AN INTERVIEW WITH KARIMA AL-AMIN (Part 1 of 2)
By Nadrat Siddique
The Fourth of July is my birthday. Each year, I seek an activity which expounds on Frederick Douglass' renowned musing "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July" and my social consciousness as a Muslim. This Fourth, I visited Atlanta to run the Peachtree 10K race, the nation's largest 10K (it boasts 50,000 participants) and to interview Karima Al-Amin, wife of Imam Jamil Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown).
Imam Jamil Al-Amin is one of America's foremost political prisoners, currently being held at the infamous high-security prison in Florence, Colorado. I felt his case had received a degree of exposure, at least by independent Islamic media, but that far less was known about his wife and partner in the struggle, an activist in her own right.
Karima Al-Amin graciously granted me an interview at short notice, even though it meant according me her scant leisure time (the holiday was one of those rare occasions on which she closed her law office). I was to meet her soon after my race. When I called to confirm the details of our meeting, she expressed concern for my condition. Was I too tired and dehydrated after the race, being unaccustomed to Atlanta weather? And did I require more time to rest before our meeting? I was reminded of Imam Jamil, whose self-less concern for his visitors to the prison--even while he himself was being subjected to daily humiliation at the hands of prison guards--was fabled. And she insisted she would drive to my hotel so that I would not have to attempt to navigate unfamiliar territory. We agreed to hold the interview in my hotel room.
She entered the room, a slender, bespectacled woman, with quiet manner and majestic bearing, dressed modestly in light green hijab. But, as she began to speak, I realized this was easily the most eloquent, self-confident, and politically aware Muslim woman I'd encountered. She was clearly very seeped in Islamic faith; indeed, it may have been what allowed her (and hence her family) to survive the incredible trials they'd experienced; yet she was not ostentatious with her Arabic, nor haughty or judgmental of me or others.
Q: How did you meet Imam Jamil, and what attracted you to him initially?
A: I met him July 31, 1967. I remember that day because it was the first day I had a job. I had just graduated from the State University of Oswego. I was there four years. I majored in English with the aim of teaching K - 9th grades.
Imam Jamil walked into the job. He was staying with my supervisor. The job was on 135th Street, in Harlem. It was with Job Corps. I thought I'd keep the job a while.
The Imam walked in. At the time, he had a cadre of bodyguards. He was meeting Minister Farrakhan, so he asked the supervisor "See if she'll go to lunch with us." I was the only female at a big table of only brothers. I remember it was a big, big table, and we got back to the job at 5 PM.
That evening, Nina Simone was performing. She had invited Imam Jamil. In later years, he kept in touch with her. She autographed a photo for him that night, which I still have.
Q: Tell me about yourself and your background.
A: My grandmother and mother were Canadian. In 1929, my grandmother brought my mother, her sister, and one of her brothers to the U.S. after divorcing my grandfather. They were deported, and then returned. Then, in 1938, my grandmother went before a judge to ask for her citizenship. In 1942, while my grandmother was living in Los Angeles, Immigration denied her case. By 1942, my mother's sister had married. Her husband was in the entertainment business, and his father wrote "Dark Town Strutters Ball." She was a little activist and traveled broadly.
My mother lived in the building where La Guardia, Duke Ellington, and other musicians lived on Fifth Avenue in New York. My father was from the U.S. (from Virginia), and was in the navy. He and my mother married in 1942, and I was born years later in New York.
We moved to Riverton, built and owned by Metropolitan Life Assurance, in Harlem on Fifth Avenue. It was built mainly for African Americans so that we would not reside in the company's other private developments built for Europeans. In fact, my mother and father were considering being part of a class action suit to challenge the discriminatory practices of the company. Nevertheless, my parents moved to Riverton where I went to school in Harlem. and my mother was involved in the PTA.
My mother was involved in the PTA fighting zoning issues, and that was the first time the FBI came to the house. They thought the communists must be behind this, and we thought they were going to take our mother away.
My mother is from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. We would go back and forth to Canada to visit our grandfather, our aunts and uncles, and cousins. My father didn't want to tell a fib, so when they asked him is everyone in the car a U.S. citizen, he would just nod his head.
