It’s been six weeks since the Million Youth March, and the media glare surrounding Khallid Muhammad has dimmed. But according to Muhammad, his organizing and leading of the city’s black activist youth continues out of the spotlight. Indeed, young organizers of Muhammad’s Black Power Committee met with 100 supporters inside a small Harlem church soon after last month’s march. They divided up into five kazi, or work committees, and began discussing the BPC’s seven-point revolutionary plan. Then one of the twenty-odd young people stood and asked incredulously, “So you’re saying that now I can go back to my community, and start organizing a people’s militia? Just like that?”
That question reflects some of the broader tensions, and accommodations, between a politically maturing youth movement and its would-be leader. At a time when grassroots activism among young people of color is recovering after a mid-’90s surge and decline, Muhammad’s influence is waning, say many. The low youth turnout at the march— a handful of the estimated 1500 present— is only one clue to why, among the city’s most militant youth activists, including black nationalists, there exists a deep ambivalence about Muhammad.
Muhammad consistently presents himself as a modern-day messiah for militant black youth. Outside the Harlem church where his youth lieutenants were holding forth among the pews, he spoke of setting a “revolutionary example” for young black activists: “When Minister Malcolm X was here 30 years ago, the revolutionary youth, the militant youth, came up around him. They are the ones who have come to me and flocked to my side.” He simultaneously downplayed his role in the youth movement, sort of. “I gave birth to this, by God’s grace and the ancestors’ guidance, and I still guide it to a great degree, but you don’t see me in there in the way. I been out here, chillin’.”
But Muhammad’s “self-appointed” example is tangential to today’s youth activism, asserts Sam Anderson of the Black Radical Congress, a national coalition of black progressives. “Khallid Muhammad is on the whole irrelevant when we look at what young people are doing and how many relate to his politics.” Young activists see Muhammad’s version of black self-love as “necessary but not sufficient,” Anderson says. “They see racism and white supremacy as a more complex thing than just throwing out names, and that there are sexuality and gender issues, for example, that go beyond ‘brother, love your black sister’— which ignores the homosexual reality and also says that the only way for a love relationship to happen is for the brother to initiate it.”
But less provocative events than his that regularly draw more youth get little media attention. Just two weeks before the Million Youth March, over 1500 children, young people, and adults marched through Harlem to “recommit families to the safety and well-being of their children,” says 24-year-old Treston Lambert, a supervisor at Peacemakers, the youth support service housed at Harlem’s Rheedlen Center. Lambert was turned off by Muhammad’s “negative” statements. “In our march, we realize that everybody’s part of the community— police officers, churches, schools, hospitals— and we need everybody to come together.”
Many youth activists outside the mainstream also reject Muhammad on principle. Rosamond King, 24, is an organizer with Caribbean Pride, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Caribbean immigrants. “I don’t think of the Million Youth movement as radical youth politics at all,” she says. “Traditionally, black politics has been conservatively radical— very exclusionary of women, of lesbian and gay people, and of youth.” Similarly, Kofi Taha, 28, whose newly minted Active Element Foundation provides fellowships for youth activism, can’t believe that Khallid Muhammad, “at his age, is imposing upon young people a demand for Black Power into the next millennium. We have to look at whether Black Power has the same currency in 1999 as it did in 1968.”
David Daniels, a spokesperson for the Black Power Committee, insists that these criticisms only reflect the familiar debate between black reformism and radicalism. “There have historically been two outlooks on the resolution to the problems facing black people, and I submit that the camp that cries ‘Black Power!’ is saying there must be fundamental resolution.” As evidence of BPC’s good works, he presents the Bedford-Stuyvesant street they call home. “Jefferson Avenue was Gunsmoke Alley” says Daniels, “run by gangs, thugs, and two-cent dealers. We turned it around.” They established Sistas’ Place, a coffeehouse which regularly features meetings and cultural events.
Muhammad does have his adherents. Activist and underground rapper Shaka Shakur of Harlem’s Black Panther Collective has no problem with Muhammad, warning that “you’ve got to recognize the enemy.” Sandra Barros of SLAM!, the Hunter College based Student Liberation Action Movement, says she is “less afraid of Khallid’s bark than Giuliani’s bite.”
Yet many other militant black youth activists are wary of Muhammad. Monifa Bandele, 28, is the national coordinator of the Malcolm X Grassroots Organization, a group that espouses New Afrikanist revolutionary black nationalism. She recalls how in 1990, Muhammad’s presence stoked agitation at Atlanta’s Morris Brown College, where the rap group Public Enemy had been banned, but when she and 19 other students from area colleges were arrested, he was “nowhere to be found”— although “he did work all night to get us out of jail.”
“Khallid taps into that anger, which is necessary,” says Bandele, but “Che Guevara said that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”— the only thing, she says, “that will sustain you in the long haul.” With about 20 New York members, MXG hosts trips to Cuba in support of political exiles such as Assata Shakur, campaigns for political prisoners including Dr. Mutulu Shakur and Russell Shoats, and every other Sunday joins with members of FIST (Forever In Struggle Together), a predominantly Afro-Caribbean youth organization, to feed about 60 of the homeless on Brooklyn’s Fulton Street.
Working in loosely structured, nonhierarchical formations has allowed groups like these to make the transition from traditional student issues to police brutality and defending Mumia Abu-Jamal. Yet Suheir Hammad, 24, a Palestinian American writer, poet, and activist, observes that when it comes to multiracial alliances, Muhammad “doesn’t see them.” Last year, veteran black activists admonished Muhammad for ignoring the influence of the city’s historical alliances. Indeed, says Anderson, the Panthers not only made common cause with the Puerto Rican Young Lords, but Asian groups like I Wor Kuen (Harmonious Mighty Fist). And this year, says South Asian activist Monami Maulik, 25, “We were looking out for meetings for organizers, but there was nothing.”
Ironically, this indifference comes as youth activism is experiencing a resurgence. Ninety-five young activists currently face charges in Philadelphia stemming from their seizure of the Liberty Bell on Independence Day weekend to demand a new trial for Abu-Jamal, who faces a December 2 execution date. The Coalition Against Police Brutality has brought black, Latino, and Asian leftist and nationalist groups together. Maulik has cofounded Desis Rising Up and Moving, to DRUM up solidarity between Asian immigrants and other communities of color.
Scholar and activist Manning Marable writes that the problem for African American politics is that “liberal integrationists and conservative black nationalists aren’t saying much that’s new.” Ultimately, whether Muhammad becomes totally irrelevant to his imagined constituency depends on other voices filling the void. As Anderson puts it, “If the black liberation movement were stronger, there would be no Khallid Muhammad.” And as to whether a revived call to Black Power is the direction for youth, Taha knows that “the answers have to come from young people,” but even he “can’t answer that question, so I know that Khallid Muhammad can’t.”