1960s Black militant, now Muslim leader sentenced to life in prison in cop-shooting charge
Atlanta -- A well-respected Muslim cleric was convicted here on March 9 of killing one Fulton County sheriff's deputy and injuring another.
Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as black radical H. Rap Brown, was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for the shooting death of Ricky Kinchen and the wounding of Aldranon English in a March 16, 2000 incident in Atlanta's West End neighborhood.
The case raises questions about police and FBI frame-ups, the threat to the power structure posed by militant, race-conscious Islam, and post-9/11 religious intolerance.
After a three-week trial filled with inconsistent witness testimony and suggestions by the defense of planted evidence, a majority-black jury found Al-Amin, 58, guilty on all counts. The prosecution had asked the jury to give him the death penalty.
The crime contrasts with the reputation of Al-Amin, who has spent the last 25 years as a spiritual and community leader in the maliciously neglected West End area of Atlanta, and is credited with the beginnings of its revitalization. In an advertisement placed in an Atlanta newspaper on March 11, over 250 Civil Rights Movement co-workers stated: "The facts as alleged are completely out of character for the man we knew in the civil rights movement and now know as a religious leader in the Muslim community. ... We know Imam Al-Amin as a principled and compassionate man, committed to justice for all oppressed people and devoted to the moral welfare of his community."
Former Black Panther leader and Atlanta activist Elaine Brown states, "Al-Amin is acknowledged by everyone to have virtually eliminated drug use and trafficking in his West End community. In this, he has stayed the course of freedom even as other blacks have abandoned it for each little individual step up on the illusory ladder of American success."1
Al-Amin himself proclaimed his innocence long before the trial started, although he did not take the stand. "Let me declare before the families of these men, before the state, and any who would dare to know the truth, that I neither shot nor killed anyone. I am innocent of the 13 charges that have been brought against me... I am one with the grief of this mother and father at the loss of their son. I am joined at the heart with this widow and her children at the loss of a husband and a father. I drink from the same bitter cup of sorrow as the siblings at the loss of a beloved brother..."
The National Support Committee for Imam Jamil characterized the context of the trial as follows: "Imam Jamil's life is on trial. The State of Georgia is pouring millions of dollars into its effort to execute him for the alleged murder of a Fulton County Sheriff's Deputy. ... In reality, however, all Muslims in America are on trial... are we going to resist the continuing campaign to paint Islam as a violent religion and Muslims as terrorists -- all for the purpose of silencing the Muslim voice in America? As Abdul Malik Mujahid (Sound Vision) observed, "If any of us think we are immune from the injustice now being faced by Imam Jamil, we are being blissfully ignorant. Tomorrow, you could be the next victim. Your crime: Being Muslim. Or black. Or brown."
The press portrayed Al-Amin / H. Rap Brown as a cop killer. They freely interpreted his famous remark in the 1960s that "violence is as American as cherry pie," to be an argument for violence, rather than a description of the American system of keeping black people and others in line. Associated Press writer Mitch Stacy stated after the verdict that, "In 1967, [Al-Amin] characterized violence as a vital tool for blacks, 'as American as cherry pie.'"2
But this was not a case in which the prosecution was able to rely primarily on anti-radical hype (of the type which marked the trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal). Nor could they rely on the racist biases of the jury, which was made up of nine African Americans, one Hispanic and two Euro Americans. Nor is it a case in which the black community lined up on one side and whites on the other. Both deputies are black, as is the sheriff and the district Attorney.
Indeed, the case the prosecution presented had plenty of physical evidence linking Al-Amin to the scene of the shooting, if not to the shooting itself. It was on the basis of this physical evidence, as well as the surviving deputy's identification of Al-Amin as his assailant, that the jury returned the verdict of guilty on all counts. (This also meant that they had to ignore civilian witness testimony that was uniformly at odds with the prosecution's version of events.)
The trial raises several questions. Was evidence planted and falsified as the defense suggested? And if so, what does this mean about the police's abuse of power, evident in the last decade but now encouraged by Attorney General John Ash croft's "anti-terrorism" initiatives.
History of harassment
Part of the truth lies in the context the jury never heard, a long story of police efforts to pin a crime on the imam over the years. Jamil Al-Amin's brother Ed Brown described this history as "harassment, sometimes routine and petty, sometimes pretty serious. Just one damn thing after another. No matter how absurd. The police simply would not leave my brother alone."
