Where Did All That Power Go?: Black Muslims in the Movement for Community Control and Police Accountability

By Rasul Miller

First Posted on Sept 1st, 2015

police brutality Malcolm photo

On April 14th, 1972, a man claiming to be a Detective Thomas from New York City’s 28th police precinct placed a call requesting assistance for a fellow officer in distress. The call, later determined to be a fake, prompted two officers to rush to the address, which was the Nation of Islam’s Harlem Mosque # 7. The two officers “smashed their way into the 116th St. Mosque.”[1] This violated of the NYPD’s policy with regard to the Muslim place of worship.[2] Members of the mosque felt compelled to protect the sanctity of the space and the safety of the congregation. A fight broke out. It is unclear exactly what happened, but in the ensuing melee, Phillip Cardillo, one of the two officers who had burst into the mosque unannounced, was killed.

More officers rushed to the mosque, creating a scene that the Amsterdam News described as an “attack” and “invasion”. Harlem residents, who saw the mosque as an essential asset to the community, formed a crowd of concerned onlookers. Minister Louis Farrakhan, the spiritual leader for Mosque # 7 at the time, arrived along with Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel. Members of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, Harlem’s principal Sunni Muslim institution, rushed over to help ensure the safety of the roughly three to five hundred members of Mosque # 7 who were trapped inside the building. Minister Farrakhan urged the crowd, which had now grown angry, to keep calm. He and Congressman Rangel worked out a deal with NYPD’s Chief of Detectives Albert Seedman to diffuse the situation. One Mosque # 7 member was eventually apprehended and tried, but ultimately acquitted.[3]

What was so extraordinary about this 1972 incident was the Muslims’ ability to leverage their influence to address the situation. Charges were not brought against anyone from the mosque until two years later, and the subsequent trial resulted in an acquittal. Further, the Muslims demanded both “an apology from the city and an all-Black police force for Harlem.”[4] The Muslims of Mosque #7 also held a unity rally protesting the police department’s actions. Sunni Muslims were in attendance, including the world-renowned Egyptian scholar and Qu’ran reciter Sheikh Mahmoud Khalil al-Hussary.[5] Muslims of differing theological opinions came together to oppose repressive policing of Muslims and people of color.

This was not the first time Muslims had fought for police accountability in New York City. If you’ve seen the Spike Lee film Malcolm X (or if you’ve read the explanation of Kanye West’s song Power on rapgenius.com), then you probably know about Johnson Hinton, a member of the Nation who was savagely brutalized and arrested after he and two other Muslims confronted two white police officers for beating a Black man in Harlem in 1957. Members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s paramilitary-style self-defense wing, marched orderly to the local police precinct, flanked by a crowd of roughly five hundred angry Harlemites. In response to Malcolm X’s leadership in coordinating the Muslims’ efforts on the night of the beating, one NYPD officer famously exclaimed, “No one man should have that much power.”[6] Hinton received medical attention and the largest settlement for a police brutality case in New York City’s history at that time. Both the Nation of Islam’s run-in with the police and its ability to apply the necessary pressure to obtain greater justice for its member were indicative of the relationship it would develop with the NYPD over the next decade and a half.

The Nation’s 1972 call for local control of the police was not atypical. Black Sunni Muslims in urban American cities pursued similar strategies. While they may not have mounted campaigns for all-Black police forces, many initiated efforts to maintain law and order in their own neighborhoods. One example is the aforementioned Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (MIB). The lineal descendent of Malcolm X’s Muslim Mosque Inc., MIB took Malcolm’s calls for local control to heart. In the late 1960’s, MIB adopted the heroin-infested block of 113th St. and St. Nicholas Ave. in Harlem, pushing out criminals and drug dealers and creating the backbone of what quickly became a peaceful, thriving, and now rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. A later example is Masjid Taqwa in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Members of the community purportedly patrolled their rooftop with scoped rifles in order to police the neighborhood when the mosque was first built in 1980. As a result, a roughly two block radius surrounding the mosque is now home to grocery stores, restaurants, barbershops, and other businesses that cater to a vibrant community of Muslims, and passersby need not worry about crime or harassment.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Brooklyn’s Yasin Mosque also created a safe zone through the efforts of Ra’d, its own paramilitary wing, which oversaw the well-being of mosque members and the surrounding community. As with Mosque # 7, this sometimes required skirmishes with hostile police officers who came from outside the community.[7] Yasin Mosque served as the nucleus for the nation’s largest network of African American Sunni mosques, the Darul Islam movement – or the Dar for short. Imam Jamil Al-Amin – formerly known as H. Rap Brown, a prominent leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party – exported the Dar’s local control model to Atlanta. There, he and his followers cleaned up the notoriously crime-ridden West End neighborhood, creating yet another safe zone policed by Black American Muslims.

