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.

Christopher Muhammad told SF Weekly that his followers simply couldn't get into the boardroom. "I guess when it comes to African-American males, it's intimidating for us to be standing in City Hall," he said. "That's offensive." Lennar's spokesman, Sam Singer, says one of the suited men accompanying Muhammad told him: "'I looked you up on the Web page. I know where you're at, I don't like you, and I don't like the way you look.'... They're tough guys; they're to be taken seriously."

While some would say the attempts to get a permanent school location make Muhammad a hero, Singer and his client suggest something more nefarious at work (former Lennar vice president Paul Menaker reportedly described Muhammad as a "shakedown artist").

"Mr. Muhammad has been very clear from the beginning that the only thing he's interested in is money," Singer says. "He wanted money from Lennar to 'make the problem go away,' and the company just doesn't play that game."

While Muhammad's request still has many questioning his motives, neither Lennar nor the city has offered a permanent site for his school. In fact, for a while it looked as if he was in danger of losing the current site after getting into a very public feud with Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Judging from the scene at a campaign stop in Oakland this spring, the slick Gavin Newsom for Governor show had hit prime time. An illuminated "Gavin Newsom for a Better California" tarp hung behind rows of spectators gathered for a town hall meeting. Newsom used audience members' questions as a springboard to hit his talking points: universal health care, green jobs, medical marijuana, and a sanctuary city. The crowd ate it up. At least, most of them did.

When the microphone was handed to Christopher Muhammad, the lovefest was over. "These babies have been poisoned," he yelled. "Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, they've been poisoned, and the health department admits they were poisoned." A couple of folks in the audience clapped; others booed, while several taped the exchange to later post on YouTube. Newsom frowned and shook his head, later shuffling to a stool to pour a glass of water.

That wouldn't be the end: Muhammad's allies showed up two days later at Newsom's campaign stop in Napa. A week later in San Diego, Newsom ignored Leon Muhammad, who was waiting at the microphone. In Palo Alto, a Nation of Islam member took on the mayor again. Newsom later met with Muhammad twice, asking the minister to present any proof to substantiate his claims. Those at the meeting said Muhammad still presented no hard evidence, one calling his arguments "rhetorical theater."

Muhammad characterized the sit-down with the mayor at one of his own meetings at Grace Tabernacle, bestowing Newsom with a bumbling stutter in his impersonation: "I was with the mayor in a meeting recently," he began. "'But, but' — listen to how he said it — 'B-bu-but, listen, minister, what do you want?' What do you mean, what do I want? My message has been clear from day one. Haven't you been listening? We want you to stop work temporarily and assess these children's health. Again, for the 105th time."

Muhammad's contentious relationship with Newsom is a stark contrast to the supportive one he had with Brown. In a 2008 interview with SF Weekly, Muhammad said his support for Newsom cooled after the mayor refused to adopt the protocol developed by the African American Community Police Relations Board, a group of religious and neighborhood leaders of which Muhammad was the chairman.

But it's the issue of the dust that has most irritated both men. Two years ago, an agitated Newsom told the San Francisco Sentinel, "You know what, why does Minister Muhammad still have his kids up there? ... He was given an opportunity to move his kids. If he believes what he is saying, why would he still allow those kids to still be there?"

After the confrontations on the campaign trail, the Housing Authority filed separate lawsuits against the Center for Self-Improvement and Community Development, which operates the Muhammad University of Islam. One suit alleged the school carried no insurance, as required in its 2002 lease. Secondly, the school had paid no rent — set at $2,000 per month — until January 2006, when the housing authority would deduct any school expenses from the rent. The Housing Authority itself has yet to pay the school district — the original owner — the agreed-upon $100,000 for the property, despite "efforts to collect money over the years," says school district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Housing Authority's decision came after consulting with Commissioner Reverend Amos Brown, a vocal opponent of Muhammad and supporter of Lennar, who recently wrote an editorial in the Examiner denouncing the "intimidation tactics" of the "extremist group" of the Nation of Islam.

Last month, a state Superior Court judge threw out the city's lawsuits. According to the Nation's lawyer, the judge found that the statute of limitations had passed to collect most of the back-rent. The school had obtained insurance after being served the eviction notice, rendering that complaint by the city moot. Point Muhammad.

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