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Potential Retrial In Sight For Imam Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown)

The struggle and trials of the honorable Imam Jamil Al-Amin

Hamzah Raza

Published

It was the night of March 16th, 2000. That day had been Eid, the holiest day of the year for West End’s Muslim community. Prayers were held by Imam Jamil Al-Amin, the soft-spoken, bookish Imam, who was famously known in the civil rights movement as H. Rap Brown prior to his conversion to Islam. That night, police officers pulled up to the Imam’s convenience store with a warrant for his arrest. The police saw a man and asked him to put his hands up: 5’8”, gray eyes, and 170 pounds, as eyewitnesses would later tell.

Asked to put his hands up, that man would instead pull out a handgun. A shootout between the man and two police officers would ensue. The man would then go to his trunk and pull out a lightweight, semi-automatic carbine Ruger Mini-14 with an extended clip housing 40 .223 caliber rounds of ammunition. Using military grade weapons, this man would murder one police officer and injure another. This man, Otis Jackson, would eventually confess to committing the crime.

Eventually, Imam Jamil Al-Amin would be charged for this crime. Neither Jackson’s confession of the crime nor his matching the description of the shooter would be included in Al-Amin’s trial. For the jury, this evidence was nonexistent.

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Eyewitness testimony claims that the man who killed the police officer was not only 5’8” and 170 pounds with gray eyes but also that he suffered gunshot wounds. While Jackson fits this description, Imam Jamil Al-Amin is 6’5”, lanky, has brown eyes, and did not suffer a single wound. A 911 call also claimed that the shooter was bleeding out and walking around West End looking for a ride.

Otis Jackson was on parole at the time of the shooting for a previous crime he had permitted. He told his parole officer he had a shift working at a local diner at the time. When the officers told him to put his hands up, he felt the handgun in his pocket. Violating his parole and possessing an illegal weapon, Jackson knew that he would be sent back to jail. Aware of this, he decided to shoot at the police officers instead of putting his hands up.

That night, Jackson went home and received a call from Sentinel Company, which provided the monitoring for his ankle bracelet. The Sentinel representative asked where Jackson was, to which he replied that he was at work. The representative then told Jackson that this would be marked down as a violation, to which Jackson agreed and quickly ended the conversation.

He then had female friends who were nurses come and treat him for his wounds. He told them that he was robbed. Jackson called a friend named Mustapha Tanner, and ask him to get rid of Jackson’s vast arsenal of weapons: three Ruger Mini‐14 rifles, an M16 assault rifle, a .45 handgun, three 9mm handguns and a couple of shotguns. He also informed his parole officer that he was involved in a “situation” but left out any details. Police later searched Jackson’s house and found rounds of Mini‐14, .223, 9mm, and M16 ammunition. His bloody clothes and boots from the shootout were left untouched in a closet.

His parole was revoked and he was sent to jail in Nevada. There he would confess to the crime and even be visited by an FBI agent by the name of Agent Devon Mahony. Jackson’s confession was documented by Mahoney on June 29th, 2000. But nothing was done after that. Jackson’s confession was also not included in Jamil Al-Amin’s trial in March of 2002. In the midst of government surveillance on civil rights leaders and post 9/11 Islamophobia, Imam Jamil Al-Amin would be sentenced to life without parole for the crime of murdering a police officer.

Al-Amin has an appeal on May 3rd in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that could potentially allow for a retrial. Through this retrial, it is possible that evidence that was previously left out of the court, such as Otis Jackson’s testimony, could allow for Al-Amin to establish his innocence.

Arrest and Trial

Following this shooting, Imam Jamil Al-Amin would be put on the FBI’s most wanted list, and 100 FBI agents would be deployed on a manhunt to find him. Al-Amin would be arrested in White Hall, Alabama four days later. As he was arrested, FBI agent, Ronald Campbell kicked him and spit on him. It is important to note here that Imam Jamil Al-Amin was a 55-year-old religious leader. One would wonder what sort of hatred led an FBI agent to engage in such behavior towards a middle-aged clergyman.

Eventually, an officer would also find guns in the woods adjacent to where Al-Amin was found. Despite decades of FBI surveillance, there was absolutely no evidence linking Al-Amin to the guns. There was not a single fingerprint or Al-Amin’s DNA on the guns or ammunition found. The guns were also not hidden or concealed in any way. So under the state’s argument, Al-Amin meticulously cleared the weapons of his DNA and fingerprints but did not do anything to hide the weapons.

