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The Man Who Cried Dust 

Christopher Muhammad's fight with Lennar over toxic dust has resulted in a restraining order against him, an accusation that he's a shakedown artist, and grudging respect from his rivals.

Wednesday, Jul 1 2009

When Nation of Islam minister Christopher Muhammad walked into a community meeting at the Bayview Opera House this spring, everyone knew he'd come to yell at people who don't agree with him. For the past three years, Muhammad and his followers had noisily criticized a housing development at the old Hunters Point Shipyard, which they contended was exposing children at the Nation's nearby private school, the Muhammad University of Islam, to toxic dust. What no one anticipated was that the night would end with someone getting a restraining order against him.

The meeting was hosted by environmentalists from the Sierra Club and Arc Ecology, a Bayview nonprofit that has monitored the shipyard for 25 years. The meeting's purpose was to clear up some of the misinformation about Lennar Corporation's massive redevelopment project. The Florida-based developer is poised to build thousands of condos and rental housing units at the shipyard over the next 10 to 20 years.

Even though he'd missed the night's presentation and a good portion of the public comment, Muhammad strode in 90 minutes late with his ever-present posse of followers from Mosque No. 26 in San Francisco and yelled at the organizers about not being concerned about the health issues of the community.

The disruption prompted as much as a third of the 70-person audience to get up to leave, Lennar rep Keith Jackson included. But if Jackson thought he could simply get in his car and go, he was wrong.

As Jackson walked out to the parking lot, Leon Muhammad, the school's dean, followed him with two other guys and surrounded Jackson's 2000 Jaguar.

Jackson told SF Weekly that Muhammad antagonized him by saying things like, "'How could [you] kill the babies? How dare you. You're a house Negro, you're an Uncle Tom.' I said, 'Brother Leon, I'm trying to get to my car and get home.'"

Soon after, Christopher Muhammad walked out and stood in front of the car so Jackson couldn't leave. Jackson recalls Christopher warning him, "Brother Keith, I told you the wrath is coming down on you! The wrath is coming down on you!"

Meanwhile, Leon continued with the taunts. Sellout. Punk. Sissy. Coward. The other men added, "What do you want to do, punk?" (Leon Muhammad refused to answer questions about the episode; Christopher Muhammad didn't respond to questions e-mailed to his aide about the exchange.)

Jackson had had enough. "I have never been threatened in that manner," he says. "I was forced to protect myself." The next day he drove to Bayview Police Station and obtained a five-day emergency protective order against the minister.

Despite a very strong bark, no one accuses Christopher Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in San Francisco of biting. (Jackson said the next time the two men met, Muhammad was polite.) He has given voice to some in the Bayview, who see him as David going up against a Goliath of racist government and corporate interests. But many question the group's in-your-face tactics against anyone who doesn't agree with its belief that Lennar is poisoning the largely African-American neighborhood. And while Muhammad's group hasn't succeeded in shutting down construction, it has unnerved community members and people in city government. The health department even had to abandon its door-to-door outreach about the dust after they were followed by school representatives calling them liars.

Muhammad and his allies cast their fight as a righteous battle for justice guided by God. Yet after expert on top of expert — including the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama — has refuted Muhammad's claims that the dust caused by Lennar's construction is a long-term health hazard, a growing chorus of detractors is questioning his motives — and what he stands to gain.

"Nothing!" Muhammad bellows in response to such questions from the pulpit of the Grace Tabernacle Community Church on a recent Thursday night. "What I need is environmental justice. I don't need no grant. No funding. We're well funded, by the poor people. When you meet people you can't buy or sell, it's like, 'What in the world, what manner of people is this?'"

For the last three years, the boxy church on Oakdale up the hill from the shipyard has served as ground zero of the movement against Lennar. The weekly "Town Hall Meeting" draws a steady cast of black community activists, allied Christian pastors, Nation of Islam congregants, and little girls in floppy berets marked with the initials of the Muhammad University of Islam. It's an audience that holds the minister as the disciple of truth and justice, excoriating the powers he says hold down and push out black residents from San Francisco. The "greedy bums" in government. The redevelopment agency. The industrial prison complex. Environmental racism. Lennar.

Muhammad, who describes himself as being "near 50 years of age," speaks with charisma and force. He weaves a history of government betrayal of the black community, from the FBI's COINTELPRO to destroy black leadership in the '50s and '60s to the redevelopment agency that destroyed the black community in the Fillmore District, claiming the same "ethnic cleansing" is planned for the Bayview. He works in mistrust of corporations, with a sobering account of how his father developed esophageal cancer after years working as a bus mechanic, yet the bus company drew out the lawsuit until after he died so it wouldn't have to pay a cent. During his speech, people nod, cheer, and snap in approval — he's clearly a convincing orator.

Muhammad's style, while it offends some, earns respect from others. Bill Barnes, a political operative who has worked for Mayor Willie Brown and Supervisor Chris Daly, says Muhammad has driven serious and legitimate policy debates in recent years. "I think if you talk to people he represents, the individuals in the Nation of Islam want betterment for their community, they aren't motivated by hate or spite," he says. "Maybe they think what the government is doing isn't reaching [its] goal. They're not motivated by anything that's bad."

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Lauren Smiley


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