counseling services at two 600-unit HUD-subsidized complexes in the nation's capital.
Brother Abdul Wali Muhammad, editor-in-chief of the Nation of Islam's Chicago-based newspaper, The Final Call, said in an interview that Nation of Islam is attempting to spread such security programs across the country.
The programs, he contended, are more effective than traditional policing.
"We don't come in like gang-busting cops with shotguns and billy clubs. We give our people respect and love, and wherever we go we teach," he said.
John Wilbanks, former captain of the Pacific Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, agrees with Muhammad that the Muslims might succeed in places like Oakwood, where police efforts to cut crime have been blunted by community resistance.
"We've reduced crime, but we can't seem to get beyond where we are," said Wilbanks, who is retiring after 27 years with the LAPD. "We've reached the point where I don't know what else we can do. The Nation of Islam are respected and feared, and maybe they can do something."
Still, Wilbanks raised several concerns at a meeting on Oct. 23. He told officials and the Muslims there that he worried that the Nation might not represent Latinos and whites as equally as blacks. And he worried that, given the past tensions between police and the Muslim organization, an adversarial relationship could develop.
"They could generate a riot in a millisecond,' he said.
But his was a lonely voice, and he left the meeting convinced that the deal would go through.
"There was not one single voice of opposition," he said. "Everybody was pretty well ready to give it a try."
In late November, HUD instructed Alliance to solicit bids from other companies, according to David Itkin, Alliance vice president. HUD is required to solicit competitive bids for any contracts over $5,000.
But critics of the proposal charge that the bid process is being followed as a mere formality, and that--at least until they began protesting--the Nation of Islam was a done deal. These critics also complain that no other organization was given the forum and hours of discussion devoted to the Nation of Islam.
"The Alliance people were getting bids, but you could feel it in the air it was being railroaded," complained one of the other bidders.
Tenants say that at the meetings HUD officials promised that the Nation of Islam would win the contract--and that patrols could begin before the New Year.
Officials with HUD deny that any promises or decisions were made, and say that the tenants must have misunderstood. "We've shown no favoritism," Christiansen said.
As controversy mounted in the last two weeks, HUD officials appeared to be having some second thoughts about their dealings with the Nation of Islam.
At one point early last week, a HUD representative denied that any meetings between agency officials and tenants on the NOI proposal had even occurred. Officials now concede that the discussions took place, although they declined to disclose details of what they said were confidential talks.
HUD officials say that the proposed arrangement between Farrakhan's bow-tied, clean-shaven disciples and bureaucrats from a Republican Administration is not as incongruous as it may seem. Under the leadership of Secretary Kemp, HUD has been encouraging tenant activism, with an eye toward enabling residents to eventually manage and even own their housing at federally assisted projects, Phillips said. The Administration calls this tenant-empowerment.
But critics of the Venice proposal say it is exactly the kind of empowerment that can be dangerous. A letter from the Jewish Defense League even warns HUD officials that if they award the contract to "admitted Jew-haters," the JDL will sponsor armed patrols in Oakwood to counter the Muslims' influence.