The police and press characterize this argument as being stuck in the '60s. "This is not and has never been about civil rights, race, religion or 30-year old conspiracies," District Attorney Paul Howard told the Atlanta paper after the sentence was returned. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized, "There was no vendetta left over from the '60s. It was just plain murder."
Police admit that Al-Amin has been the subject of almost continuous investigation for the last decade. In the press, the police portray him as someone who is probably guilty -- of shootings, of gunrunning, of domestic terrorism -- but they just can't seem to pin charges on him. This is in spite of a six-year investigation which included the FBI paying informants inside Al-Amin's Community Mosque, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 1, 2000.
According to documents cited by the Journal-Constitution, the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, along with local police agencies, were involved in investigations of Al-Amin and other members of his mosque from 1992 through 1997. "The FBI investigated Al-Amin as a possible 'domestic terrorist.' Atlanta cops focused on homicides."3
According to police records, the newspaper reported, police "suspected Al-Amin and his followers were responsible for 14 homicides" committed in the West End area between 1990 and 1996.
In the course of their investigations, the Atlanta police department "compiled a list of 134 people associated with Al-Amin, most of them members of the mosque." The list included birthdates, social security numbers, and criminal records.
Investigations, paid FBI informants, and police violence are not new for Al-Amin. He became involved in the Civil Rights Movement at a time when the FBI was conducting a program to eliminate dissenters, called cointelpro. Started in the 1950s to harass communists and integrationists, by the 1960s it had bloomed into a program the scope of which is hard to exaggerate. For example, between 1960 and 1966, the FBI burglarized the offices of one socialist group 94 times, an average of once every three weeks. They used stolen documents to disrupt the group.4
More familiar are cointelpro actions against the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement, the anti-war movement, socialist and communist groups, and, of course the Black Panther Party, which probably received the bloodiest repression of all.
H. Rap Brown had registered voters in the South as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was named chair of the group in 1967 when it was calling for Black Power and opposing the war in Vietnam. He was briefly Minister of Justice for the Black Panther Party that year. In Cambridge, Maryland, in July 1967 he gave a fiery speech denouncing white violence and calling on blacks to arm and defend themselves. After the speech he was shot by two police officers, who hid in the bushes as he passed. In his book Die Nigger Die! he recalls,
We found out later they [the shooters] were black policemen. They were shooting at us a long time. I was hit, I dove to the ground, rolled into a ditch and made my way into someone's yard. After the shooting there was a lot of commotion. People went into the street and just started tearing everything up. A few hours later they burned the school again. Two weeks earlier people had burned the black elementary school because it has been a rat infested, roach infested place. People were paying taxes and their children were forced to go to school in those conditions. It is these conditions which cause riots. Not anybody's rhetoric.5
Brown persisted in traveling, speaking, and organizing. In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed a law against "interstate conspiracy," which for a time was called the Rap Brown Act. This is the law under which the Chicago 8 were charged with planning the Democratic Convention protests of 1968. Brown himself was in and out of court and jail from 1967 through April 1970, on charges simply aimed at restricting his freedom of speech, a tactic the FBI used against militants of all colors, to stem their effectiveness by continually tying them up in legal troubles.
The FBI also tried to create deadly feuds among the leadership of the movement. An April 1, 1968 FBI memo reveals that the FBI was to draft a letter to H. Rap Brown, supposedly from an anonymous "Soul Brother," which said, "Dig this man, I got it from the inside. Stokely [Carmichael] and [James] Forman sent you to the west coast so that the man could get you. They are a little too cool for you Rap baby. With you out of the way they can have the whole pie."6 And then there were the outright police assassinations, such as those committed against Chicago Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December 1969.7
Finally, in 1970, H. Rap Brown went underground and stayed hidden, on the FBIs Most Wanted list, for a year and a half. In 1971 he was wounded and captured in a shootout at a New York bar. The police said it was armed robbery. Street reports said that it was a confrontation between drug dealers and their police friends and H. Rap Brown and his compatriots, according to veteran civil rights activist and professor Ekwueme Michael Thelwell in a recent radio interview.8
Convicted in the shootout, Brown served five years, during which he converted to Islam, and took the name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. He made the hajj to Mecca after his release and settled, in the late '70s, in Atlanta's West End, where he founded the Community Mosque, and led, by all non-police accounts, a peaceful, devout life building his mosque, coaching kids in basketball, running a small grocery store, and bettering his neighborhood.
