Black activists search for a constituency
After making the rounds of news reporters, the garrulous black man stepped before a phalanx of television cameras lining the sidewalk outside the courthouse in Long Beach.
“Everybody ready?” he asked, hands clasped, as if in prayer. “I’m Najee Ali. N-A-J-E-E. A-L-I. Director of Project Islamic Hope.”
Then he launched a blistering tirade, lambasting not only the black teenage defendants in the recently concluded Halloween hate-crime beating case but their parents and self-appointed advisor, fellow civil rights activist Eddie Jones.
Jones’ “grandstanding [is] embarrassing the black community,” Ali said. “He has no following in the black community.” An hour later, Jones took his turn behind the bank of microphones. With a backdrop of a bright, hand-painted poster promoting “fairness, justice and equality,” he called the hate-crime trial “the biggest case of the century” and assured reporters that “civil rights leaders ... are working as a unit.”
What about Ali’s personal barbs? “It’s not about I, it’s not about me, it’s about we,” Jones repeated as the cameras rolled.
Privately, though, Jones was fuming. Ali, he said, had tried to take over his “peace march” in the violence-plagued Harbor Gateway area the month before. Now he was horning in again.
“He never sat through one day of the trial,” Jones complained, out of earshot of the microphones. Ali’s appearance as the hate-crime case wound down last month was “straight insecurity and straight jealousy.”
Long Beach was the latest stage for Ali and Jones, who seem to turn up whenever issues of race or violence converge with reporters and television cameras.
When racial fights rocked Los Angeles schools, when a Mexican postage stamp was deemed insulting to blacks, when a Latino gang in Harbor Gateway was blamed for a black teenager’s death, Jones and Ali were there to convey their outrage with sound bites tailor-made for TV.
Their views don’t always mesh, but their tactics are the same -- staging protest marches and news conferences and, if they are able, controlling media access to victims and subjects of controversy. Their climb from relative obscurity to being described as “black leaders” reflects an era of grass-roots activism that relies more on media savvy than intellect or moral stature.
“We have a colossal leadership void here in the black community,” said author and commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, another of the new breed of black activists. “When there’s a vacuum, something must fill it.... When you don’t have the traditional activists -- the gatekeepers -- that opens the field up for independents of a newer type; perhaps even opportunists.”
Ali makes no apologies for his in-your-face style. Charming and street-savvy, he’s considered an ambulance chaser by some critics, a shameless self-promoter by others. Police Chief William J. Bratton once called him a “nitwit” on national television, then later apologized.
Ali has had public spats not just with Jones but also with Nation of Islam Minister Tony Muhammad and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters. After a confrontation in a church parking lot last fall, Waters and Ali obtained -- then later dropped -- temporary restraining orders against each other.
“But the question is, ‘Do I get results?’ The answer is yes,” Ali says.
A former gang member who spent two years in prison for armed robbery, Ali catapulted to prominence in 1998 when he helped mobilize public outrage over the case of Sherrice Iverson, a 7-year-old who was murdered at a Nevada casino. Since then, he has emerged as an activist who transcends convention, protesting pornography in a Snoop Dogg video, urging blacks to work with police and speaking out on behalf of crime victims of every race.
Ali, 44, has no other job. He splits his time between an apartment in Baldwin Hills and his home in Chicago, where he lives with his wife, the granddaughter of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. His organization, Project Islamic Hope, is funded by private benefactors, he says. He has no car, and gets around on the bus or by hitching rides with friends.
Jones’ prominence seems to rest primarily on his role as president of the 3-year-old Los Angeles Civil Rights Assn. -- a group that he admits has no membership roster, no website, no office. “This is not about my organization,” he says, in his signature soft monotone. “I’m doing the work and the work gets done. The only one I need credit from is God almighty.”
The son of a minister, Jones has been active in community affairs for 20 years, he said. He has coached sports teams, spearheaded fundraising drives and helped organize protests on such issues as the cutbacks at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.
A resident of Baldwin Hills who is studying for the ministry, Jones, 47, once owned a security firm. Now, he said, he works a flexible schedule guarding the San Pedro docks, leaving him plenty of time for activism.
