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.

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."

Even his critics offer Muhammad grudging respect. One of his foes at City Hall admits that "he's rhetorically quite brilliant." One pro-Lennar leader in the Bayview, who asked not to be named, credited him with playing an important role in badgering Lennar to make more of its development affordable to low-income residents: "If his leadership was part of the process from the very beginning, who knows, with that kind of call [for] accountability, because their style is so confrontational, who knows what we would have gotten?"

Muhammad has said that he was "quietly doing my work on Third Street" before Lennar's dust came along. During a 2008 interview, he declined to give many details about himself separate from his fight with Lennar, other than to say that he came to the San Francisco mosque from Los Angeles almost 20 years ago, and was now living "right outside the city." While the issue of the dust has given him a visible platform in recent years as a crusader against City Hall, Muhammad and the Nation of Islam enjoyed a good relationship with the powers that be under Brown, who tapped him to serve on his citizen advisory group, Committee 2000. (Muhammad supported Brown's election.)

Arc Ecology’s Saul Bloom says car pollution likely poses a bigger health risk to residents than asbestos from Parcel A.
Josh Edelson
Arc Ecology’s Saul Bloom says car pollution likely poses a bigger health risk to residents than asbestos from Parcel A.
A view of the shipyard with Candlestick Park in the distance.
A view of the shipyard with Candlestick Park in the distance.

Near the end of Brown's tenure, the mayor engineered a deal with the Nation of Islam that would eventually set the stage for the group's fight with Lennar and Brown's successor, Gavin Newsom. In 2002, the Housing Authority leased a derelict property above the shipyard to the Nation's private school.

Muhammad has said that he originally supported Lennar when the city entered into negotiations to develop the shipyard in the late '90s. But he says that support went south in 2006, after dust from the construction site blew across the fence onto his school's property and he says adversely affected students' health. In February 2007, Arc Ecology recommended that the Muhammad University of Islam be temporarily moved away from construction dust. But at a community meeting that month, he said he didn't want his school to be made into a "political football," and said he would accept only a permanent relocation. He noted that the current site had a waiting list of 200 children who couldn't fit in the few trailers that serve as classrooms. "So I think we can figure that out and I'm open to that dialogue, knowing that the city, Lennar, with all of its resources, can find a permanent place for children of color in this community," Muhammad said.

According to a meeting transcript, moments later Muhammad followed the request with a not-so-subtle threat: "I think if Lennar is not careful, they're going to force us to have to take this up to another level. I've been very measured in my methodology, if you will, but we are reaching that point of no return and ... I would hate that the whole community begin to look at this development and this company in another light. I think we're getting close to that."

The Muhammad University of Islam School, which has about 100 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, sits across a chain-link fence from Parcel A of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, the site of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory and a decontamination site for ships returning from testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific during the Cold War. Since the Navy pulled out for the first time in 1974 and the recommissioned shipyard closed in 1991, the abandoned acres of land have been an ugly reminder of lost jobs and a toxic legacy from decades of discarding of dangerous waste.

Even before the shipyard closed down, the city began talks on how to redevelop the site. Eventually, 500 acres and six parcels of Navy property were identified for future housing, light industrial, and park sites after toxic cleanups were concluded.

The Navy declared Parcel A was safe to transfer to city ownership for construction in 2004; the city then transferred the land to Lennar for development. Though the levels of chemicals in the soil were determined to be safe for residential use by various regulatory agencies, the hill was laced with naturally occurring serpentine rock, which when disturbed can release asbestos, a mineral that in heavy doses over a period of years can cause the lung-scarring disease asbestosis. Since the city's southeast sector is one of six in the Bay Area disproportionately affected by air pollution, the city and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District required Lennar to monitor levels of dust and the concentration of asbestos in the air. Lennar agreed to mist the dirt and shut down work when asbestos rose to a "conservative" cutoff level of 16,000 particles per cubic meter of air. (The federal government will let children attend school after an asbestos abatement project at 20,000 asbestos particles per cubic meter.)

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