Many have suggested that it was actually Agent Campbell, the FBI agent who physically assaulted and spit on Imam Jamil Al-Amin, who planted the guns. In 1995, Campbell had been accused of shooting Glenn Thomas, an African American man, in the back of the head in Philadelphia. In that case, too, a fingerprint-less gun was found next to the man’s dead body.

In addition, Agent Campbell first claimed that he was with other police officers when he crossed the fence into the woods and found the guns. But he later, in cross-examination, claimed that he was alone. Such contradictory information and the fact that the weapons could never be proved to belong to Al-Amin makes one wonder how this could function as any sort of evidence.

It is also important to note that Al-Amin went to trial in March of 2002, less than six months after 9/11. At a time when hatred against Muslims in the United States was at an all-time high, Al-Amin showed up to court wearing a kufi. He even said to the judge and jury: “I invite you to Islam. Be Muslim and receive two rewards [i.e. That of this life and the next].”

But even in this time when hatred of Muslims was at an all-time high, the idea of this soft-spoken Imam committing a crime was still strange to so many. The New York Times wrote that “Some could not believe that the man who spent the last 25 years as a nonviolent Muslim cleric in the West End of Atlanta would explode in a seemingly unprovoked blaze of violence.”

Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s Muslim faith was also attacked by the prosecution. They told the jury “Don’t stand up for him,” in reference to Al-Amin’s religiously-based decision to not stand for the court, for which the court granted him permission to do.  

The court ruled Al-Amin guilty and he was sentenced to life without parole. Following this, the prosecuting attorney for the state said, “After 24 years, we finally got him.” In order to understand the context of this remark, one must understand the Cointelpro program that Al-Amin was targeted by before his conversion to Islam when he was H. Rap Brown.

  1. Rap Brown and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

In his late teens, H. Rap Brown joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committing (SNCC). SNCC (Pronounced “Snick”) used the tactics of nonviolent direct action in order to bring about civil rights for Black Americans. Prominent in the American South, SNCC members studied Gandhian tactics of nonviolence from James Lawson, who was then a graduate student in theology at Vanderbilt University. Future Congressman and then-SNCC Chairman, John Lewis would mentor H. Rap Brown.

In 1965, the young H. Rap Brown rose up in the organization and eventually became chairman of the Nonviolent Action Group, the Washington DC affiliate of SNCC. As head of this organization, Brown entered into an infamous White House meeting with President Lyndon B Johnson. President Johnson told Brown that SNCC’s all-night demonstration had prevented his two daughters from sleeping that night. Brown replied that he was sad for the one night his daughters were disturbed, but that “Black people in the South had been unable to sleep in peace and security for a hundred years.” He asked what the President planned to do about that, and anticipated that this issue was what this meeting was about.

Following John Lewis’ tenure as chair of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael then became chair in 1966. Inspired by the works of Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, Carmichael understood nonviolence not as a principle, but as a tactic. He introduced the phrase “Black Power’ to the organization, and began to speak out on international issues, introducing SNCC’s opposition to the American war in Vietnam.

FBI Surveillance on H. Rap Brown

In 1967, H. Rap Brown, at the age of 23, was elected Carmichael’s successor as chairman of SNCC. Brown would take the nonviolent out of the name of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, renaming it the Student National Coordinating Committee. He lamented that “Violence is as American as cherry pie…We will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression, if necessary. We will be free by any means necessary.” It was also under his leadership that SNCC entered into a working alliance with the Black Panther Party, giving Brown the honorary title of Minister of Justice of the Black Panther Party alongside being Chairman of SNCC.

That year, the FBI contacted Brown’s wife, Karima Al-Amin, in an attempt to get her to spy on her husband for the FBI and provide reports on him to them. At this point, SNCC was being targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which aimed at surveilling, discrediting, and disrupting political organizations that fought for the rights of Black Americans. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program called for H. Rap Brown and other prominent black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr and Stokely Carmichael to be “neutralized.”

It was through this program that J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, discovered that Martin Luther King Jr was having extramarital affairs. Attempting to use the tactic of public humiliation, Hoover wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr attempting to coerce him into suicide, lest he wants the world to know of his infidelity.

In December of 1969, two Black Panthers in Chicago fell victim to this neutralization after a 14-man police raiding force collaborated with the FBI. The police murdered 21-year-old, Fred Hampton and 22-year-old, Mark Clark, two members of the Black Panther Party in a pre-dawn raid in their Chicago homes.

In a meeting with President Lyndon B Johnson, FBI Director Hoover said, in reference to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, “We wouldn’t have any problem if we could get those two guys fighting; if we could get them to kill one another off.”