Al Amin also became a significant advocate for unity among Muslims, leading a council of 35 mosques, leading successful efforts to unify this group with other Muslim organizations, and serving on the board of the American Muslim Council, which advocates for Muslim civil rights.
But it's unclear whether it is this current work or his earlier Black Power reputation that have led to the non-stop police investigations. For example, Al-Amin was arrested after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Al-Amin's brother, Ed Brown, explained the pattern for a recent Nation article, "Something happens. Say the first attempt to bomb the World Trade Center, right? They feed their infallible profile into their computer. Muslim ... radical ... violent ... anti-American, whatever, who knows. Anyway, boom, out spits the names, H. Rap Brown prominent among them. Next thing the Feds come storming into the community and haul Jamil in. This actually happened. Of course it's stupid. And every time they have to let him go. But how do you stop it? A goddam nightmare, they never quit."9
Police said that members of a Dar-ul mosque had received the same training as suspects in that World Trade Center bombing. Therefore, since Al-Amin is a leader in the Dar-ul Islam movement (House of Islam movement), he was suspect. But they found no evidence and he was released.
In 1994 two men from Atlanta were convicted of gunrunning, along with nine men in New York. Police listed one of the men as a member of "Al-Amin's inner circle," and the FBI said that the gun shipments originated at the Al-Fajr Trading Co., located next door to Al-Amin's grocery store in the West End neighborhood. Al-Amin was never charged with anything in this case, either.
In 1995 Al-Amin was arrested again, this time as a suspect in the shooting of a young man near his store. The imam was driving his son to school when he was arrested, a month after the shooting. According to a factsheet prepared by Al-Amin's supporters, "The police interrogated his seven-year-old son for six hours before notifying someone to pick up the child."10 The charges against Al-Amin were dropped when the shooting victim told the press that he had not seen his assailant but that the police had threatened him if he didn't finger Al-Amin. Community Mosque leader Nadim Ali notes of this investigation that the FBI, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms participated. "It was a local routine assault, so why were they involved?"11
The murder case for which Al-Amin was convicted started with him being pulled over again, in May 1999. Elaine Brown noted in her March 26, 2000 editorial: "Police admit he was stopped ... merely for driving a car displaying dealership tags ... or, as it's now said in the vernacular, 'driving while black.' Later, he was charged with theft by receiving -- on the already-questionable assertion that the car he was driving was stolen -- and the horrible 'crime' of driving without proof of insurance."
When the cops were looking in his wallet, they found a badge given to him by the town of White Hall, Alabama, making him an auxiliary officer there. For that, he was charged with impersonating a police officer. (According to the police, he flashed the badge.)
Then he missed his court date. It's not clear whether he didn't go because he was not told of the court date, or because there was an ice storm that day (it is clear that the judge didn't show up because of the weather). Because of his failure to appear, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
It was this warrant which Deputies Kinchen and English were sent to serve on March 16, 2000, a mission which left one deputy dead and the other seriously injured.
"An eminently avoidable human tragedy took place," writes Thelwell in a recent Nation article. "Why was it necessary to send into a Muslim community, under cover of darkness, heavily armed men wearing flak jackets to bring in a respected and beloved religious leader, a figure of fixed address and regular and predictable habits? And this in service of a warrant for charges they describe as relatively minor? Who authorized this action and in this manner? Was this abysmally poor judgement or deliberate provocation?"
The prosecution's version of events is roughly as follows, as presented by Assistant District Attorney Robert McBurney in the trial's closing arguments:
The two officers drove by the mosque and the store at 10 at night, looking for Al-Amin. He wasn't there. They saw a car pull up as they were leaving. They returned to where someone was parked, the two cars facing each other. The two deputies got out of the car simultaneously and a person English said was Al-Amin got out of his car and stood behind the door. English said I need to see both your hands, as Al-Amin's right hand was behind the door of the vehicle. Al-Amin allegedly said, "OK, here it is" and opened fire on them with a Ruger assault rifle, which sprayed bullets at the two deputies and casings all over the street. The deputies shot back. Both deputies were injured. The prosecution claimed that Al-Amin then got a pistol and shot Kinchen repeatedly while he was lying helpless and wounded on the ground, aiming for his groin from close range. Kinchen later died. Then, they alleged, Al-Amin got back in his car and fled to Alabama, where he was apprehended four days later.
