I’VE BEEN TOLD that one way to gauge the political slant of any gathering is to take a look at the folks who are trying to make a buck off of it. But the elderly woman selling souvenir buttons at the 1999 Million Youth March last Saturday in Harlem was sending a rather ambivalent message.
The first pin I noticed brought a tear to my eye—SLICK WILLIE: YOU GOT TO GO: WE DON’T NEED YOU ANYMORE. In other cases, though, the juxtapositions were downright weird. Buttons with nice-sounding slogans like STOP RACISM IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY shared space with little photos of Elijah Muhammad, the late Nation of Islam leader who taught that white people are the evil creations of a mad scientist named Yacub. And right there, sitting uneasily next to PRAISE THE LORD, was the little gem I remembered from last year’s march: THE WHITE MAN IS THE DEVIL.
Things got clearer as I walked through the crowd, past the scraggly white guy giving out literature from the Worker’s World Party and the aging hippie selling the current issue of Socialist Action (Page 2: "We fight for jobs for all—30 hours work for 40 hours pay!"). The inevitable "Free Mumia" banner flew overhead. A few women were selling T-shirts in support of Mumia’s fellow cop-killer Assata Shakur.
The Canadian branch of the Nation of Islam was there, hawking their newspaper and looking sharp in tailored black suits with red piping. The American version of the NOI was conspicuously absent—march organizer Khallid Muhammad having been kicked out of the Nation in 1994 for rhetoric that even Louis Farrakhan considered too bigoted and anti-Semitic. The most popular item on sale was a T-shirt with Khallid’s likeness silk-screened on the front, above the lines 100% BLACK MAN and THE WHITEMAN’S WORSE NIGHTMARE! (sic).
After a few opening prayers (traditional Muslim, Swahili, and Native American) and a round of black power salutes, the march began. The name "Million Youth March" once again proved to be misleading—there were only around 1,200 people in attendance (down from more than 6,000 last year), most of whom looked to be around 30, and all of whom stood in place. As with the buttons, the messages from the podium were mixed. At one point, Muhammad’s attorney, Malik Zulu Shabazz, told the crowd that their minds were their weapons, a sentiment undercut slightly when a speaker identified as "Brother Quinn" came to the stage and delivered the following rap:
How many more soldiers gonna die
Before we go to war?
Niggas got guns and that’s great
But some of you need to masturbate
Strengthen up your wrists
So you can learn how to shoot straight.
People turn in their guns for toys
We need to teach all our little girls and boys
How to shoot
And who to shoot at.
The star of the show, however, was Khallid Muhammad himself, who took the stage in the black paramilitary uniform of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the organization he helped found after being booted from the Nation of Islam. Throughout his rambling hour-and-fifteen-minute-long speech, a group of uniformed guards surrounded him and mimicked his every step.
Back in the days when he was Farrakhan’s personal bodyguard, Muhammad carried a .38 hidden in a hollowed-out Bible. In some ways, he still does, attempting to cover his febrile hatreds in the rhetoric of self-empowerment and a sham version of Islam. Most of the time, the cover doesn’t work.
And so we learned that AIDS, asthma, and cancer are creations of the white government "against our people." In fact, said Muhammad, things here in the "United Snakes of America" (he had the crowd repeat the phrase) are so dire that young people must "lay the base for revolutionary change." He suggested as their models not only the Tienanmen Square protesters, but also the Vietcong, Fidel Castro’s troops, and "the youth who stood up with Moammar Al Qaddafi." Muhammad later gave a detailed explanation of the origins of the term "cracker."
There were actually a few moments when I found myself agreeing with him—as when he told the men in the audience to "respect the black woman," and when he criticized the violence and crudity of so many Hollywood movies. But those moments passed quickly—Muhammad went on to say that black men should respect black women because white women are inferior, and that Hollywood is bad because it is "controlled by the Jews." If too many black characters are getting murdered onscreen, the solution is to "make some movies where the cracker is getting killed."
