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Al-Amin On Trial

Former radical again faces charges involving police shootout -- But this time, it's a matter of life or death

by Ernie Suggs and Jill Young Miller, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 10 Sep 2001


In 1973, when a New York judge sentenced 29-year-old civil rights activist H. Rap Brown to prison for armed robbery, which included a shootout with police, he tempered the sentence citing Brown's past.

"Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, I'm taking into account that you have done much to help your people," state Supreme Court Justice Arnold G. Fraiman said at the time.

Brown, known for his fiery rhetoric, huge Afro and black shades, was an outspoken leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The group, founded during the sit-in era of the early '60s, was in turmoil. Brown and other militants, including Stokely Carmichael, were pushing out many of the group's more conciliatory founders -- Julian Bond and John Lewis among them.

"You have devoted much of your life to helping your fellow man," the judge told Brown.

Fast forward 28 years, a name change and a major religious conversion later, and Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, 57, again finds himself before a judge. And again because of a shootout with police.

Al-Amin is charged with the March 2000 slaying of Fulton County sheriff's Deputy Ricky Kinchen, 35, and the wounding of his partner, Deputy Aldranon English, then 28. The officers were shot as they tried to serve a warrant on Al-Amin. Jury selection for the death penalty trial will begin Wednesday and is expected to last about one month.

Al-Amin's supporters claim he is being set up by the very government he has always challenged. They point to his civil rights record and what he has done to clean up the once-crime-ridden West End community south of downtown Atlanta.

Others paint a darker picture -- of a longtime thug who once proudly proclaimed, "Violence is as American as cherry pie." A man who cloaked himself in a Muslim imam's robes but wielded power in the West End through violence and intimidation. A man charged with killing a black police officer.

Diverse groups have a stake in the outcome of the case. They are the Muslims in the United States who believe they are victims of religious discrimination; the West End residents who credit Al-Amin with banning drug dealers and hookers from their park and public streets; Kinchen's grieving family members, who plan to attend the trial for its duration; and the police officers who put their lives on the line every day.

"This could be seen as a test case to see that a Muslim can get a fair trial, free of bias," said Ibrahim Hooper, with the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group.

As far as the deputies, they "pretty much just want to see a sense of justice come about in this trial," said Charles Rambo, a Fulton County sheriff's deputy and president of the officers' union, which established a trust fund for Kinchen's widow and daughters.

"My brother was cut down in the prime of his life," said David Kinchen, Ricky Kinchen's older brother. "He leaves behind his two kids. It's something that I don't think my family will ever get over."

Al-Amin's brother, Ed Brown, said his family also has suffered, but he remains confident that his younger brother will be exonerated. "As far as he's concerned, he's placed his faith and his life in Allah's hands," Brown said.

"This has been a 35-year process of harassment, of attempts to intimidate him, and it just simply seems to be the latest chapter," he said. "People have come forward with [movie deals and] book offers but these are things we're not focused on.

"Our interest is to try to save his life."

Strong Muslim support

The police shootings occurred the night of March 16, 2000, in the West End as the deputies tried to serve Al-Amin with a warrant. The Cobb County warrant stemmed from Al-Amin's failure to appear in court on charges of theft by receiving a stolen car, impersonating an officer and no proof of insurance.

English identified Al-Amin as the shooter, but Al-Amin was not immediately captured, and a massive manhunt ensued. Al-Amin was arrested March 20 in rural White Hall, Ala., after an alleged exchange of gunfire with local and federal authorities.

Before Al-Amin's arrest, a witness in West End claimed to have seen a man hitchhiking in bloody clothing the night of the shooting. Police also said they found a trail of blood leading to a vacant West End house. English, although seriously wounded, told investigators he thought he had wounded his attacker. Al-Amin was not shot.

Alabama is familiar territory for Al-Amin. In the late '60s, he spent time in White Hall and Lowndes County -- the midway point between Selma and Montgomery -- helping set up anti-poverty programs and registering voters. The voting rights efforts in Lowndes adopted a black panther as its symbol, an icon later embraced by the Black Panther Party.

Al-Amin spent four months as the Black Panther Party's honorary minister of justice.

After his parole in 1976 from his 1973 conviction in New York, Al-Amin made a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, a holy city of Islam, then settled into Atlanta's West End. From his tiny storefront and makeshift mosque at West End Avenue and Oak Street, he rose to become spiritual leader of the National Community, one of the biggest Muslim communities in the United States. Tall, rail-thin and charismatic, Al-Amin started neighborhood patrols, organized summer games for Muslim youth, converted drug users to Islam and helped them beat their addictions.