The trial revealed a number of contradictions between this version of events and the physical evidence, witness testimony, and even Deputy English's own previous testimony. Among these:
Both deputies said they shot their assailant, and a trail of blood was found by the police near the shooting and reported in the press. However, when Al-Amin was captured in Alabama four days later, he had no injuries. In the trial, the prosecution said the blood trail had been animal blood.
In the hours following the shooting, there were three calls to the emergency 911 line, which were taped, in which callers reported a person bleeding profusely, and in one case asking for a ride, in the same part of Atlanta as the shooting. Only one of the 911 calls was admitted as evidence because the callers were not identified.
English, the surviving deputy, said he was sure the assailant had gray eyes. Al-Amin has brown eyes. However, the warrant the deputies were sent to execute listed Al-Amin as having gray eyes. In later statements English said the assailant was wearing yellow-tinted glasses that night.
English picked Al-Amin out from a photo lineup after undergoing surgery and being dosed with morphine. The defense argued that in addition to the effects of the painkiller, English could well have seen the TV news from his hospital bed, coverage which displayed Al-Amin's picture and reported him to be a fugitive, prior to English being asked to identify his assailant in the photo lineup.
Civilian witness testimony about the night of the shooting was in each case inconsistent with the story given by the prosecution:
Two witnesses who heard the gunfire reported that slow, less loud shots preceded louder, more rapid gunfire. This is the opposite of what they would have heard given the prosecution's version.
One witness reported seeing a person shooting a man on the ground, but said that the shooter wasn't built like the imam, whom he knew.
Another witness reported seeing a white van leaving the area after the shooting.
One of the witnesses who heard the gunfire also heard two car doors close (or a trunk and a car door close) before he heard a car leave the scene.
By 11 p.m. that night, Al-Amin was the prime suspect, according to the police and press. A manhunt was launched. He was arrested in White Hall, Alabama, four days later. A day after that, police found a bag with two guns, ammunition, a cellphone, clothing, and other items identified with Al-Amin in the woods near where he was captured. Ballistics tests linked the guns to the shooting. However, neither the guns nor the ammunition had any fingerprints. After that, a car identified as Al-Amin's black Mercedes was found in the yard of someone identified as a friend of Al-Amin's in White Hall. Police said it had bullet holes in it and bullets that matched those from the guns of the deputies.
When Al-Amin was arrested, Ron Campbell, an FBI agent who volunteered to join the manhunt in Alabama, admitted to kicking and spitting on Al-Amin, and calling him a cop-killer. He claimed Al-Amin spat back. Other officers, who said they told Campbell to cool it, testified that in fact Al-Amin had not responded at all to the FBI agent's assault.
Community Mosque leader Nadim Ali comes from Philadelphia, and recalled that this same FBI agent shot and killed a 23-year old black Muslim man, Glenn "Jahlil" Thomas, in Philadelphia in 1995. At that time, Campbell claimed the man was pulling a weapon, but the autopsy showed that Thomas had been shot in the back of the head. Campbell was cleared by an internal police investigation and never charged with a crime, but the community believed it was a cover-up.12
In closing trial arguments, defense attorney Jack Martin suggested that the guns that were found near the site of Al-Amin's capture could have been planted, and that FBI agent Campbell had the opportunity to do so.
Inconsistencies also came out in the trial concerning the guns, the car, and the arrest.
Police testified that someone they later identified as Al-Amin shot at them from the woods, and that they did not return fire. Two civilian witnesses said that they saw men in uniform, or four men in dark clothing, shooting into the woods, but that they did not see or hear anyone firing at the officers. "Why does the community see one thing, and every federal officer sees another?" defense lawyer Martin asked in exasperation.
A police chance to support their allegation that Al Amin shot at the officers shortly before his capture was ruined by the police having Al-Amin wash his hands after he was arrested, "so they could take fingerprints."
A shell casing was found at the base of the Mercedes' windshield, of which the police apparently took one photo, and that casing was traced to the Ruger which was linked to the shooting by ballistics evidence. The defense questioned how the shell casing survived the 3-hour interstate drive from Atlanta to White Hall.