This FBI campaign of neutralization caught up to H. Rap Brown. After giving a speech in Cambridge, Maryland in July of 1970, he was grazed with bullets from police while walking a young woman home. That night, fires occurred in the city. Brown would be accused of arson and inciting riots in the city. Later evidence would show that Brown had no relation to such fires, and they actually came from the inaction of the Cambridge Fire Department, which had a hostile relationship with its Black community. But the head of the Cambridge Police Department pinned the charge on Brown, accusing him of “a well-planned Communist attempt to overthrow the government.”

Congress would then pass the “H. Rap Brown” law in his name that would make it illegal to cross state lines in order to incite a riot. Then Governor of Maryland and soon-to-be Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew stated that “I hope they pick him up soon, put him away, and throw away the key.”  

Like many leaders in the movement such as Angela Davis, Brown would be placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and run away from the authorities spending time in Africa, before eventually being brought back to Maryland in 1970 for trial. It was there that he would be sentenced to 5 years at Attica Prison in New York City.

In his time in prison, H. Rap Brown accepted Islam and took the name, “Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin.”

Conversion to Islam and Reinvention as Jamil Al-Amin

Following his release from prison in 1976, Al-Amin traveled to India, Pakistan, and West Africa to study Islam. He then embarked travel to Makkah for the Hajj pilgrimage before moving to Atlanta to establish a Muslim community in the impoverished and crime-ridden West End neighborhood.

In West End, the former radical firebrand reemerged as a pious, soft-spoken, and bookish Muslim scholar concerned about the spiritual and social resurrection of the neighborhood. He preached Islam to drug dealers and prostitutes in the neighborhood and sought an intense anti-drug campaign.

In the West End Mosque, they called the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, out loud five times a day, so that the whole neighborhood could hear it. Al-Amin was of the belief that change of society could only come after people had changed themselves through the act of prayer.

Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid, the current Muslim Chaplain at Harvard University who grew up in Imam Jamil’s West End community, mentioned in his Ph.D. dissertation:

“He would retain his devotion to changing the prevailing system and worked to teach his community to cultivate an alternative way of living that is not indicative of token social justice programs. He taught the importance of the five pillars of Islam and revolutionary ‘technologies of the self’ that, when actualized at the communal level, transform the society into a better one. He still remained non-violent but still dedicated himself to teaching social revolution through a revolutionary approach to Islamic practice.

“The mission of a believer in Islam is totally different from coexisting or being a part of the system. The prevailing morals are wrong. Western philosophy…has reduced man to food, clothing, shelter, and the sex drive, which means he doesn’t have a spirit. In Islam, we’re not talking about getting the poor to vote. We’re not talking about empowering poor people with money. We’re talking about overturning that whole thing.”

He preached and wrote about the understanding of the centrality of prayer, charity, diet, pilgrimage, family, and struggle as the core elements of person and by extension social change. His book entitled, Revolution By The Book, published in 1994, is the first American Muslim liberation theology manifesto. Whereas much Christian liberation theology centralizes its attention on social concern for the poor and liberation of the oppressed, Imam Jamil’s Revolution By The Book begins with the individual turning inward to correct decadent ways and through reform of the self, one may then begin to look outward at institutions that are also in need of reform. He explains that,

“When you understand your obligations to God then you can understand your obligations to society. Revolution comes when human beings set out to correct decadent institutions. We must understand how this society has fallen away from righteousness and begin to develop, Islamically, the alternative institutions to those that are in a state of decline around us. But, we must first enjoin right and forbid wrong to ourselves. That is the first step in turning this thing around: turn yourself around!”

Many who had known him pre-conversion to Islam spoke of how much Al Amin had changed from the H. Rap Brown that once was.

A former SNCC colleague, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, commented on Al Amin’s speech at the funeral of former SNCC Chairman, Stokely Carmichael. The talk included numerous other pillars of the civil rights movement such as John Lewis and Diane Nash. Thelwell stated:

The only real departure and my only surprise came when Imam Al-Amin spoke. What he delivered in tribute to his old friend was a thoughtful, Islam-inflected reflection on the nature of oppression and the moral duty, the religious imperative, of the faithful to resist. Liberally adorned with Koranic quotations, it was, as I recall, an erudite, elegantly constructed, finely reasoned explication of the categories and nature of oppression, and the moral dimensions and complexities of struggle as expressed in the prophetic poetry of the Arabian desert some 1,400 years earlier. In any terms–culturally speaking–it was scholarly. I found it startling in a curious way: It did not quite fit either stylistically or culturally with what had gone before, yet was completely appropriate.

As he spoke, I remember thinking: Ah, so this is what a serious Islamic sermon sounds like, huh? Rap really takes this calling seriously. The brother is indeed an Islamic scholar, an imam. (I took in the hang-jawed look of astonishment and dawning professional respect that crossed Minister [Louis] Farrakhan’s face as he listened to be confirmation of my impression..”