We're actually the descendants of runaway slaves. My sister and cousins are being tested to determine where we are from, but so far Spain, Portugal, and Europe are coming up, and not Africa. So, my family members still are exploring further testing.
My mother, after 30 years of being a housewife, went for a job with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Thurgood Marshall was the head of it. He wanted her to be in charge of payroll. To do this, she had to be bonded. Thurgood Marshall sponsored my mother to this end. I became the baby sitter for Thurgood Marshall and various African American judges and attorneys of the Legal Defense Fund.
I remember that my mother would tell my friends to put their dresses on so we could go to the Apollo. During the intermission, she had us walk around with buckets to collect money for whichever case was being fought in the South at the time.
Q: What led to your personal involvement in the Black Liberation struggle?
A: In college, I got involved with Friends of SNCC. That should have told me I'd wind up with the chair of SNCC.
I graduated in June and met Imam Jamil in July. My sister and her husband got arrested. They were with RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement). This was the first case in which middle class African Americans were involved in supporting the Black Liberation struggle.
RAM is mentioned in the original COINTELPRO papers along with SNCC, Stokely, H. Rap Brown, etc. My husband went to a rally for RAM before I met him.
By August 1967, the FBI had contacted me. They said, "You know your sister was framed. If you help us, we'll clear her." I told them I knew she'd be cleared because she was framed. The FBI wanted me to work for them to provide reports on Imam Jamil.
My parents were very involved with the community. We were a close knit family. I had a non-traumatic childhood (other than the fact that I was almost electrocuted). We did not go without anything. We traveled a lot. My father helped form an organization for African American city workers in transit.
My first trip to the South was in 1959 when a girlfriend of mine invited me to travel with her to visit her relatives. One day, we went shopping to look at earrings. I went to hand money to one of the workers, and she threw the money on the floor. Later, I was trying to buy a hot dog, and they would not sell it to me, because the hot dog stand was "Whites Only." Up in New York, we protested White Castle (fast food establishment).
My mother was very proper. When my husband's book came out, she would not say the name of the book, because it was called Die Nigger Die.
The FBI hounded my parents. They went to my father's job repeatedly. Despite this, my parents continued to be very supportive. I came from very smart, compassionate parents. They both died young (at age 51). One day, we went to the grocery store. When we came out, we found our car had a flat tire. We said, "Oh FBI."
Not long after, my father stopped at a gas station to fix a flat tire. He collapsed and died. Imam Jamil's mother died the week after that. Then, my mother went into the hospital. They discovered an aneurism on the right side of her brain. Then, they located another on the left, and she died two months later, in June. Then, in October, Imam Jamil was shot and went to the same hospital where my mother died. In fact, he was in the room next to where my mother spent two months before she died. All this happened in one year. We just didn't have time for grieving.
AN INTERVIEW WITH KARIMA AL-AMIN (Part 2 of 2)
In the second of this two-part interview, Karima Al-Amin, Atlanta-based activist, attorney, and wife of Imam Jamil Al-Amin (the former H. Rap Brown), speaks about her and her husband's conversion to Islam, the effects of Imam Jamil's incarceration on their family, and the many legal actions undertaken by the imam since his incarceration. Some of these he initiated without the aid of an attorney. Others were vigorously pursued by a legal team at a prominent Atlanta law firm, the imam's first truly competent and committed legal representation, which appeared on the scene a few years after his
As I listened to Ms. Al-Amin, I was stunned by the resilience and resolve of the Al-Amins, undaunted by the challenges before them. Against all odds, they'd patiently continued a dignified and peaceful resistance. Most amazingly, they had not restricted themselves to the challenge of wrongs done to Imam Jamil, although this was, in itself, a huge litany. They were tackling the very constitutionality of laws which violated the rights of inmates, political prisoners, and other victims of the prison-industrial complex. In other words, from behind bars, the Imam, his wife at his "side," was fighting to "free the slave" while many seemingly free imams and others on the outside cowered in fear and silence.
Q: Tell me about Imam Jamil's transition from black radical to mainstream Muslim imam. Did you feel you had to influence him to repudiate or reconstruct that image into a more moderate one?
