The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan came to be at the center of a D.C. political flap

This photo from Oct. 18, 1996, shows protesters Brother Muhammad Ali, left, and Malik Shabazz, right, outside Andy's restaurant at 5001 Georgia Ave. NW. Protesters opposed nonblack businesses operating in predominantly black communities. (Khue Bui/The Washington Post)

Chris Hawthorne was 16 in the spring of 1989 when the Nation of Islam brought hip-hop giant Public Enemy to the banks of the Anacostia River. Crack, AIDS and murder were running roughshod on the District, particularly in Ward 8, where Hawthorne was growing up. But if the Nation guys — clean-shaven, in suits, out in force — were at the park for the concert they helped organize, Hawthorne knew, they would be very visible and things would be under control.

“If there was a situation where guys got out of hand, the Nation of Islam would step in to restore order, and walk up and down the streets if fights or bullets were flying,” Hawthorne said. “The Nation of Islam was very vital in our neighborhood.”

To Hawthorne and others who lived through that period, he says, the Nation’s role in boosting black pride and neighborhood security — including patrolling crime-plagued public housing — is a powerful cultural touchstone. But as with so much of African American life in a newly gentrified Washington, the Nation’s role in Ward 8 is a shadow of what it once was.

“They just aren’t as visible as in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Hawthorne, a 43-year-old wastewater worker and Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative. Young people “just aren’t catching on to the Nation of Islam.”

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Gone, Ward 8 residents and members say, is the Muslim offshoot movement’s large recognizable force of members in suits and ties, replaced with what they described as the low-profile, helpful efforts of scattered individuals.

But despite this diminished presence, mention of the Nation of Islam can still stir powerful emotions among some black residents, especially those with memories of its heyday.

For those residents, the Nation, with its credo of self- ­empowerment and rebellion against oppressive establishment forces, has become a metaphor for black power, which they feel is needed as much now as decades ago given the threat of gentrification.

The phenomenon was evident this spring when the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan captured the spotlight in a controversy involving Council Member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8).

White, who grew up in the majority-black Southeast Washington ward, has been criticized by Jewish leaders and others for his support of the Nation and Farrakhan.

That support included a $500 donation meant for Ward 8 constituents to one of the group’s events in Chicago, at which Farrakhan made hateful remarks about Jews.

White and other black political leaders have hesitated to denounce anti-Semitic comments by Farrakhan or those by a local Nation leader who a week ago called Jews “termites.” Some Ward 8 residents have leaped to White’s defense, and the political fracas has become a proxy for residents who say either anti-black racism or anti-Semitism is being ignored.

It’s difficult to discern the exact shape of the Nation of Islam’s role in Ward 8, due to the group’s insularity and what they themselves describe as a lack of trust toward outsiders.

National and local Nation of Islam leaders declined to comment for this story and others who work with them were told they also had been asked not to talk to The Washington Post.

White did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this article. Nor did Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

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Many of the stories those interviewed shared about the Nation were rooted in the past, during much of the late Marion Barry’s long tenure as mayor in the 1980s and into the early ’90s, when scores of members patrolled the city’s most violent neighborhoods, inspiring respect and maintaining calm. At one point, Nation-run security firms won $20 million in public contracts in 10 U.S. cities, including D.C. Many residents who attended the Farrakhan- ­convened Million Man March in 1995 have said the feeling of love and uplift is one they will never forget.

White, 33, grew up during the tail end of this period and has described the Nation as family when asked about the $500 donation.

Ward 8 is a different place today. Violent crime is down, but the percentage of people who live in poverty rose 10 percentage points to 37 percent from 1990 through 2014, according to the D.C. Office of Planning. Development pressures are driving rents up and population churn has left fewer established community leaders.

Today, the Nation’s infrastructure in the District — its Mid- ­Atlantic hub, according to the group — consists of a sole house of worship in Ward 7. Members are simply part of the mix of people who reliably show up for volunteer efforts, those interviewed said.

They include a regular fish fry and chess game in the Woodland Terrace apartments, mentoring of young men who have left prison and reportedly lending a hand in communal crises, such as a shooting or when the water went off last month at Anacostia High School.

D.C. police say there is no indication the group has any current role in public safety, nor does it have any city contracts to provide services.

The Nation began shrinking in Ward 8 — as it did nationally — decades ago as members merged into mainstream Sunni Islam and younger generations became disenchanted with organized religion.

According to Pew Research, 13 percent of U.S. Muslim adults are U.S.-born African Americans, and of that, 3 percent say they identify with the Nation of Islam. Most Orthodox Muslims do not view the Nation as authentic followers of Islam.

But the Nation’s message of black empowerment and racial oppression still appears to resonate in Ward 8, where many residents share a feeling of disenfranchisement as the city grows whiter and more affluent. Some view Jews as part of a racist white power structure that is profiting financially from widespread upscale development, which they say is displacing poorer black residents and the city’s historic African American culture.

