When Survival is a Crime: The saga of Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin

Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin is no stranger to controversy. The man formerly known as H. Rap Brown has been an active public figure for all of his adult life, and his activism has taken many twists and turns. During the 60s he became known as a firebrand for his by any means necessary, in your face approach to much needed societal change. After his embrace of Islam in 1971, he gradually became committed to the principle of revolution by the book (Qur’an and sunnah).

While some Muslims are uncomfortable with talking about the past of Imam Al-Amin, a person’s past is an indelible part of who he or she is. As Wordsworth once said, “Child is the father of man,” to fully understand the man, you must examine his past. The past of Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin was one imbued with both challenge and controversy.

Hubert Gerold Brown was the youngest of three children born to a working-class family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His parents, Eddie C. Brown, Sr., and Thelma Warren Brown were active in the local NAACP chapter, and instilled a sense of social activism in their children. According to Ed Brown, Imam Al-Amin’s oldest brother, “We were taught that you had a responsibility to make things better for the next generation. It was part of the overall orientation of the African-American community at that point in time.”

Like his older brother, Imam Al-Amin fully embraced this orientation, leaving Southern University before graduating, then traveling to Washington, DC, to join the War on Poverty. In 1966 he jumped into the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement as a project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Greene County, Alabama, acquiring a reputation for being “fearless,” and a “great organizer.” Danger was all around. The previous year, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were killed in the struggle to win voting rights for African Americans in rural Alabama.

By 1968, having long become disillusioned with the nonviolent approach proffered by mainstream civil rights organizations, much of SNCC’s leadership merged with the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. I remember a few years back asking Imam Al-Amin what that whole era was like, and the first words that came out of his mouth: “It was a war.” On at least two occasions during the course of that undeclared, high-intensity civil war, attempts were made on his life as well.

From Revolution to Revolutionary

While some would erroneously argue that Imam Jamil lost his revolutionary edge when he embraced Islam – as one observer put it, “He went from revolution to rhetoric -” nothing could be further from the truth. As the essential meaning of the word revolution denotes “a complete change,” those of us who know him well would counter that with his embrace of Islam and transition to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the Imam became a true revolutionary in the fullest sense of the word…his maturity as an agent for change deepened.

In Imam Al-Amin’s last book entitled, Revolution By The Book (publ. by Writer’s Inc., 1994), he writes:

“It is criminal that, in the 1990s, we still approach struggle [by] sloganeering, saying, ‘by any means necessary,’ as if that’s a program… or, ‘we shall overcome,’ as if that’s a program. Slogans are not programs. We must define the means which will bring about change. This can be found in what Allah has brought for us in the Qur’an and in the example of the Prophet. Our revolution must be according to what Almighty God revealed…

“The mission of a believer in Islam is totally different from coexisting or being a part of the system. the prevailing morals are wrong. Their ethics are wrong. Western philosophy…has reduced man to food, clothing, shelter, and the sex drive, which means he doesn’t have a spirit… Successful struggle requires a divine program. Allah has provided that program.”

This is the revolutionary perspective that caused Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin to be among the few American born Muslims singled out by one of America’s anti-Islam demagogues, Daniel Pipes, in a report published in the Feb 21, 2000, edition of The National Review. Pipes wrote: “The one time radical H. Rap Brown, now known as Jamil Al-Amin, declares, “When we begin to look critically at the Constitution of the United States…we see that in its main essence it is diametrically opposed to what Allah has commanded.”

This is the man that the opinion shapers want to keep hidden from the public. From the time that this tragedy unfolded until the present, there has been an overemphasis on Imam Al-Amin’s past, but comparatively little attention given to the ideological well spring from which he has drawn since 1971, when H. Rap Brown became Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin at Rikers Island (New York).

The night of March 16

We may never know what really happened the night of March 16, 2000. What is known, however, is that a shootout occurred on the West End of Atlanta; that two Fulton County sheriff’s deputies exchanged gunfire with an assailant, and that one deputy (Ricky Kinchen) died the next day while the other sustained serious injuries and remained hospitalized. We know that between surgeries the surviving deputy identified Imam Jamil Al-Amin (by photograph) as the lone assailant, and that he claimed to have shot the lone assailant in the stomach area.

We now know that police radio transmissions within minutes of the tragedy recorded the following: ” [911] Caller advises perp in a vacant building on Westview bleeding begging for a ride.” Police reportedly surrounded this abandoned house five blocks from the shooting scene where fresh blood was found, but found no assailant. Finally, while media reports nationwide (including the Washington Times) reported a wounded “former Black Panther” on the run, when the Imam was apprehended four days later in White Hall, Alabama, he had no injuries.

At this writing, Imam Al-Amin’s attorneys are looking for the Sheriff Department’s dispatch tape, reports about the blood, and any evidence about anyone wounded in the West End the night of March 16. Meanwhile the prosecution appears to be basing its case on three things: Deputy Aldranon English’s identification of the Imam; a .223-caliber rifle and a 9mm handgun allegedly found in the woods where the Imam was apprehended; and the black Mercedes from the scene of the crime that was also allegedly recovered in White Hall, Alabama.

The Community Response

Imam Al-Amin is now the defendant in a 13 count criminal indictment (which includes multiple counts of murder and aggravated assault). One of the most common refrains one hears from the people who know him, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is that the charges are totally out of character with the person they know. When this writer attended the extradition proceedings in Montgomery, Alabama (April 21) the courtroom was full with an almost even split between Muslims and non-Muslims – many of whom had traveled considerable distances to offer their support. Before leaving Alabama I traveled to the little town of White Hall, and spoke to a few of its residents about the case. What they had to say was quite revealing.

