Noi Guards Tell Of Spiritual Calling

June 11, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

It would end peacefully -- a minor entry in the long list of confrontations between Nation of Islam Security Agency guards and teen-agers trying to visit the George B. Murphy Homes public housing high-rises on Baltimore's west side.

A dozen youths, upset that a guard won't let them in because they refuse to show identification cards, start kicking the bulletproof booth by the front door. The female guard calls police.

A bit later, an officer from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Earl C. Jones, arrives. Six stone-faced NOI guards line the front entrance. It's a standoff with the youths. "I'm going to give you a break," Officer Jones sternly tells the teens. "I'm talking to you like men. Don't harass NOI. Don't get on NOI's nerves. Give NOI a break. That's all I ask . . . and I'll walk away from here."

The police leave and the group scatters.

To the NOI guards, standing watch over Baltimore's troubled public housing complexes is more than a job. It is more like a religious crusade -- a calling from God to rescue "oppressed" residents forced to live in crime-ridden squalor, they say.

"It is our duty to serve God," proclaimed a guard named Robert 4X.

"We take the abuse and we give them back a smile," said another guard, Donte X. "Eventually, we will win the people over. It is dangerous. But we really care about this job. It is about making life better for people in the community."

Neatly dressed in white pleated shirts and red bow ties, the Muslim guards command respect as they patrol 16 public housing buildings in Baltimore. They say they are the only ones dedicated enough to do the job.

The secretive group patrols some of the most dangerous real estate in Baltimore, and residents, especially those at Murphy Homes, generally like the guards.

Last month, NOI Security's money troubles became acute. The firm, which operates nationwide, filed for bankruptcy protection. As a result, the city is renegotiating its contract, giving NOI speedier payments in exchange for a deep discount to #i Baltimore. Last week, housing authority chief Daniel P. Henson III said NOI was doing its job of "keeping peace and calm" in the high-rises.

An evening spent with one group at the 1058 Argyle Ave. high-rise -- regarded as the most violent and drug-ridden building in the city -- proved to be hectic but routine. Guards checked in hundreds of visitors and double-checked with residents to make sure the visitors were welcome.

They were skeptical of a reporter's presence, predicting the article would be skewed, as they said all are, against their faith and their mission.

But after the alleged beating March 26 of a resident by four NOI guards -- the latest in several controversies surrounding the security force -- city housing officials allowed a reporter into the security booth at its most troubled building. Though city officials promised complete access, guards refused repeated requests to tour the building beyond the lobby.

Seven guards were working at the 1058 Building, one of three Murphy Homes high-rises. The guards were in a booth about 20 feet long, the upper half of the wall separating it from the lobby made of bulletproof glass, allowing guards a view of the lobby and a courtyard outside.

Their desk resembled a cramped shelf that ran the length of the window and was crammed with logbooks and two-way police radios.

Though they let housing authority police handle dangerous incidents, the unarmed guards usually are the first to arrive at domestic disputes and other altercations.

"They understand that people are not objects," said Hezekiah Bunch, chief of the housing authority's police department. "This is not to say that NOI is the answer. They are part of the answer. But other security companies could learn from them -- that their only job is not just to watch something."

Phyllis Smith, who has lived in Murphy Homes since 1979 and is well-known for her stand against drug dealers, remembers a time when drugs were available in virtually every stairwell. "This is the best that it's been," she said.

The rules, she said, are strict but necessary. "It's the people who don't want to pay attention to the rules who cause problems."

Another resident, David Buchanan, 29, said he doesn't mind showing his ID card every time he comes inside. "They are doing their job."

It isn't easy. After the alleged assault in March, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, while saying brutality by guards would not be tolerated, said, "there's almost a war going on between the drug dealers and NOI for control of the building."

Just four years ago, Murphy Homes was known as "Murder Homes," and shotgun-toting drug dealers guarded the doors and bought off the private security guards then being used.

The housing authority says NOI has turned that around, though it readily admits that Murphy Homes, particularly the 1058 Building, remains its biggest concern.

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