Friday, April 15, 2011

Malcolm Shabazzz Engages West Oakland

Shabazz Speaks: Malcolm X’s grandson engages West Oakland community

Malcolm Shabazz, grandson of Malcolm X. Photo by Eric Arnold Malcolm Shabazz, grandson of Malcolm X. Photo by Eric Arnold
One day after a Walnut Creek rally for convicted ex-cop Johannes Mehserle, a standing room-only, multi-genrational and multicultural crowd of around 100 packed the Black Dot Café in West Oakland to hear Malcolm Shabazz - the grandson of assassinated African-American icon El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X.
Though a little-known personage in the social justice, black politics and African American Islamist worlds, Shabazz showed the potential to be a rising star in all of the above categories. For most of the discussion, he recounted autobiographical tales of his troubled, convoluted path: how he grew up as the only male in a family with six women, unaware of his grandfather’s iconic stature; how he became rebellious as a youth, falling in with gangsters and hustlers and moving from group homes to detention facilities to juvenile halls to maximum-security prisons.
Despite Tuesday's lively talk, Oscar Grant’s shadow loomed just as large over the discussion as Malcolm X’s.
That the Mehserle trial, verdict and rally were still a hot topic of discussion in Oakland was made evident by the opening remarks, by Grant’s uncle, Ceephus “Bobby” Johnson, and Jack Bryson, the father of Grant’s best friends, who were with him on the platform that fateful New Year’s Day morning.

Bryson compared the scene Monday in Walnut Creek to Selma, Alabama, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and vowed not to stop his activism “until we get justice for Oscar.”
Johnson framed the verdict as a both a small but important victory and a first step in a larger movement, remarking, “even though it’s Involuntary Manslaughter, we cracked that door open.”
Noting the support of the longshoreman’s union, which he suggested could result in a possible shutdown of the Port of Oakland, Johnson provided historical context for Grant’s murder by pointing out that in 1935, two longshoremen were shot in the back by Oakland police.
“How does the system begin to work for us?” he asked.
A brief recap of the trial by two of the African-American youths who attended the proceedings, only to be ejected from the courtroom (one under arrest) followed. All the speakers were met with hearty applause. The cheers continued when Shabazz strode to the podium, flanked by two bodyguards, who stood stone-faced and impassive.
Shabazz recounted how, as a 12-year old child seeking to be reunited with his mother, he set a house fire, which killed his grandmother, Betty Shabazz — an incident he said he’ll regret for he rest of his life. He claimed he was framed and wrongly accused of three serious felonies, which carried a maximum term of 56 years, and wound up serving 3 ½ years after copping a plea bargain. He compared prison labor to slavery, noting that household products such as soap and toothbrushes (as well as police uniforms) are manufactured by prison laborers.
Shabazz spoke of being paroled and, after acing the SAT, attending the John Jay School of Criminal Law, a convicted felon surrounded by law enforcement professionals and attorneys — an experience he described as “therapeutic.” He spoke openly about his authority and anger-management issues, as well as the evolution of his awareness about his family’s legacy. Not only were his father and grandfather murdered for their activism, he said, but also his great-grandfather and great-great grandfather. But his mother — who was only 4 when her father was killed — didn’t talk much about X and it was only later in life, after becoming a devout Shi’a Muslim, that Shabazz began to embrace his familial lineage and followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was also a petty hustler and criminal before becoming a Nation of Islam minister.
Currently, Shabazz is writing his autobiography, the final chapter of which will feature him retracing his grandfather’s Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as visits to then-newly-independent African nations.
Shabazz’ speech was peppered with observations about juvenile delinquency, incarcerated life, the media (“believe half of what you see and none of what you hear,” he said) and resistance to systemic oppression. But where he really came into his own was in the Q&A that followed the speech, in which his charisma, intelligence and burgeoning wisdom shone.
He proved himself knowledgable not just about the justice system, but also in the subtle differences between Islamic sects. He spoke eloquently and articulately about the life of his grandfather and the straw-man arguments that typify racial debates in America. X, he reminded the crowd, preferred the more universal, global term “human rights” over “civil rights.” And, he said, his grandfather only became a threat to the power structure after his Haj, when he “no longer had the ideology that all white people were devils.”
When a woman — who said she was raising the sons of her murdered brother — asked how she could keep them out of the prison system, Shabazz ruminated on the sad reality of black-on-black crime and how the alleged Obamanian post-racial society represents “an illusion of progress.” Naming X along with other leaders of the Civil Rights Era such as Medgar Evers, Ralph Abernathy and "Dr. King," he said the state of affairs in 2010 is actually a “leap backwards in terms of consciousness.” Finally, he directly addressed the woman’s question: “It starts with education.”
Shabazz finished the Q&A to more cheers, as the donation bucket was passed around by BlackDot staffers J.R. Valrey and Sahfari Ra. A woman announced she had made a few plates of rice and beans and plantitos, apologizing for underestimating the turnout. Pictures were snapped, autographs were signed and the schmoozing began.

Eric K Arnold's picture
Eric K. Arnold has been writing about urban music culture since the mid-1990s, when he was the Managing Editor of now-defunct 4080 Magazine. Since then, he’s been a columnist for such publications as The Source, XXL, Murder Dog,, and the East Bay Express; his work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, Wax Poetics, SF Weekly, XLR8R, the Village Voice and Jamrock, as well as the academic anthologies Total Chaos and The Vinyl Ain’t Final. Eric began his journalistic career while DJing on college radio station KZSC, and remembers well the early days of hip-hop radio, before consolidation, and commercialization set in. He currently lives in Oakland, California.

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