The prosecution's scenario for the guns requires us to believe that an obviously calm and intelligent person who had effectively evaded a nationwide manhunt in the early '70s for a year and a half would not have thought to divest himself of two murder weapons until four days later when he is being pursued through the Alabama woods by all types of law enforcement. This seems unlikely.
Legally, the defense was not required to paint an alternative version of the shooting, only to show that the prosecution scenario was reasonably doubtful. Al-Amin himself did not take the stand, but the defense implied that the only way Al-Amin could exonerate himself was to implicate someone else, which was something he was not willing to do.
"Can a doctor know something and not tell? ... Can a priest know something and not tell? ... Can an imam know something and not tell?" asked defense attorney Tony Axam in the closing arguments. "The law does not force him to tell."
The defense also argued that the police had never entertained the possibility that someone other than Al-Amin had committed the crime, and because of this they let important evidence and opportunities for investigation go by the wayside.
Prosecutors asked why Al-Amin would flee to Alabama. "Why did the defendant run? Innocent men don't run," asserted McBurney.
"It is who we are that gives us the prism of how we look at something," Axam countered. "Who you are, where you come from ... How old you are, where you were born, how you grew up." And how much police repression you have received, he might have added.
"Imam Jamil Al-Amin has never stopped fighting for our people's rights," stated a flier distributed by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement at Al-Amin's arraignment in Alabama. "That's why the government's been trying to frame him for 30 years. Don't let them win now."
In an email to supporters, Abdul Malik Mujahid responded to the life sentence handed down by the jury: "This punishment and the death [penalty] is hardly different since he can only come out of jail after his death. Imam Jamil is innocent. The verdict will be reversed in the appeal court, insha Allah."
The author attended the closing arguments of the three-week trial. She is not related to any of the Browns mentioned in this article. Other sources include a radio interview by Amy Goodman with Ed Brown and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell on Democracy Now! on March 19, 2002, and an interview by Heather Gray with with Bilal Mahmoud and Nadim Ali on Radio Free Georgia on March 11, 2002; Atlanta Journal-Constitution coverage of the crime and the trial; literature produced by the National Support Committee for Imam Jamil, including the website www.imamjamil.com, and interviews and discussions with members of Imam Jamil Al-Amin's mosque. Dave Lippman, correspondent for Free Speech Radio News (www.fsrn.org), assisted with this article.
1. Elaine Brown (no relation to the accused) in an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution printed March 26, 2000. [back to article]
2. "1960s black-power radical gets life in prison," by Mitch Stacy, Associated Press, March 14, 2002. [back to article]
3. "Eye on Al-Amin: FBI, police tracked militant, inner circle in '90s homicides," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 1, 2000. [back to article]
4. COINTELPRO: The FBIs Secret War on Political Freedom, by Nelson Blackstock (1975), p. ix. [back to article]
5. Quoted in Ekwueme Michael Thelwell's March 18, 2002 article in The Nation, "H. Rap Brown / Jamil Al-Amin: A Profoundly American Story." Thelwell's article is part of a longer introduction to the reissuing of H. Rap Brown's autobiography, Die Nigger Die! (Dial Press, 1969) which is set to be released in April 2002 by Lawrence Hill Books. [back to article]
6. This FBI file page is reprinted on page 50 of Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall's book Agents of Repression: The FBIs Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (1988, 1990, South End Press.) [back to article]
7. Thelwell notes, "All this has been documented by Congressional investigation, but none of the perpetrators -- the so-called rogue agents -- in the bureau have ever served a day of jail time." [back to article]
8. Thelwell, in an interview on Democracy Now! on March 19, 2002. [back to article]
9. From Thelwell's Nation article. Thelwell and Ed Brown are Civil Rights Movement co-workers. [back to article]
10. Factsheet available at www.ImamJamil.com/articles/cointelpro.asp. The website www.ImamJamil.com also contains a confession to the shooting of Kinchen and English by a man named Otis Jackson, as well as his retraction of the confession, and an analysis of both documents. The Jackson confession states that Jamil Al-Amin was present during the incident, but that Jackson himself was the shooter. [back to article]
11. March 10, 2002 interview with Nadim Ali. [back to article]
12. Philadelphia Daily News, July 13, 1995 "FBI agent cleared by cops; Witnesses sense shooting cover-up"; and Philadelphia Inquirer, July 13, 1995, "Report said to clear FBI agent in shooting," by Thomas J. Gibbons, Jr. [back to article]
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