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 declined SF Weekly's request to discuss his face-offs with the mayor, although he has addressed the issue in recent speeches that, at times, have sounded vaguely threatening. "The target is Lennar and those who support Lennar in doing what Lennar has done in criminality to this community, and if Mayor Newsom or whoever else doesn't want the focus on them, then do the right thing," he said at Grace Tabernacle. "You've got time, but the window of time is closing."

One by one, city agencies, boards, and commissions moved past the asbestos issue. Yet Leon Muhammad found another venue to talk about the dust: the Navy's Restoration Advisory Board (RAB).

Dating back to the beginning of the Navy's shipyard cleanup in 1993, the board was intended to be an advisory volunteer group of community stakeholders who hear and voice opinions on the methods of the Navy's efforts. While long-time attendees say the board has gone through rough patches before, they say the process has disintegrated further since Leon Muhammad came on as cochair. The Navy says the discussion turned to asbestos dust on the city-owned parcel, which, from the Navy's perspective, is no longer its problem.

The last straw came at January's meeting, when six new members were voted onto the board. All but one formed a voting bloc to help pass three off-agenda motions introduced by Muhammad. First, the board voted to have a civil grand jury investigate whether there was a fair amount of community truckers receiving Navy contracts at the shipyard. Then the members voted DPH representative Amy Brownell off the board, alleging she had refused to answer their question about exceedences detected by a dust monitor on the border between Lennar and Navy property. (Brownell counters that she has given all the answers she has: "They don't like the answers, so they come up with new questions.") Lastly, the board voted to stop all construction work at the entire shipyard until the Navy and DPH explain the source of exceedences at that monitor, and detect the health risk to the adjacent community.

After that meeting, the Navy suspended the board, presenting information on cleanup at generic community meetings. The RAB cochair, Keith Forman, who was not present at the January meeting, told Leon Muhammad that the resolutions passed in his absence weren't approved RAB functions. The RAB later called an emergency meeting, during which the attendees voted Forman off the board. According to an e-mail from RAB member Lonnie Mason, Forman had "degraded the comments of others in this community as well as attacked the voices of the people from this community."

In an interview with SF Weekly, Leon Muhammad says considering the tone of meetings "hostile," as they're labeled in the Navy's memo, is a matter of perspective. "Was it hostile for Rosa Parks to sit down on the bus? As if the Navy wasn't hostile. ... You could be considered hostile for what you've done to this community for the last 70 years."

Preaching at Grace Tabernacle, Christopher Muhammad said the Navy shut down the RAB for doing its job: "These little commissions ... are always designed to be rubber-stamp, brother-slap entities to allow these people to do their dirt with the cover of community engagement, when in fact there was no community involvement at all."

Leon Muhammad says they plan to fight the decision by sending a letter to the Navy. Christopher Muhammad advised the RAB "to rise up, get off that plantation that you still on. ... Let's expose these bums for what they are!" he said to wide applause. "Nobody gets a pass today. We're aiming to make life hard."

Minister Christopher Muhammad does not want reporters to write about him. When SF Weekly recently requested an interview, his answer came in the form of a lengthy pre-emptive attack on the paper during one of his town hall sermons at Grace Tabernacle. He accused the Weekly writer of "snooping around like a pig."

"They're always looking for dirt," he said. "J. Edgar Hoover was good at that, and there are people like that today ... hoping that by destroying the good name or reputation, you can divert focus from the real crime which was the poisoning of this community."

Bishop Ernest Jackson of Grace Tabernacle ended another meeting with a prayer against press attention: "I'm not trying to play favorites, but the Nation of Islam has become a vanguard for the community. When you have strong voices among the community, grievous wolves will try to destroy them, but we shall not be moved. ...We shall not be moved, no matter what the Chronicle says about us, no matter what the SF Weekly writes, no matter who they sent in, because God is with us."

The Nation and its allies might soon be on the righteous trail again, since more Newsom town hall meetings are scheduled. The meetings will implement a new format in which people write queries for the candidate on cards which are read by Newsom's staff. Newsom's campaign manager, Eric Jaye, denies this is connected to the Nation's questioning.

Muhammad and his movement continue with their demands: Replace Lennar with a green developer. Stop the construction. He told the air district that with the settlement, it should test residents, launch an education campaign, and install a hospital-grade air filter in each home in the neighborhood. So far, none of his demands have been answered, and Lennar is plowing on, installing infrastructure on Parcel A to start construction on the first houses in early 2011.

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