What emerges from this history is a rich tradition of local control and community policing among Muslim African Americans. While such strategies varied by context and location, they generally followed a three-part model. First, community members policed their own neighborhoods, organically creating safe spaces where businesses, schools, and community life flourished. Second, these groups created strong relationships with community-minded elected officials, and Muslims and people of color in law enforcement, to maintain these spaces.[8] Third, they leveraged their relationships with members of the broader community – who were grateful for the Muslims’ contributions to the community – to engage in protests to ensure police accountability when necessary.

As the list of Black men and women killed with impunity by police grows, this history of Black Muslims’ strategies to foster community control and fight police brutality is becoming increasingly relevant. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) issued a statement in the wake of the Baltimore uprising earlier this year. In its response, ISNA demonstrated just how out of touch the organization was with the community it seeks to represent.[9] While our knowledge of the illegal surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities grows, the links between these current injustices and the infamous COINTELPRO policies that targeted scores of Black communities (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) are unknown to many Muslim Americans. Rediscovering this history carries a serious urgency. As Islamophobia becomes increasingly widespread, Muslims stand to lose much of the support and cultural capital they have gained over the course of the last 50+ years, which came as a result of their efforts to make life better for working-class communities and people of color. More importantly, the freedom, security, and lives of millions of American women and men victimized due to their race and religion is at stake. Muslims in America are in dire need of the insights provided by the Black Muslim experience, just as communities of color are in dire need of the local control strategies that Black Muslims once pioneered.

[1] “Cops Invade Mosque: Editorial Invasion of Mosque No. 7.” New York Amsterdam News (1962-1993); Apr 22, 1972. p. A1.

[2] Since Mosque # 7 was deemed a “sensitive location”, police established a protocol stipulating they provide advanced notice if they needed to search the mosque. In the past, the NYPD was duly granted permission and entered the premises in a respectful manner.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Russell, Carlos. “A funny thing happened.” New York Amsterdam News (1962-1993); May 6, 1972. p. A5.

[5] Craft, Mona. “Muslims seek unity.” New York Amsterdam News (1962-1993); May 13, 1972. p. B12

[6] Marable, Manning. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books, 2011. p. 128

[7] Curtis, R.M. Mukhtar. “The Formation of the Darul Islam Movement.” In Muslim Communities in North America, by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane I. Smith. SUNY Press, 1994. 59

[8] Even the Nation of Islam’s supreme leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, received an award from the National Society of Afro-American Policemen in 1969 at a New York City luncheon. Minister Louis Farrakhan accepted the citation on his behalf. “Farakhan to Accept Citation.” New York Amsterdam News (1962-1993); June 14, 1969. p. 3.

[9] For the statement and some of the critiques against it, see: Contributor, Guest. “MuslimARC – Open Letter to American Muslim Organizations on Police Brutality, Baltimore and Freddie Gray.” Altmuslim. Accessed May 16, 2015. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/altmuslim/2015/04/muslimarc-open-letter-to-american-muslim-organizations-on-police-brutality-baltimore-and-freddie-gray/ and “U.S. Muslims Stand in Solidarity with the Baltimore Protests Against Police Brutality and State Violence.” MuslimGirl.net. Accessed May 16, 2015. http://muslimgirl.net/12076/american-muslims-stand-solidarity-baltimore-uprising-echo-call-police-accountability-nationwide/



Rasul Miller is a PhD student in History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black internationalist thought and West African intellectual history.

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  • This is a great article and documentation of African American and Muslim African American history. as a 14-year-old, I was walking by the Mosque #7 with a friend when we saw the detectives jump from their vehicle and run in the Mosque. I commented to my friend those White Cops aren’t supposed to go in the Mosque. The word in the neighborhood was that Whites weren’t allowed to enter the Mosque and normally they didn’t.

    By the time we got home to Taft Houses on Madison Ave. and 112th St. everyone was headed back over to the Mosque. I asked where’s everyone going? A friend told me, the police went into the Mosque and the Muslims killed the police officers and there’s a big crowd out there standing up to the police because they knew they weren’t supposed to go in the Mosque.

    My friend and I exclaimed we were just over there, no one was out there when the police went in the Mosque but us, my friend replied, ” the whole neighborhood is out there now” (I miss those days). We went back to the Mosque, I was in disbelief we couldn’t get anywhere close to the Mosque on Lenox Ave, there were too many people out there. We could only get half way up to 115th St between 5th and Lenox Ave. This was a matter of a few minutes.

    That was in the days before liberals and White organizers came to Harlem to get the community involved in Social Justice. People stayed in a state of frustration at all of the poverty, crime, misery, racism, and police brutality. We had to stay involved because you never knew who was going to be the next one to get hurt. Fed up people were in the streets fighting back.

  • This is a great article. Sadly, due to the masses of Black American Sunni Muslims having adopted immigrant Muslims as religious authority figures, this former social capital and renown has permanently dissipated.

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