Najee Ali, the head of Project Islamic Hope, took a Greyhound bus from South-Central Los Angeles to this High Desert community Monday to hold a small but fiery news conference on the steps of the Palmdale School District headquarters.
Ali, a self-proclaimed activist, is trying to pressure school officials to expel a white student involved in a middle school fistfight Nov. 19 that led to a black student’s death. The white student has been suspended but not expelled, and school officials said they are awaiting conclusions from a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigation before taking further action.
Despite the belief among several Palmdale community leaders that Ali has no business in Palmdale, Ali, 35, says any racial issue is his business.
“I care about justice and wherever there is injustice, we get involved,” he said.
Some residents, like Rick Norris, a businessman who ran for mayor this month and lost, said Ali’s group is trying to make a racial issue out of a schoolyard tragedy that wasn’t racially motivated.
“It’s just like Jesse Jackson going to that school in Illinois,” Norris said, referring to the recent protest over seven black students expelled for fighting at a high school in Decatur, Ill. “Nobody around here thinks that fight was over race. These groups are trying to tie what happened at the school with the hate crimes that have occurred in this community.”
Norris, among others, is worried that the Antelope Valley is getting a reputation as racially fragmented, an image recently fortified by publicity surrounding the trial and convictions of three white skinheads who beat an black man to death in Lancaster. Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said the Antelope Valley is more cohesive than most outsiders realize.
“Our approach to diversity is a little different,” Ledford said. “We’re more of a small town than other parts of L.A. and there’s no inclination among different groups to work separately.”
But others disagree. Upset by the way the school fight has been handled, several residents, especially those in the black community, welcome Ali’s interest.
Ali has made a name for himself in L.A. by getting involved in high-profile criminal cases. He acted as a spokesman for the family of Sherrice Iverson, the girl killed in a Nevada casino bathroom in 1997.
And he protested the May shooting by Los Angeles police officers of a homeless woman, Margaret Mitchell. His Crenshaw-based nonprofit group focuses on urban issues, ranging from helping the homeless to speaking out against discrimination.
“I don’t see this group as a stranger, an outsider, because these are issues that affect the black community as a whole,” said John McDonald, a professor of African American history at Antelope Valley College. “There are racial issues here and the involvement [of Project Islamic Hope] will help focus attention on these issues.”
Ali said he was contacted by the family of Stephan Corson last week after the 13-year-old died in a fistfight with another eighth-grader at Juniper Intermediate School in Palmdale.
After a scuffle inside a classroom, witnesses said, the other boy hit Stephan in the face on the schoolyard, knocking him to the ground, where he went into convulsions. Authorities said Stephan, a star baseball player who had many friends, may have died by striking his head on the pavement.
Sheriff’s detectives have questioned the other boy, whom authorities have not identified. At the news conference Monday, Ali and Stephan’s family also urged authorities to press involuntary manslaughter charges against the boy.
“I just want to see this boy get his just desert,” said Scott Corson, Stephan’s 31-year-old brother. “In society, if you take somebody’s life, even if it was an accident, there’s not a small bill to pay.”
A sheriff’s spokeswoman said the case is still being investigated.