In an article titled “Growing Up West End,” Masood Abdul Haqq wrote about being a member of Imam Jamil Al Amin’s West End community.

When my family and I first moved to Atlanta in the fall of 1992, the West End Muslim scene unfolded like some sort of Black Muslim Utopia. A soulful adhan was the soundtrack to Black children of all ages in kufis and khimars playing with each other on either side of the street. The intersecting streets near the masjid gave way to a large covered basketball court, on which the game in progress had come to a halt due to the number of players who chose to answer the melodic call to prayer. Overlooking this scene from the bench in front of his convenience store, like a shepherd admiring his flock, was a denim overall and crocheted kufi-clad Imam Jamil.

Before I heard him utter a single word, it was obvious to me that I was in the presence of a transcendent leader.

The early 1990’s was an exciting time to be in Atlanta. However, one of the unfortunate undercurrents of our booming urban economy was the inevitable rise of the drug trade. Reagan had been out of office for a full term, but his crack epidemic and trickle down economics were still very prevalent in inner city neighborhoods across the country. The West End was no exception. At the intersection of Holderness Street and Lucille Avenue, just 100 yards from my childhood home and four city blocks from the West End Masjid, stood a notorious motorcycle club and corner store. Both businesses were knee deep in the interests of prominent local drug dealers and it wasn’t long before that corner earned the reputation as a “million dollar block.”

One might think living so close to such a dangerous corner would make for a tale of hard knocks, peer pressure, and intimidation. For the Muslim kids, that was the furthest thing from our reality. Instead, we ran around that neighborhood with impunity. When the dope boys saw us coming, they would step out of our way, offer to buy us snacks from the store, or just whisper to each other about us being “Big Slim’s folks.” Sometimes they called him Rap. Or the Imam. The bottom line was, they may have pulled the usual dope boy tricks of recruiting and terrorizing kids within the neighborhood, but us Muslim kids were off limits.

There was an honor associated with being a member of Imam Jamil’s community, a VIP hood pass that made us immune to the usual ills of this sort of environment. This street credibility from outside the Muslim community stemmed from Imam Jamil’s days as H. Rap Brown, a revolutionary fighting for Black rights. It evolved when he demonstrated the ability to bridge gaps between young and old, Muslim and non-Muslim. People respected that his entire life revolved around salat at the Masjid. This made him accessible and dependable. Five times a day, the adhan was called and Imam Jamil would either lead or appoint someone to lead the prayer. Afterwards, no one would leave unless he raised his hand for permission and got the nod from the Imam. After finishing his dhikr and du‘a, the Imam would ask, “Is there anything anyone would like to bring out?” Brothers would bring forth questions, concerns, and news from around the neighborhood, and the Imam would address it or tell the person to meet him after salat. The drug issue was at the forefront. Slowly but surely, prayer by prayer, the million dollar block was abandoned. Miraculously, after efforts to clean up the neighborhood around the million dollar block, now stands the West End Islamic Center, a beacon of hope for sustaining the community.

FBI Perception of Al Amin Post-Conversion to Islam

Despite such transformation of self that led to the transformation of the West End community, Al-Amin still remained the object of government spying that went back to the Cointelpro days. The FBI compiled a 44,000-word file on Al-Amin and his Muslim community, attempting to pin a crime upon him. Because his entire life was dedicated to praying five times a day at the mosque, developing his community, and stopping drugs and crime, the FBI could not find a single crime that Al Amin had committed.

After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Al Amin was interrogated by the FBI as to whether he played a role.

Al Amin’s brother, Ed Brown stated that:

Y’know…something happens. Say the first attempt to bomb the 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 goddamn nightmare, they never quit.”

Two years following that, Al-Amin would be arrested by a joint force of the FBI, local police, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives after a 22-year-old, William Miles, was shot in the leg. One must wonder why the FBI was concerned about a non-fatal shooting that hit a young man’s right leg. But even in this case, Imam Jamil Al-Amin was found not guilty and cleared of any wrongdoing.

It was found that between 1992 and 1997, authorities investigated Al-Amin “in connection with everything from domestic terrorism to gunrunning to 14 homicides in Atlanta’s West End.”