A: My sister's first husband was a Muslim from the Republic of Guinea. I remember they had a Qur'an on a stand, and they gave us a prayer rug before we were Muslim that we hung on our wall; consequently, that was one of our early exposures to Islam. My husband took his shahada in December 1971, while he was incarcerated in New York City. Brothers from the Dar-ul-Islam in Brooklyn entered the jails as chaplains and volunteers to hold classes on Islam. The transition to Islam was very natural for my husband because it did not compromise any of his positions.
I took my shahada a few months later, in February 1972, when Imam Jamil gave it to me. I still was reading about Islam after he became Muslim because I wanted to make sure I was becoming Muslim based on my belief. It was a natural flow for us to become Muslim. We never felt we had to explain the transition from his past as H. Rap Brown to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, although the transition was confusing for those who did not understand my husband. After El Hajj Malik Shabazz, my husband was the next public figure in the Movement to become Muslim. We then saw other black liberators in the 1970s and 1980s become Muslims.
Q: What made you decide to attend law school?
A: Law was my third profession. Here in Atlanta, I worked for a 15-year period with two foundations giving money to grassroots organizations and working on desegregating public higher education and enhancing the traditionally black colleges and universities.I did not go to law school until 1992, while I was teaching English. When I was in high school, I considered law as a career. My mother worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when Thurgood Marshall was the Executive Director, and lawyers were dispatched to the South to represent students and local people who were being arrested, brutalized,and killed. This certainly influenced my early thoughts on considering law. Also, once I married my husband, I was constantly with William Kunstler and at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, as he and the organization represented my husband. And lastly, the fact that the government was continuing its efforts, COINTELPRO-style,to incarcerate my husband, was another factor that moved me finally to attend.
Q: What did you see as your role in the Al-Amin household?
A: I saw my role as a stabilizing one. I was not making speeches, and I wasn't out there in the public with my husband. I saw my role as maintaining peace at home. I was a teacher during our early years of marriage. My concentration was making sure we could eat together and be together as a family. It always amazed me when we heard people gasp and say, "I saw H. Rap Brown, and he was holding a child," or "I saw the Rap and he was holding a cat." Ordinary things he did shocked people because the media had dehumanized him. When things are moving wildly, it's necessary to have normalcy at home, so I would try to maintain a sense of normalcy in an abnormal world.
Q: What attitude or outlook to life did you adapt after you realized that your husband would be locked up for a long time? What has been your biggest challenge since his railroading?
A: Naturally to be stripped of a husband, a companion, is devastating. Because I came up through the struggle with him, I understood the challenges. Many people refer to my husband as the "last man standing." He was a COINTELPRO target and he has remained one. I understand his innocence, and the governmental efforts to silence him throughout a 43-year period. This gives me the strength to remain strong and by his side.
My biggest challenge was ensuring that I could provide for my family in my husband's absence. I was doing so many pro bono cases that I realized that I had to begin charging for my legal services. I was faced with raising a 12-year old son, who was very close to his father, and I had to monitor the psychological impact on him. He was a basketball son, and accustomed to seeing his father at all of his games since he was five years old. I had to move quickly to maintain his life as a youngster, and I could not miss a basketball game or school activity. My overarching challenge naturally was--and continues to be--to work to free my husband.
Q: Has Imam Jamil's incarceration influenced the career choices of your children? Do you think they will go to law school?
A: We have two children: Kairi and Ali. Kairi is 22 and Ali is 31. Kairi is in law school. He is in his second year, but wants to practice, perhaps, entertainment/sport or international contractual law. He graduated from high school when he was 16, and went to three universities before graduating, still on time. Kairi was in the eighth grade when his father was arrested, and during the trial he would come to court carrying his backpack. He was a trooper.
Q: Have the children visited their father in Florence, CO? Tell me about that visit.
A: Kairi and I visit Imam Jamil in Florence, Colorado. He is being held in the Supermax prison, 1400 miles away, which makes traveling very costly. It essentially takes a full day to travel there and another day to return home. It's really been a struggle, and we haven't been able to visit as often as we'd like. Florence is seen by many as a concentration camp for Muslim inmates. Imam Jamil is handcuffed at the waist behind a glass when we see him in one of the legal rooms. On the days we are with him, we are able to visit for approximately six hours. If he receives food during the visit, he has to hold his hands chained in front of him in order to eat. It is a very difficult position, and his wrists begin to swell.
