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Incident Changes Role of Minister

Tony Muhammad says he wants to be a source of help to the LAPD, not controversy, in the wake of his alleged beating by police officers.

October 03, 2005|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

He was the new face of the Nation of Islam when he arrived in Los Angeles 10 years ago. Softening the organization's old image as an anti-white, anti-police black separatist movement, Minister Tony Muhammad reached out to religious leaders, politicians and even law enforcement to help fight violence.

But when Muhammad recently appeared at a news conference with his face swollen and bruised in what he alleges was an unjust police beating, it seemed to symbolize a return to the old days of tense relations with law enforcement.

Muhammad's injuries, which the Los Angeles Police Department asserts occurred when he was handcuffed and forced to the ground after allegedly assaulting an officer during a vigil, followed a string of controversial police actions, including the shooting death of 13-year-old Devin Brown. The actions drew protests in minority communities and raised questions about Police Chief William J. Bratton's community policing efforts.

Muhammad, who had worked closely with former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, said he and Bratton initially hit it off, frequently meeting for lunch and dinner. But in the last year, he said, the relationship had cooled amid disagreement over how to approach gang members.

Bratton declined to comment on his relationship with Muhammad because the leader could still be charged in the Aug. 25 arrest. But the chief acknowledged he has met with Muhammad more often than any other South Los Angeles community leader.

In an interview last week, Muhammad repeatedly voiced hopes for reconciliation and rapprochement.

"I'm never going to stop trying to work with the LAPD to make L.A. a safer and better place," he said. "This is a great opportunity to heal, and that's what I want to see."

Although Muhammad, who is celebrating his 10-year anniversary this year as the Nation of Islam's Los Angeles-based Western regional minister, has strongly criticized the LAPD for the Devin Brown shooting, he paints himself as a peacemaker. He has marched with the LAPD in anti-violence rallies, presided over countless prayer vigils for victims of crime and worked to quell gang violence.

In July, Muhammad helped organize a peace summit in Los Angeles among black and Latino gang members which was attended by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Muhammad has helped avert potential uprisings against police in Inglewood and southeast Los Angeles in the past few years, community activists say.

"His influence has enabled a number of communities to become more peaceful," said Khalid Shah, executive director of the Stop the Violence Increase the Peace Foundation. "Guys at each other's throats

Shah said Muhammad criticizes violent gang members as harshly as he does brutal police -- and can get away with it because of the respect he and the Nation of Islam have on the street.

In his dapper suits and exotic footwear -- he recently sported two-toned lizard and ostrich skin shoes -- the 47-year-old Muhammad projects a friendly, helpful image. Last week, for instance, two women approached him at a Los Angeles coffee shop and asked for help with a police problem. Muhammad promised to talk to his attorneys.

"Minister Tony is known in the community for being there to help us," said Deanna Pearson, a Los Angeles activist who brought her friend to see him.

Muhammad's judgment, however, has come into question recently. A confrontation with a TV production crew shooting in his Leimert Park neighborhood drew protests.

Muhammad said he and more than 200 Nation of Islam members shut down the production because crew members refused his requests to move their equipment from his driveway.

In addition, he said he was annoyed that the production jobs all seemed to be filled by whites, although producer Jasmyne A. Cannick said the gay-themed show provides parts for 30 black cast members.

Cannick, a member of the black gay civil rights group National Black Justice Coalition, called Muhammad's action an "abuse of power."

Although Muhammad's recent run-in with the LAPD burnished his street credentials among some, it also raised doubts. Najee Ali, a community activist with Project Islamic Hope, said Muhammad's apparent resistance to an officer's orders, captured in an audio recording of the run-in released by the LAPD, seemed "ill advised."

Muhammad acknowledges that he did not follow police orders, but denies assaulting any officer.

Instead, he said police kicked and beat him after he was handcuffed and on the ground.

The incident, which occurred during a vigil for a victim of gang violence, raised questions about Bratton's efforts to forge community ties, Muhammad said.

"If I'm guilty, I'm guilty for questioning a police officer who didn't want to talk to a community leader," he said. "They had no right after they handcuffed me to beat me. It's because I was a black man ... [who] dared to ask questions."

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