While driving in Marietta, Georgia in May of 1999, Al-Amin would be pulled over in his vehicle for driving with a drive-out tag, which allows a vehicle to drive without a license plate for 30 days. Eventually, Al-Amin would be searched, and an honorary police badge, given to him by the mayor of White Hall, Alabama, would be found in his wallet. Al-Amin was charged with impersonating a police officer, driving a stolen car, and driving with expired insurance. In 2002, a Georgia judge would rule that this warrantless search violated Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s fourth amendment rights. The mayor of White Hall also wrote to how he had gifted Al-Amin this badge. Due to a snowstorm, Al-Amin’s court date for this case was canceled— and never rescheduled.

It was this traffic stop that would lead to the arrest warrant. It was from that warrant that police officers would eventually be shot and killed by Otis Jackson, who would confess to the crime and match the description of the shooter. Despite this, it would be Imam Jamil Al-Amin who would go to jail.

Al-Amin’s Time in Prison

In addition to being there for a crime that he claims he did not commit, Al-Amin has faced many violations of his rights in jail. He has been unable to attend Friday prayers and has spent the bulk of his time in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Between June and August of 2003, the federal government was also caught reading his mail, in violation of Al-Amin’s fourth amendment rights.

Despite his solitary confinement, word got around that Imam Jamil was imprisoned. Prisoners in Georgia also asked for Al-Amin to be their unified Imam “because of his credibility as a leader prior to incarceration,” in an act that was not initiated by him. This led to an FBI investigation and report titled “The Attempt to Radicalize the Georgia Department of Corrections’ Inmate Population” which established Al-Amin as the leader of this radical Muslim kingpin operating in prisons. The report failed to link Al-Amin to any extremist Muslim organization and also failed to establish how Al-Amin could lead such an extremist cell while being in solitary confinement.

Without notifying his family or legal counsel, Al-Amin was forcibly transferred by federal authorities in July of 2007. He was chained inside a vehicle for 6 hours in the 92-degree heat, while being deprived of his blood pressure medicine. Because he was unable to stand, Al-Amin was hospitalized for a night, before being transferred to the ADX prison facility in Florence, Colorado. He was then transferred to the United States Penitentiary in Arizona, a high-security federal prison for male inmates. In August of 2007, the Georgia Department of Corrections said Al-Amin was sent to federal prison because “Al-Amin’s high profile presents unique issues beyond the state prison system’s normal inmate.” It was never explained what these “unique issues” are.

Appeal on May 3rd and Potential for Retrial

Allen Garrett is a lawyer who has been working pro-bono on Al-Amin’s case since 2007. He has “discovered retaliatory actions on the part of prison officials against Al-Amin.” Moreover, he has been granted the possibility for an appeal on May 3rd, in which the court will decide whether Al-Amin can be granted a retrial for the crime he was found guilty of in 2002.

With new evidence not included in the trial such as the confession of Otis Jackson, and Agent Campbell’s lying about being alone and previous planting of fingerprint-less guns, Al-Amin has the potential to clear himself of such charges and establish his innocence. America too has changed drastically since Al-Amin was put on trial in 2002. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter have brought to light the injustice of programs such as COINTELPRO which targeted Al-Amin and other civil rights activists. The Trump era has also highlighted the irrationality of the brazen Islamophobia that aided Al-Amin’s guilty verdict.

Al-Amin’s membership in the Black Panther Party was symbolic and resulted as a result of an alliance between the Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he was chair of. But despite his limited affiliation, in today’s context, the Black Panthers do not have the same stigma attached to them. The movie, Black Panther, ends in Oakland, California, in an allusion to where the Black Panther Party was founded. Beyonce wore Black Panther outfits at the Super Bowl. And even Democratic Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, hardly a symbol of radicalism or even progressivism, has stated that she was inspired by the values of the party.

I spoke to Kairi Al-Amin, Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s son. He was 14-years-old when his dad was imprisoned. Since then, Kairi, now 31, has become an attorney, with the goal of freeing his dad of this crime that he did not commit. He spoke of the importance that there is in getting public opinion on the side of his father as this appeal approaches. Should the court rule in favor of this appeal, a retrial could allow for evidence previously left out to be introduced. He has created a website called https://whathappened2rap.com/, which has a fact sheet on the trial, with information on how people can be better involved.

With the public watching, it is possible that on May 3rd, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will rule in favor of Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s retrial, and that he can finally be given the opportunity to present the full case and be exonerated of this crime.

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Hamzah Raza is a graduate student at Harvard University and an alumnus of Vanderbilt University. At Vanderbilt, he received highest honors for his thesis on the role that South African Muslims played in the anti-apartheid struggle. He has been previously been published at the Huffington Post, Alternet, the Grayzone Project, Raw Story, and the Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @raza_hamzah

1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Wael Abdelgawad

    January 13, 2020 at 1:49 AM

    What an insane travesty of justice. May Allah free him and punish those who committed this injustice.

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