Activist keeps the heat on city officials

March 31, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

The clock in the WOLB studio showed the time was pushing 2-ish. It was time for the weekly State of the City show -- broadcast every Friday from noon to 2 p.m. -- to wind down. Time enough to take only a few more callers.

"Brother Daren," one of the callers said, "they say you were too hard on them people the other night. But how are you going to make them accountable, if you aren't hard on them?"

The "brother Daren" the caller was talking to was Daren Muhammad, the host of State of the City who's also part of a group called the Community Forum Think Tank. The "them people" the caller referred to are Mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, who took the brunt of Muhammad's wrath about the arrest of 7-year-old Gerard Mungo Jr. on March 13 and of his mother, Lakisa Dinkins, last Saturday.

Muhammad repeated on the air yesterday the remarks he made to Hamm on Tuesday night during a monthly NAACP meeting at Union Baptist Church.

"We have a commissioner who does not have the testicular fortitude to stand up and do what is right," Muhammad said. For him, "what is right" in this case means firing the officer who arrested Gerard Mungo Jr. and the supervisor Dinkins demanded come to her house.

At Union Baptist, Muhammad took Dixon to task for not going to Dinkins' home to personally apologize to her. (Dixon answered that she had talked to Dinkins several times on the phone, but as mayor had been advised that further conversations with Dinkins are inappropriate now that Dinkins has a lawyer.)

You might have seen Muhammad on the news Tuesday night. You might have seen him a couple of years ago in the War Memorial Plaza building blasting then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and Hamm about police arrest policies. When Tyrone Powers' radio show on Morgan State University's WEAA was yanked off the air earlier this year, Muhammad was the man who organized a protest rally. When Dinkins was arrested, it was Muhammad and NAACP Baltimore branch President Marvin "Doc" Cheatham who went to the Eastern District to find out why.

For the past few days, people have been wondering just who this Daren Muhammad is. The short answer is that he's an elected official's worst nightmare: an activist on a mission.

Muhammad comes from a long line of Baltimore activists whose mission is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They believe in one thing above all others, something the caller to Muhammad's show mentioned: accountability. Baltimore's hard-core activists actually believe public officials -- elected and appointed -- should be accountable to the people.

Where do such folks get these weird ideas?

Much of that activism is inspired by what have been called "relations" between the Baltimore Police Department and the city's black community. Baltimore cops and Baltimore's blacks have history. Much of it is bad. In 1969, 12 activists from the black nationalist group the S.O.U.L. School were arrested in front of the Western District police station after protesting the attack of a police dog on a black woman in West Baltimore. (Full disclosure: I was one of them.) Muhammad was only a few years old then.

Eleven years later, activist Daki Napata gave it to both then-Deputy Commissioner Bishop Robinson and then-City Councilman Kweisi Mfume at a community meeting. The confrontation resulted from the case of Jawan McGee, a black teenager who reached into his pocket for a cigarette lighter and was shot and wounded by an itchy-fingered off-duty city cop. (Mfume arrived after Napata and others had hammered Robinson. "You got off easy," I told Mfume afterward.)

Muhammad was in his early teens at the time. He later graduated from Dunbar High School. In 1989, he joined the Nation of Islam and is still a member of the sect. Today, at 40, he divides his time between the radio show, his work with the Community Forum Think Tank -- which he says exists to make proposals about public policy -- doing volunteer work with homeless people and visiting schools and prison inmates.

Muhammad gave that detailed list of his activities to counter a statement Dixon made that he thought may have been directed at him. Dixon said that she doubted that many of her critics at Tuesday's meeting were involved with community work, especially with young people.

"We're doing a lot of things," Muhammad said. Even if the people Dixon referred to weren't "doing a lot of things," her criticism is off base. If all activists do is show up at meetings to give grief to public officials, those activists perform an invaluable public service. We don't have to agree with activists on every point to appreciate their holding public officials accountable.

Dixon and Hamm knew they had climbed into the hot seats when they accepted their jobs. They should just think of Muhammad as the guy who's turning up the flames.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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