One of my most memorable discussions is one that I got on tape. A 45 year old black male and life long resident of White Hall spoke passionately about the man he called “Mr. Brown” (in response to certain allegations made in the press): “I didn’t know the man was no criminal. The only thing I know is that he was in the Black Panther Party back in the 60s, and as far as I know, in my opinion, I haven’t seen nothing that he done. I mean…you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty. And as far as I’m concerned, he’s innocent. From the ties that I have with this man…within my heart I don’t believe what they say he done…and from what he says…that it’s a conspiracy, yeah I do believe that…”

When I asked if he thought his opinion was representative of most of the towns people, his response was, “In my opinion, yes, if they are older heads like I am, and done grew and probably knew the man as well as I have…and broke bread with him. He’s not no stranger to me…Stokely Carmichael and…you know…like the mayor here, he’s no stranger…they have close ties, they know one another – Bob Mass, there’s other people in the neighborhood, they all know one another.” When I asked him if in light of the trauma that the presence of a few Muslims in White Hall have brought to the town, whether he felt that perhaps they should leave, his response was an emphatic no. “I don’t think none of the Muslims should move out of the community, they should continue to strive and do what they need to do…if they can help the community.”

Beyond White Hall, Alabama, there is a tremendous amount of good will for Imam Al-Amin, no doubt, because of the deeply committed person he has been for all of his adult life. Since 1976, when he relocated to Atlanta (Ga.) after serving five years in prison for his previous civil rights activism, he and the Community Mosque have been transforming agents on the West End; receiving the lion’s share of the credit for improving the quality-of-life for residents in that part of the city. His quiet, mild-mannered, Islamically-grounded persona has made him a stabilizing force in other respects as well.

A 73 year old neighbor (Ms. Hattie Stegall) commented after his arrest, “I never saw him angry. When someone would die in my family, he would come by an offer his hand. And when the Muslim children would fight my grandchildren, he would make them come to me and apologize.” And its been reported that people from different walks of life would often make pilgrimages to his little Community Store. Syndicated columnist George Will made such a visit in 1985, and later wrote: His shelves are sparsely stocked, but his customers are buying only cheerios and milk, a few dollars worth at a time, and anyway, commerce is not the point. The Koran is the point – every point!”

This is the Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin that Muslims around the nation have come to know for the past quarter century. And this is why, from this writer’s observation, there is near unanimous support for the Imam in the Muslim community. (It should be noted that there is also significantly high levels of support for the Imam in the non-Muslim community as well (in predominantly activist and African-American circles), not withstanding the deliberate and discernible efforts being made to drive a wedge between the Muslim and African-American communities, through manipulation of the fact that both sheriff’s deputies were black males, in a city where the governmental bureaucracy (at least on the surface) is African American led.

The struggle ahead

At present, Imam Al-Amin is being held in the Cobb County Detention Center at the highest level of security. He is kept in solitary confinement; when moved anywhere within the institution he is fully shackled – arms and legs. Even the guards have been issued orders not to communicate with him except when necessary (i.e., conveying a message, issuing an order, etc.)

When I visited the Imam on April 24 his spirits were good, his faith in Allah swt was evident. He asked me to convey to all of his well wishers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, his deepest appreciation; and to convey to the Muslims in particular, the fact that this ordeal is not just about him. Some of the time was spent with the Imam analyzing his most recent test, and extracting lessons from it. One of the points he made that continues to resonate deeply with me was, “We have to tell the story of how it feels to be Muslims in America.” He said this with emphasis on every word.

In conclusion, the message is clear, we all have work to do. An attempt was made by law enforcement authorities in 1995 to frame Imam Al-Amin for a shooting that occurred on the West End of Atlanta. The effort backfired in their faces when the victim publicly stated that he had maintained from the beginning he didn’t know who shot him in his leg; and further, that the authorities pressured him to say it was Imam Al-Amin. The Imam, who was arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault and paraded before the court on August 7, 1995, was released on bail the following day, and the charges were never pursued.

Since that time we’ve learned of the five year undercover investigation mounted by the FBI and a special task force set up within the local Atlanta Police Department. This went on from 1992-1997, and included paid informants planted within the Community Mosque. With the exception of the August 1995 incident, however, the Imam was never charged with any crimes.

On May 31, 1999, Imam Al-Amin was the subject of a traffic stop in Cobb County, Georgia. (The question has since been raised as to whether this was a case of racial profiling, or was he stopped because they knew who he was?) He was subsequently placed under arrest for receiving stolen goods (the vehicle he was driving); impersonating a police officer (for the badge he had in his wallet); and driving without insurance. He was booked, then released a few hours later on a $10,000 bond. By September, he was indicted on all three charges.

After failing to resolve the matter outside the courts – he provided a bill of sale for the vehicle; and the mayor of White Hall, Alabama, sent a letter to authorities supporting Imam Al-Amin’s claim to being an auxiliary member of the town’s police force – he failed to appear in court on January 24, 2000, and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest on January 28. Deputies Ricky Kinchen and Aldranon English served the warrant on the night before the celebration of Eid-ul-Adha, and tragedy struck.

Since then (while he awaits the official trial), Imam Al-Amin has been tried and convicted by the media and law enforcement community. Fulton County District Attorney, Paul Howard, Jr., has formally announced that, if convicted, the State will pursue the death penalty…and a dedicated life has come full circle.

In light of the aforementioned facts, one is forced to ponder whether Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin’s present predicament is the logical end result of a government-orchestrated conspiracy; a conspiracy that bears a clear message: once you are targeted, survival is a crime!