Louis Farrakhan, the controversial advocate of black pride and self-sufficiency, has agreed to address a gathering of 900 Los Angeles street gang leaders Sunday at a downtown hotel, representatives of the Nation of Islam minister said Thursday.
The private address by Farrakhan will be part of "stop the killing" day of peace organized by Los Angeles community leaders in an effort to combat violence that has overtaken sections of the city.
"We have met with gang leaders in Los Angeles and San Diego," the Nation's Western regional representative, Abdul Wazir Muhammad, told a press conference Thursday. "They have said that if the minister will talk to them, they would stop all killing activity for that day and, we pray God, forever."
Farrakhan, who has also held such summits in Washington and Chicago, will be in Los Angeles for two days, after a stop in San Diego where he will conduct a similar meeting Saturday, Muhammad said.
Muhammad was joined at the press conference by Los Angeles ministers and community activists. He declined to give details on what Farrakhan would say to the youths during what will be a closed meeting at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel.
He added, however, that the minister will take his message of black economic independence to the gang leaders by introducing them to a "financial freedom" plan that would give them the chance to do something positive for themselves and their communities instead of destroying them with drugs and violence.
Farrakhan is the leader of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim movement that preaches a message of black self-empowerment, suggesting that blacks own their own businesses and seize control of their economic destiny. Farrakhan became a subject of political controversy in the 1980s when he made remarks that were criticized as being anti-Semitic.
"We have a 50-year track record of reforming, re-educating and redeeming black people," said Nation of Islam member Christopher X Phillips. "Malcolm X was a convict and dope seller at one time, until he heard the word."
It was not clear how the 900 attendees would be selected. Organizers would say only that they would be drawn from the ranks of gang leaders.
Hotel officials expressed no concern about security. "To my knowledge we've added no (extra) security," said Susan Thompson, director of public relations for the Bonaventure. But "we are in good shape, ready for anything."
Called Necessary Step
Several community activists hailed Farrakhan's decision to meet with the gang members as a necessary step in a struggle for blacks to take control of their communities by stopping the drug abuse and violence.
And though Farrakhan's fiery rhetoric has led to him being branded an anti-Semite and racist in many circles, activists says his sermons on black pride and self-sufficiency are words of inspiration to black youth--and something they desperately need to hear.
"I think that anyone who has influence of a positive nature that can reach these kids should be at the (bargaining) table," said Ralph Sutton of the Brotherhood Crusade, a black philanthropic organization.
Added Chilton Alphonse, executive director of the Community Youth, Sports and Arts Foundation: "He's respected among (our) children. I don't care what gang they're in . . . if they're in prison or wherever. When he speaks, they listen."
Farrakhan was the one figure in the black community with whom gang members wanted to speak most, according to Alphonse and others.
"For black people, Farrakhan is always positive," said Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade and founder of a grass-roots movement that brought together Muslims, Christian ministers and neighborhood activists for the purpose of cleaning up a troubled neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles. "And the Muslims have been an integral part of the African-American community."
Though Farrakhan has often made inflammatory statements during his speeches--prompting Mayor Tom Bradley and the Los Angeles City Council to try to block him from appearing in Los Angeles at one time--at least one local minister expressed doubt that the Muslim would incite gang members.
"Surely he understands we're sitting on a powder keg, and he would not ignite it," said the Rev. Cecil Chip Murray, pastor of First AME Church, where Farrakhan last spoke in Los Angeles. "He's responsible, a true religious leader. And religious leaders think peace."
Bradley, unaware of Farrakhan's impending visit, had no comment.
Community activists emphasized their belief that the Nation of Islam has proved many times that its doctrine can help turn around the lives of young men headed for self-destruction.
Convicts, Gang Members
"The Muslims have demonstrated their unique ability to deal with the types of problems that are threatening the African-American community," said Bakewell, commenting on the Nation's history of working to reform convicts and gang members. "The Brotherhood Crusade is supportive of any positive approach to stopping the killing and drug wars that are going on."
But even Farrakhan's followers said they realize that a summit in a downtown hotel will not be enough to wipe out gang violence--no matter who is the speaker.
"That would be a very immature expectation," said Muhammad. "This problem didn't happen like some magic trick and no abracadabra can change it."