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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.
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."
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.)
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.)
But Lennar broke its promises. The developer failed to install dust monitors at the beginning of construction. Then it reported to the city in August 2006 that its asbestos monitors didn't work for more than three months after major earth-moving work began in April 2006. After residents complained about dust levels, the city cited Lennar for various violations throughout 2006 and 2007. The air district eventually settled with the company for $515,000, the largest penalty in the agency's history for asbestos violations. Muhammad refers to it as "blood money." (The nonprofit he runs, the Center for Self-Improvement and Community Development, is suing Lennar for injunctive relief to stop construction.)
Muhammad says nobody from the city or the company told him there were dust control issues. But he says when students started to suffer from respiratory problems, bloody noses, and itchy eyes, he began to demand they be tested.
His blanket statement is at best a half-truth. There is no test to detect asbestos in the body, an assertion backed by a 2007 letter to the city's Department of Public Health (DPH) from the National Center for Environmental Health in Atlanta. The letter stated that the best way to monitor asbestos release is at its source. DPH agreed in January 2007 to estimate the "worst-case" exposure of the children during the months the monitors weren't functioning. A private environmental consulting firm hired by the city later concluded that the students were not exposed to dangerous amounts of dust.
At various times, DPH, the California Department of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the air district, a UCSF environmental health expert, and Arc Ecology have reported that the asbestos exposure from Parcel A does not present a significant long-term health risk.
Saul Bloom, the director of Arc Ecology, says that the Nation and its allies' insistence that the dust from Parcel A can be blamed for the Bayview's health problems distracts from addressing the more likely suspects in the environment, such as car and diesel exhaust, and mold and mildew in substandard housing. Since 2006, Arc Ecology has held the city contract to monitor the shipyard asbestos rates — which is billed to Lennar — but his organization has been working at the shipyard since 1983. Bloom's insistence on looking at the facts and not being swayed by political interests has led to him bump heads with the city, Lennar supporters, and Minister Muhammad. In the Bayview, that's about as independent as it gets.
"With Christopher Muhammad, he sees things within his own background — African-American community, not getting his fair share of development — and here's his opportunity to speak to those issues," Bloom said. "The detail issues, those aren't so important" to him.
But Muhammad has refused to accept official declarations from anyone that Lennar, despite its screw-ups, hasn't harmed anyone while working on Parcel A. As proof of his students' health problems, he has relied on the evaluation of the school's physician, Dr. Alim Muhammad.
At a redevelopment commission meeting in December 2006, Christopher Muhammad read a letter from the doctor, stating he had detected particles of serpentine rock in several students' lungs. The DPH committed to evaluate any children at the school who had health concerns related to dust exposure, and sent Dr. Muhammad a protocol for doing so in January 2007. Amy Brownell, the DPH environmental engineer assigned to the shipyard, says she has never heard back, and the school has presented no students for evaluation. DPH offered to meet with parents, students, and staff of the school for an information session. The answer was the same: none.
The Nation of Islam seemed interested only in disseminating its own message about the dust. In October 2006, Christopher Muhammad said during an interview last year, people connected with the school started knocking on doors to "educate" Bayview residents about the health risks. Robert Van Houten said he challenged a man accompanying school dean Leon Muhammad, who handed him a flyer talking about the cancer risks of the dust: "I said, 'You're scaring everybody,' and he got really defensive and said, 'Well, you're either with us or against us.'"
Next, the Nation of Islam sabotaged the Department of Public Health's own door-to-door campaign, which had been requested by Supervisor Sophie Maxwell in June 2007. According to a DPH memo, Leon Muhammad crashed an outreach training session at a nonprofit on Third Street, "contradicting the training content and asserting the DPH position [was] untruthful." Two days later, a group of about 10 adults and children from the school followed public health workers through the neighborhood and told residents that the workers had been paid by DPH to say those things and "Don't listen to them." The workers gave up after three hours.
There's no doubt the Nation's style leaves many feeling bullied. In the past, the Hunters Point Citizen Advisory Committee, a mayor-appointed body that advises the redevelopment agency on shipyard development, has requested police officers at the meetings when Muhammad and his allies were expected to show. At the Board of Supervisors meeting in July 2007, where Bayview residents complained of the ill- health effects of the construction, a Nation of Islam member stood on each level of the rotunda and at the elevators. "It's a form of intimidation, from our perspective," says Reverend Aurelius Walker, one of the pastors who will develop affordable housing on the Lennar construction site, who Muhammad insinuates are "paid operatives."
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.
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.
On a recent Thursday, Christopher Muhammad went to talk to the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund site clean-up branch, accompanied by about 20 people, including Greenaction and the Sierra Club. In January, Leon Muhammad had asked the agency to look at the asbestos data to date from Parcel A to see whether it constituted "emergency" levels. EPA officials delivered their conclusion at the June meeting: No, it didn't. But they said they'd continue to monitor the site, even though the federal agency doesn't typically track asbestos levels.
Back at the Grace Tabernacle headquarters that night, Muhammad relayed a very different message to his followers. He said he'd asked the agency why it hadn't done more monitoring in the past: "They had no answers. Couldn't say anything in its defense. Because you sat back and watched this."
Leon yelled, "Nonnnnnne!" from a back pew, and Muhammad's followers were all ears.