The law firm now representing Imam Jamil pro bono also worked on suits for Guantanamo prisoners. One of their lead attorneys said that if he had to choose between Gitmo and Florence, he would choose Gitmo. Imam Jamil is held in solitary confinement, and Florence is a "no contact" institution, so the conditions are punitive and deplorable.
Q: Imam Jamil's projects to rid the West End community of drugs are well known, as was his mentoring of the youth. Have these projects continued, and what is the extent of your involvement with them?
A: I'm still involved with the community. It's a community I helped start with Imam Jamil and it is dear to me. Many of our children now are active in the community, and taking leadership roles, and it's wonderful to see and feel their energy. We have continued with classes, youth activities, and the Riyaadah that we started in 1982.
Our community under the leadership of my husband always included the youth in our family-oriented activities; therefore, mentoring the youth continues to be a focus.
Q: Do you feel that things have gotten worse in the city since Imam Jamil was locked up?
A: When he was around, there was some vibrancy in the neighborhood. We all miss his presence and his hard work to keep the ills from consuming our community. We can all agree these are drastic times for people, and this is reflected throughout the inner cities. My husband always reminded people that Islam is the medicine for the sick; it is the cure for all society's ailments.
Q: Unfortunately, the number of political prisoners has increased exponentially since your husband went to prison. What is your advice to the current generation of Muslim law students, as to how they should operate within the U.S. justice system? What should be their contribution to the Muslim community?
A: Imam Jamil was instrumental in getting a Muslim lawyer's group started. This was similar to what SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee -editor] had,where attorneys represented civil rights workers on a pro bono basis. We have to get more attorneys who would be able to take on cases. Many Muslims who are arrested now have not committed criminal activities, but are arrested for "thought crimes." We need a band of attorneys to be able to represent Muslims who are being entrapped by informants. Family members of those arrested are draining their resources and are receiving minimal assistance from the Muslim community. We need to recognize that the divide-and-conquer strategy is working very well within the Muslim community, with the result that dissent is crushed and support for political prisoners is diminishing. We need activist attorneys to challenge constitutional violations and the unjust arrests so that families will not have to go to court with attorneys who are concerned only with billable hours.
Q: What is the current state of Imam Jamil's case?
A: Imam Jamil was convicted in 2002 on Georgia state charges. He immediately was transferred to the maximum state prison in Reidsville, Georgia, where he was held in administrative lockdown. Despite his physical isolation, his presence in the prison for other inmates had an electrical charge. While visiting him, we would see other inmates, passing by on their visits, raising their fists or giving salaams, and their visitors would do the same.
In 2006, the FBI released a report called "The Radicalization of Muslim Inmates in the Georgia Prison System." The report focused on the effort by Muslim inmates in the Georgia prison system to have Imam Jamil serve as imam over all Muslim Georgia inmates. Georgia officials realized that Imam Jamil did not initiate the effort, and although he agreed to stop the effort, the FBI launched its own investigation. We believe the report by the FBI was the final step in getting him moved out of Georgia, to the federal supermax prison where so many high profile Muslims are being held.
The Georgia conviction is still being challenged through a habeas corpus action to prove my husband's innocence. [A writ of habeas corpus is a request for a reversal of a conviction. Imam Jamil's habeas lists fourteen very compelling reasons why his conviction should be reversed.-editor]. That was filed in 2005. We are at the end of that state process, and attempting to move forward, and hopefully will have a ruling next year.
Q: So even though Imam Jamil was not convicted on any federal charges, he was moved from state to federal custody?
A: Yes, Imam Jamil was moved out of Reidsville without notification to his family or attorneys. The move was based on an agreement between the State of Georgia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to take on state prisoners. Georgia pays the Federal Bureau of Prisons every month to house him. They whisked him away in a hot van, and had him sit for hours in 90-degree temperature until he developed chest pains, and had to be taken to an Atlanta hospital. We knew nothing about this. They kept him overnight, and then returned him to the airport for a flight to the Oklahoma City Federal Penitentiary. From there, he was taken to Florence, CO. The move alone violates the Bureau of Prisons' rule that an inmate must be housed within 500 miles of his home.