With what must have seemed to him like superhuman restraint, Muhammad refrained from his usual habit of referring to Jews as "bloodsuckers." But he did take pains to catalogue the misdeeds of "the so-called Jews." He explained at length that black people are the true Israelites of the Bible, God’s chosen people, their rightful identity fiendishly stolen by the people today called Jews (whom he said had "just crawled out of the caves and hills of Europe a few days ago"). But in one of the mental contortions typical of Afrocentrism, Muhammad also told the crowd that blacks are the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians—who enslaved the Israelites for 400 years and were drowned in the Red Sea for doing so. Such contradictions, of course, are irrelevant, the purpose of the story being simply to provide a rationale for hating Jews and for yet another round of Black Power salutes.
A clue to the day’s real message could be found in the Million Youth March’s Seven Point Plan of Action, which was read aloud. The first six points were: End police brutality; Arm "the people’s militia" ("Black man, it’s time to get suited and booted," said one speaker); Build black-only political and financial institutions; Create "black liberation" schools; Demand reparations for slavery; and—Mumia, this one’s for you—demand the immediate release of all "political prisoners." All of these were a precursor to the seventh point:
Self Determination for the Black Nation! 40 million Africans inside the United States are an Oppressed & Colonized Nation and our struggle is for National Liberation!
Earlier in the week, march organizers hosted a town meeting (held, oddly, in an Episcopal church), and I made the mistake of asking Muhammad what he meant by point number seven—the creation of a separate country.
The crowd went bonkers. Above the din, Muhammad, nattily dressed in a burgundy three-button suit, instructed me to repeat the question. I did. Seething, he then demanded that I read Point Seven aloud, which I also did, so that he could answer "respectfully." He then said I’d have to wait until the march to find out what national liberation meant.
But he wasn’t through with me. When the next questioner, a local TV reporter, began to speak, Muhammad interrupted him and turned back to me. "Sir, just a word, here. Do you know what liberation means?" His voice dripped with a sarcastic sweetness. "What does liberation mean to you, Cris?"
Freedom, I stammered, as the jeering grew louder. This was not going well.
Muhammad’s voice was no longer sweet: "And you would stand and ask me why we want to be free?" he bellowed.
Speaking loudly, hoping no one else could hear my knocking knees, I explained that I only wondered what would it mean for blacks to achieve "national liberation"—what, concretely, would change?
Now I’d done it. "What changed, Cris,"—Muhammad spat my name like a curse—"when the thirteen original colonies left the British empire to establish liberation and freedom for themselves? What changed, Cris, when the government changed from King George to George Washington? What changed, Cris, when John Adams and when Benjamin Franklin, and when Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere and Patrick Henry stood against the British Empire, which was so powerful and so vast, until they had to fight for their national liberation?"
Raising his voice so it could be heard over the noise, Muhammad continued, "I contend for you here tonight, Cris, that you should not come here and disrespect us and give the impression that you’re saying to all of my people that national liberation is all right for white people but it’s unthinkable for black people."
The cheering audience drowned out my feeble attempts to protest this mischaracterization. But in his own weird way, Muhammad agreed with my question—no matter how you slice it, the Founding Fathers established a separate nation. Muhammad hopes that African Americans grow angry enough to do the same.
He’s stealing a page from Marcus Garvey’s tattered playbook—and a scene from David Duke’s fevered dreams. That’s key to understanding who Khallid Muhammad is, and why the violence that ended the 1998 march must have pleased him far more than this year’s peaceful denouement. Racial conflict validates his agenda, giving it a sacramental quality. "You can’t stop me from calling the white man the devil," he told the crowd on Saturday. "That’s my religion."
Keith, a 22-year-old I met at the march, got the message loud and clear. When I asked him what the afternoon had taught him about the future of race relations, he said "There will be no relationship. It can’t happen."
Not everyone agrees—most of Harlem stayed home—not even everyone in attendance. Jimmy McMillan, 57, sounded a very different note. "I’m an American," he told me, "don’t label me by calling me a ‘man of color.’ We’ve got some problems [with racism], but there are positive ways to solve them. Someone needs to say that kind of thing. This is where they need to start, right here."
I was thinking about that as I walked down 125th Street after the march. I came across a little boy, along with his family, dressed entirely in military fatigues. His parents had outfitted him for war, but he had the sweet face of any five-year-old—wide-eyed and round-cheeked, peaceful, full of possibility. Yes, Mr. McMillan, right here.