Both men say they are on the same side of issues more often than not, and they credit Hutchinson for mentoring them. “No one person can speak for everybody,” Ali said. “Different activists have different backgrounds, different skill sets. I’m a guy with a GED. When the average black man in the street has a problem, he says ‘Call that Najee brother,’ while somebody like Earl is more of an intellectual; he speaks to the [upscale] Ladera Heights crowd.”
Hutchinson, who lives in Windsor Hills, organized and leads the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, which holds a weekly Saturday morning forum on community issues at a Crenshaw-area restaurant. The author of nine books on the black experience, Hutchinson, 61, has parlayed activism into a paying career, pitching his books and public appearances through his website and generating a steady stream of newspaper columns and online commentaries. He is frequently interviewed on national TV on subjects such as the Duke University lacrosse sexual assault case and Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations.
“My philosophy has always been a simple one,” he said. “I don’t look at the person, I look at the issue. If it’s a good, solid, public policy issue and it impacts on the well-being of our community, I don’t hesitate to get involved.”
African Americans have had a tradition of relying on outspoken leaders -- typically pastors, elected officials or the heads of civil rights groups -- to address community concerns. But as black society has become more diverse, politically visible and economically strong, the influence of traditional leaders has waned.
“What has emerged in their place are these freelance professional victims’ advocates,” said Joe Hicks, former executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and now vice president of a political think tank. “They have no links to larger historical civil rights groups. It’s all about them and self-promotion. So their agendas start to clash.”
Throughout the hate-crime trial, Ali carried the banner for the white victims, contending that the defendants should have shown remorse by apologizing. Meanwhile, Jones was orchestrating public appearances for the defendants’ families and proclaiming the black youths’ innocence.
Some called their public disagreement a healthy sign of divergence in the black community. There is no longer a single party line, no monolithic view. But others said the activists’ feud -- dueling news conferences and a courthouse shouting match between defendants’ family members and Ali -- became a sideshow, the subject of local newspaper articles, radio talk show parodies and online ridicule.
Hicks said this new breed of activists-sans-portfolio “pales in comparison to the people who once had to account for their actions to boards of directors and represented entire organizations. They were not these off-the-cuff, stumbling and often embarrassing representations of black folks in America.”
Mainstream civil rights groups kept a relatively low profile during the Long Beach trial. The Rev. Al Sharpton came from New York and met with some of the defendants’ parents but ultimately steered clear of the case. The head of the local branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People was careful to avoid taking sides.
Hutchinson understands their reluctance. The Long Beach case was messy and polarizing, roiling race and class tensions and straining traditional loyalties. “From Day One, this was portrayed as black kids out of control,” he said. “I’m assuming that made some [groups] back off. Their thinking is ‘Do we really want to be in a position of going to bat for possible violence-prone gang members?’ ”
The presence of traditional civil rights groups would have helped shape public opinion and focused attention on concerns that the defendants’ rights were not properly protected, he said. “The credibility of mainstream organizations brings a certain cachet to it in the public eye: Is this just ... thugs running wild? Or could it legitimately be a real civil rights case?’ ”
Instead, the antics of several freelance activists, including Jones and Ali, enraged some whites, embarrassed some blacks and dismayed officials in a city that touts its diversity and worked hard to diffuse anger over the crime.
During the trial, on Dec. 19, Ali was politely asked by Long Beach police to step aside when 100 civic leaders gathered at City Hall with their hands clasped in a show of unity. Later, he irritated city officials by announcing a “peace walk” in the upscale Bixby Knolls area where the beating occurred.
“I had someone call Najee and tell him that the residents ... were not ready for such a walk,” said Long Beach City Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, whose district includes Bixby Knolls. “After all, they were victims too.”
Ali went ahead with the march, she said, “but only about 15 people showed up.”
On Friday, Ali was at it again, holding a news conference outside Inglewood City Hall, announcing a “unity walk” in support of three Latinas who said they were attacked in Inglewood on Jan. 31 by a mob of black teens.
Ali arrived several minutes late, but his supporting cast -- half a dozen Latino and black activists, including Hutchinson -- didn’t seem to mind the delay.
“Everybody’s here,” Hutchinson said, as the few reporters on hand checked their watches. “We are waiting for our fearless leader.”
Times staff writer Angie Green contributed to this report.