It is in this context that many residents appear to be reacting to criticism of White — as an attack on one of their own by powerful outside forces.

Even longtime Jewish allies of White who come from outside the ward are suspect in this era of gentrification, said Anthony Muhammad, a Nation of Islam member and Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative. “It’s like: ‘Do what I say because I supported you,’ ” Muhammad said.

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The controversy erupted in mid-March when White, a popular young council member who grew up in Ward 8, speculated on Facebook that the Rothschilds — a renowned European Jewish banking family — were manipulating the weather. That led to several apologies, with White saying he knew nothing of the Rothschild canard or of the Jewish experience. He agreed to attend a breakfast and a Passover Seder with Jewish leaders to learn.

Within days, the dialogue was shaken when the The Post reported that city officials were questioning White’s donation to the Nation of Islam.

That week, White also left early from a specially arranged Holocaust Museum tour. At the time, he did not give an explanation, but two days later he said he did so because a reporter was present. He posted a Facebook Live video saying he believed he was under attack and was done apologizing.

The role of the Nation in White’s drama has triggered complex reactions among Ward 8 residents.

The vast majority of the hundreds of comments on White’s Facebook page after news of the $500 donation broke were general shout-outs of support for someone residents perceived as unfairly under fire. “Unbought and unbossed!” and “Support your own,” people wrote. Mixed in with these messages were others challenging the city’s Jewish leaders who were focused on anti-Semitism to condemn racism. Criticisms — or even mentions — of Farrakhan were rare.

White is involved with some of the Nation’s efforts in Ward 8. The council member appears — and does some of the filming — in a recent video of an outdoor neighborhood men’s event in Ward 8 organized by the group Brotha’s Huddle to encourage and uplift participants. Speakers including Nation members shift from trying to motivate youths by empowering them to fight a “self-inflicted genocide” to telling them their suffering is “socially engineered by people in high places.”

“Now, do I agree with everything that the Minister Farrakhan says? No, I don’t . . . . But guess what?” White himself said in the April 21 Facebook Live video. “That’s my brother, that’s my sister . . . . So you can choose your friends. But my grandmother taught me you can’t choose your family.”

White told The Post in a text message that he donated the $500 to the Nation at the request of the group’s local members because “The Brothers from the Nation are of the few men that show up to help.”

Hawthorne said the strong reaction to defend White’s payment should be viewed primarily as illustration of a “very defensive” feeling that exists in the Ward, that anything reflecting badly on White could hurt efforts to improve a struggling community.

“People are saying about Trayon: ‘Why is he speaking about things he knows nothing about? He speaks for the whole ward, he doesn’t just speak for a specific group. He’s making us look all kinds of crazy.’”

White’s donation to the Nation split the ward, Hawthorne said — because residents did not like to see money intended for local use go elsewhere. If it had gone to the Nation members who show up at the weekly fish fry, Hawthorne said, it would have been fine.

He disowned the anti-Semitism. Saying racial, anti-Semitic comments — “those of us who are Ward 8 who have honor and respect, we don’t put up with it,” he said.

But Jahar Abraham, a longtime community activist who regularly teams up with the Nation for community service in Ward 8, sounded angry as he recalled the demand by Jewish council members and city leaders that White be censured for donating to Farrakhan, or that other city employees be censured for standing with local Nation leader Minister Abdul Khadir Muhammad, who stood in front of the Wilson Building a week ago and called Jews “termites.”

What’s more important than what people say, or the condemnations they offer, Abraham said, are their actions to help the disenfranchised, whether it’s White or city politicians or the Nation of Islam.

“I’m more interested in what people do than what they say,” he said.He compared the lack of outrage among some in Ward 8 to Abdul Khadir Muhammad’s comment with what he perceives as a lack of outrage about conditions in the ward.

Imam Talib Shareef has lived the ups and downs of the Nation in the District. He joined Islam through the group in North Carolina in the 1970s and lived in the District in the ’80s. He later transitioned with most of the Nation to mainstream Islam, he said, and now leads Masjid Muhammad, a major Sunni mosque in Shaw.

Shareef is also president of the Washington Interfaith Conference, a network of faith leaders in the region, and he and the masjid work with White on service projects in Ward 8, where they own property.

And so he claimed some authority as he tried to explain what the Nation of Islam still represents in the city, even in its faded modern incarnation. The average resident does not know a lot about the small group, he maintains.

They just see Muslims helping them, Shareef said. “They look at the help they’re getting. And people who are not with them, not helping them,” he said.

White appeared to be alluding to that role in a tweet last March, in which he posed with about 12 men and boys — some in suits — who were distributing copies of the Nation’s paper, the Final Call.

“Block to Block every Saturday! Recruiting young brothers to [join] the movement of edifying our communities,” White tweeted.

Sometime in the last week, White’s tweet was deleted.

Fenit Nirappil and Peter Jamison, and researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.