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Black activists search for a constituency

Eddie Jones and Najee Ali aspire to be leaders but each lacks a power base. Some criticize them as self-promoters.

February 13, 2007|Sandy Banks and Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writers

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."

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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.

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