Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
When Capt. Ralph McLean first learned that the Fruits of Islam had been hired to patrol the Sursum Corda cooperative, he doubted the Muslims would do much other than disrupt his men’s police work. Throughout his 20-plus years on the D.C. police force, McLean has had plenty of experience with the once-popular private security forces affiliated with the Rev. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam (NOI)—little of it good.
In the late ’80s, McLean says, residents complained that the NOI’s tactics amounted to little more than displays of excessive force. In the early ’90s, the complaints came from McLean’s own men—that the Muslims didn’t cooperate, that they made a point of not getting along with the beat cops, that they were bothersome gadflies in the drug war.
But McLean, who oversees policing in Sursum Corda’s neighborhood, says that today’s Fruits of Islam is a changed unit: Their guards haven’t fought his men since they started their patrols in June 2005. And crime is way down in the notorious neighborhood.
“They are very cooperative,” McLean says. “I couldn’t be happier. It’s working.”
Police have long been unable to control Sursum Corda by themselves. Tucked between North Capitol Street and New York Avenue NW, its small, staggered houses, U-shaped design, and narrow one-way streets mean that only constant watchfulness flushes criminals out of their well-established trenches. After the January 2004 murder of 14-year-old Jahkema Princess Hansen, the police department designated Sursum Corda as its first crime “hot spot.” The department made a dent in the most violent crimes, but it did little to eradicate the long-standing open-air drug markets, residents say. So last year, the co-op’s board—newly flush with cash from developer KSI Services—hired the Fruits of Islam for $60,000 a month for 24/7 patrols.
On a Tuesday in Sursum Corda, the only major activity amounted to one kid with a walkie-talkie. He apparently got the device to crack jokes on the security guards’ frequency. Fruits of Islam guard Leonard Hawkins says he first heard the kid over his line mutter, “Are you Metropolitan Police?”
Since the summer, Hawkins and his suit-and-tie-and-shiny-shoes brethren have all but swept the tightly packed homes clean. Now they’re down to petty stuff like responding to residents with clogged drains and inspecting unlocked gates.
A few beats later, Hawkins’ Motorola cracked again, as loud as a fart in a library. “Assalamu alaikum!” the kid squawked, mocking the familiar Muslim greeting of “Peace be with you.”
Hawkins, 60, had spent the day roaming Sursum Corda’s small streets, keeping the peace with nothing more than his Motorola and his wrinkled stare. The unit’s arsenal consists only of note-taking skills and a willingness to eyeball any thug who walks through the neighborhood. When guards see a real crime in progress, they call the police. No need for that this night, though. What passed for news amounted to a citizen getting in a car and driving out of a parking lot. It was all Christmas lights and giggling kids.
And the prankster with the walkie-talkie. But Hawkins reports that the guards just ignored him. “I didn’t pay it no mind,” he says.
Such discretion wasn’t a trademark of previous Muslim community-policing operations. In the late ’80s, anyone with an idea of how to fix blighted, crack-riddled blocks was given plenty of latitude. The bow-tied squads affiliated with the NOI don’t carry weapons but do carry a mystique among African-Americans, explains Aminah McCloud, a DePaul University professor and author of an upcoming book on the NOI. “They’ve grown up to think that if you strike one, a zillion of them will show up,” she says.
Sometimes that mystique was more than justified. In 1988, Nation of Islam–sponsored security guards marched into Mayfair Mansions, a far Northeast public-housing project known as “Little Beirut”; by the end of that year, a TV crew had filmed members of an NOI security crew pelting a man who had been armed with a shotgun. (Alphonso Muhammad, who is currently in charge of the Sursum Corda detail and worked the Mayfair, says if the police had been there, the man would have been killed—the Muslims just gave him a “spanking.” The cops “didn’t understand our purpose,” he says.)
But the mystique meant big results—and big business. The Muslims’ cleanup efforts earned a proclamation from the D.C. Council and praise from the local elite, as well as from then–First Lady Barbara Bush. From there, their influence spread: According to a 1996 Washington Post investigation, NOI security firms held public contracts in 10 cities, including Washington and Baltimore, raking in an estimated $20 million.
But by the mid-’90s, the guards’ reputation was on the decline. Tensions were constant between the NOI volunteer patrols and police, who saw the Muslims as crude profiteers untrained and unskilled at handling the messy realities of the crack war. It didn’t help that the guards openly accused the police of being in bed with the drug dealers.
An uproar from Congress, citing the NOI’s anti-Semitism and Louis Farrakhan’s visits with African dictators, added to the group’s problems. City agencies didn’t want to deal with the side effects of giving public money to the NOI, and by the late ’90s, excessive-force lawsuits and allegations of money mismanagement and inflated contracts caused NOI security operations to fall into bankruptcy and virtually disappear.
Housing authorities in D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and Dayton, Ohio, all once held contracts with NOI-affiliated security groups but don’t any longer.
Though Sursum Corda, a private cooperative, is mostly immune from political considerations, Muslim guards were still not first on its list, says the board’s executive director, David Chestnut. But the other options were soon dismissed: The Guardian Angels were deemed too infective. Private security companies were dismissed because they carry weapons. And the Fruits of Islam agreed in its contract to cooperate with the police.
Soon after the guards’ arrival on June 15, former board president Beverly Estes says, the open-air drug markets all but disappeared. Coupled with police initiatives, the neighborhood began to feel like a neighborhood again. “I never realized there were that many kids that lived there,” says McLean, who adds that crime has dropped to such low levels that he’s stopped maintaining separate stats for the cooperative.
First District Commander Diane Groomes says that crime is down 80 percent in Sursum Corda, and she credits much of the reduction to the Fruits of Islam’s willingness to cooperate with her officers. “If they see something, they call us,” she says.
Fruits of Islam guards submit a daily log of their activities to the neighborhood’s board. The reports are then faxed to the police. These are not militant missives against political oppressors, only records of such minutiae as the make, model, and location of abandoned cars. They read like a diligent NIMBY’s bitch journal.
•On July 14, the guards recorded that at 2 a.m., “noisy [rowdy] people in parking lot security confronted loud crowd and asked them to leave property.”
•On Aug. 8, “officers had to stop 4 teenagers from shooting dice by the leasing office and sent them home.” And later guards noted four doors left open, and a hit and run at First Place and M Street NW.
•On Dec. 8, the guards recorded that at 3 p.m., “All officers are performing a vacant unit check.” And before the hour was up they found “[i]n zone 3 there’s a broken window in unit 1.”
Muhammad says the guards and the police had to cooperate: The police had to try to understand the guards’ tactics, and the guards had to learn simple laws like how to appropriately make a citizen’s arrest. “We had to grow up,” he says.
Word of the Fruits of Islam’s new community-policing approach has spread. Muhammad says that his group has fielded inquires from three other District communities. One of the inquiries came from Lena Brown, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and resident of the adjacent Temple Courts community, whose parking lots are crowded with loiterers, drug dealers, and craps games.
Brown says she wants what Sursum Corda has. “It’s working for them. I’m very envious of them,” she says. “The [guards] hit the pavement. They enforce it. They stay on [the police]. They know how to report incidents.”
So far, Norman Muhammad, the Fruits of Islam’s second-in-command, says that over the months his group has been patrolling Sursum Corda, there has only been one flashback to the old days. A dude ran up to one of his men and slugged him in the head from behind before running away.
No “spankings” this time, though: “We let the police catch him,” he says.CP