At Friday's ju'mah prayer service, a weekly worship service, nearly 200 Muslims gathered in a new West End mosque. A man read from the Koran in English and Arabic, then told the worshippers that Al-Amin welcomed their letters. "May Allah continue to make him an example of strength to us," he said.

Al-Amin's National Community is a coalition of more than 30 mosques across the country that trace its roots to the now-defunct Dar al-Islam Movement, a mainly black sect that was founded in the '60s but splintered in the '80s. One of those groups formed the National Community and elected Al-Amin as its leader.

Like most American Muslims, Al-Amin belongs to mainstream Islam, not the Nation of Islam with its high-profile leader, Louis Farrakhan. A spokesman for the Community Mosque of Atlanta said Farrakhan is the only major black leader who has visited Al-Amin in jail.

Dreams for White Hall

Although he spent years in relative obscurity in West End, federal agents have suspected Al-Amin of gunrunning since 1994. That year, several members of his congregation were convicted of smuggling pistols to Muslims in New York. Al-Amin was never charged.

In 1995, he was accused of shooting William Miles, but Miles later claimed that police had forced him to implicate Al-Amin.

Since the 1960s, Al-Amin has kept his ties to White Hall, a poor town of about 1,500, and its first black mayor, John Jackson. The two envisioned building a large Islamic community with turreted spires rising above White Hall's pastures and pine trees, swampy woodlands and fields of red clover. Their plan included a $47 million rural Islamic complex, protected by guarded gatehouses.

But at the time of Al-Amin's arrest last year, only 11 Muslims in three families had moved to White Hall. Several eked out a living selling goat burgers at the tiny Bismillah Cafe and copies of the Koran from battered vans. Isolated by religious differences from the rural Bible Belt's mainstream community, only one Muslim family remained in White Hall by March of this year.

Lowndes County Sheriff Willie Vaughner, who headed the investigation that led to Al-Amin's arrest, said he isn't sure how many Muslims remain in White Hall but estimates it's only a handful.

Mayor Jackson has declined reporters' requests for interviews. Authorities questioned him after Al-Amin's black Mercedes was found on property owned by Jackson's mother after Al-Amin's capture in White Hall.

Vaughner and two of his deputies have been subpoenaed to testify at the trial.

`Justice is not cheap'

Al-Amin faces a 13-count indictment, including counts of murder, aggravated assault and firearm possession.

Brown, Al-Amin's brother, said a "justice fund" for Muslims, which will help pay for Al-Amin's defense, has amassed about $100,000.

The contributions "certainly don't match the expenses of the case, even though he has been given indigent status," Brown said. "Justice is not cheap in this country and, unfortunately, indigents end up being underfunded while the state has unlimited resources." While Al-Amin awaits trial, his supporters -- particularly in the African-American community -- have steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. Some say his arrest and charges are a government conspiracy.

Students from the historically black Atlanta University Center have been closely following the case. Karen Fields, 19, a junior at Spelman College, said her father calls from Detroit to find out what's happening with Al-Amin.

"My dad was really into the struggle during the '60s," she said. "He loves this man." Some of Al-Amin's "brothers" gave a lecture at Morehouse College last year, sponsored by the African-American Studies Association, said senior Justin Edmon, 22.

"I think he's being railroaded because of the man he is and was," Edmon said. "They're out to get him because of his political activism." Al-Amin's supporters have held rallies in West End Park, near the site of the shooting. Strung between a tree and a telephone pole, a large red banner with gold lettering declares: "JUSTICE FOR IMAM JAMIL AL-AMIN."

In cities across the nation, rallies and concerts have been held to raise support and awareness about the case, said Nadim Ali, a spokesman for the Community Mosque of Atlanta. "Stop the Legal Lynching of Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin and other political prisoners," said a flyer advertising a national rally set for noon next Saturday in Woodruff Park. Ricky Kinchen's brother David is troubled by portrayals of Al-Amin as a victim.

"This whole conspiracy thing is just to distract from what actually happened on March 16, 2000," he said.

"If you're asking me if I ever considered him a hero or a valuable contributor to the civil rights movement, my answer is definitely no," Kinchen said.

As many as 30 of Ricky Kinchen's family members plan to show up for the trial's start Wednesday, said his brother, an information technology program manager who lives in Alexandria, Va. After that, a "core group" of 10 to 15 family members -- including Ricky Kinchen's widow, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews -- plans to attend each day.

"We want to be there when justice is served," Kinchen said.

"We want the public to know that Ricky had a loving family, and we're not going to take a passive role in this trial. We're going to speak out where we feel it's necessary. And we're going to keep hammering home the fact that Ricky gave his life so that the citizens of Atlanta could feel safe and sleep at night.

"And they shouldn't forget that."

Staff writers Mae Gentry and Jingle Davis contributed to this article.

© 2001 Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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