Q: Tell me about some of the lawsuits initiated by Imam Jamil.
A: Imam Jamil filed numerous grievances while in Reidsville and Florence, Colorado, that ultimately ended in his filing a lawsuit:
Legal Mail Lawsuit
This lawsuit was filed because the Reidsville prison staff continued to open legal mail from me to my husband. The Department of Corrections in Atlanta was notified that opening his legal mail in his absence was a violation of the department's standard operating procedure, and a First Amendment violation. The Southern District Court, in which the lawsuit was filed, ruled in his favor, and Georgia appealed. The case then went to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for argument. At that point, the 11th Circuit appointed a prominent Atlanta-based attorney and his firm to represent my husband on a pro bono basis. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the action of the staff in opening legal mail from me to my husband was a First Amendment violation. Georgia appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court; that Court refused to hear Georgia's appeal.
From the day he entered the Reidsville Georgia prison, he was held in administrative 23-hour lockdown. He's never done a juma'a since he was incarcerated, from 2002 until now. So, we do have fundamental constitutional issues. We will continue to challenge the inhumane and punitive actions of the Georgia Prison system to prevent Imam Jamil's contact with other prisoners and the right to practice his religion during his incarceration. Additionally, we will challenge the retaliatory transfer from Georgia to a supermax "no contact" prison without his having a federal charge, conviction or sentence. We are very concerned about the impact solitary confinement has on the physical and mental condition of an inmate. [So, specific factors being challenged in the retaliation lawsuit include the imam's 23-hour per day lockdown in Reidsville, the violation of his religion rights within the Georgia prison system, and the gratuitous transfer to the Florence Supermax. -editor]
Challenge to the Prison Litigation Reform Act
The State has refused to settle our legal mail case; therefore, we are preparing for trial. In doing so, we first are challenging the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Our position is that a constitutional violation is sufficient to win punitive damages, just as a physical injury entitles one to punitive damages. Courts are divided on this issue. [The PLRA, as it stands, prevents Imam Jamil and others in his position from receiving punitive damages for violations such as the opening of his legal mail in his absence, on the grounds that the damage inflicted was not physical. -editor]. Our case will give the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals an opportunity to rule on this issue.
Q: What is the situation with Otis Jackson, the self-confessed shooter in the crime for which Imam Jamil was convicted?
A: Our attorneys have deposed Otis Jackson. His testimony, that he committed the actions for which Imam Jamil was convicted, has been consistent. So, we've made some headway, but it's taken a long time. One of the reasons the State said Otis couldn't have done it, is that he was wearing an electronic monitor. We talked to the maker of the monitor and learned that it is possible to beat the monitor. And in fact, he had a faulty electronic monitor.
Part of the habeas has been that Otis was not investigated. The prosecutor told our attorneys "Oh, he's crazy, like the other ones," and the attorneys froze and did nothing to investigate the confession or the monitoring device.
Q: Any final words for New Trend readers?
A: Imam Jamil was previously incarcerated [under the COINTELPRO era prosecutions of Black, Native American, and other leaders and activists -editor] for five years. He got out in 1976. Right after the 2002 conviction, the prosecuting attorney for the State said, "After 24 years, we finally got him." This confirmed Imam Jamil's position that it was a government conspiracy. Our immediate short-term goal is to have the Imam transferred back to Georgia, or to a federal prison within a 500-mile radius of his home. Our ultimate goal, naturally, is to exonerate Imam Jamil. We thank you for supporting Imam Jamil and our efforts to exonerate him.
Donations for Imam Jamil's defense may be sent to:
The Justice Fund
P.O. Box 115363
Atlanta, GA 30310
Write to Imam Jamil Al-Amin:
Reg. No. 99974-555
USP Florence ADMAX
P.O. Box 8500
Florence, CO 81226
For more information, contact:
thejusticefund [at] aol [dot] com