Dinner for two in beautiful downtown New Plymouth for the first reader who correctly identifies the group or groups who were funding mercenaries in Mozambique in 1987
My involvement with Jabari Sisulu started as a result of an ad he ran in the May 5, 1987 Facts. It was common for Central Area groups to use the weekly to advertise upcoming meetings. It was in this way that I became involved in a prison reform group that met at the Central Area Chamber of Commerce, and the small anti-apartheid group that met at the Nation of Islam office on East Cherry.
I first met the African American activist in 1984, after CISPES joined the city-wide coalition to change Empire Way to Martin Luther King Way. Unlike Mohammed Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabar, who took Muslim names when they converted to Islam, Jabari was an atheist and took a Swahili name. It meant fearless. He had a reputation for being intelligent, well-read, and prone to angry rants about gentrification and other malicious schemes to undermine the economic and cultural integrity of the African American community. In December 1985 he achieved front-page notoriety after he and five friends broke down the front door of the old Coleman School and renamed it the Seattle African American Museum. In May 1987 they were in their eighteenth month of occupation.
Jabari actually ran two three-column display ads in the May 5 edition of Facts. The first was a call for black males between eighteen and twenty-five to volunteer as mercenary soldiers to defend Mozambique’s communist-led government against CIA-sponsored rebels. This would have rung warning bells for a more experienced activist. The obvious question of who would pay these mercenaries never occurred to me. The second ad was directed at activists frustrated with the “sham” demonstrations at the South African Consulate and who wished to engage in more “militant” activity. In early 1985, I accompanied a friend from ISO and one of his friends from International Workers of the World to some of these anti-apartheid protests. After a month Joe and Mike decided they were a waste of time. They claimed the organizers weren’t serious about shutting the consulate down. My friends’ ability to deliver this verdict mystified me, as neither of them knew anyone in the leadership of the Coalition to Abolish Apartheid.
Yet their predictions proved impressively accurate. Nearly two and a half years later, the South African émigré who served as Seattle’s official representative of the South African government continued to conduct business from his palatial Madison Valley home. Every Sunday the same thirty or forty mostly white activists marched in circles, carried signs, and sang protest songs in the middle of Thirty-second Avenue. After about twenty minutes, a steering-committee member made a speech, and two volunteers mounted the two-tiered stairway leading up the steep hill to the Consul’s front door. There were always two uniformed police officers waiting at the top of the stairs. After cuffing them, the cops led them back down the stairs to a waiting patrol car.
Jabari’s ad directed us to meet in front of the consulate on Sunday May 13, after the demonstration. Arriving at 11:45 a.m., just as the protest was breaking up, I sat down on the curb to wait for him. It took me several moments to realize there were others waiting with me. Across the street a willowy, almond-skinned African American was leaning over to talk to two slightly darker men in work clothes in a Convenient Plumbing work van. The woman, who introduced herself as Debra, made a point of informing me she was a lesbian. The men, who I later learned were new converts to Shiite Islam, got out of the van and introduced themselves as Amen Ptah and Anita. Although Jabari and Earl always referred to them as the Shiite brothers, they were “brothers” only in the sense they were both African American. Unlike Arab Shiites, they were both clean-shaven. Ahmen Ptah was a well-proportioned six feet and had shoulder-length hair that he wore in a coarse hair net. Anita was only an inch taller than me at five-foot-four, and about fifty pounds overweight. He was more outgoing than Ahmen Ptah, who seemed to let Anita talk for him. The latter kept us entertained while we waited with wry quips about corrupt cops and politicians that made them sound like mischievous children.
“This is all very comical.” Anita gestured with his head at the patrol car as it pulled away. Like Jabari, he spoke perfect grammatical English and had the same clipped north Pacific accent as my white friends. “It seems the Coalition has worked a deal with someone in Mike Lowry’s office.” Lowry was Seattle’s most “liberal” Congressman and represented the Sixth District. “They agree to stage manage the protests so they don’t interfere with consular business in any way. And in return the cops take off the handcuffs and let them go. They don’t even take them downtown anymore.”
After about twenty minutes Jabari arrived. In his early forties in 1987, he was about five-foot-nine and had the lanky build of a runner. His physical resemblance to Malcolm X, with his short-cropped hair, square gold-framed glasses, and short goatee, seemed deliberate. He began by giving each of us a copy of his FBI file with a cover sheet from the FBI Freedom of Information Officer. To the front of the file he had stapled an undated, unsigned FBI memo directing field agents to cooperate with local law enforcement in “targeting” potential black liberation leaders. The memo didn’t specify what was meant by “targeting.” It was well publicized that black males were convicted more often and received harsher sentences than white men for the same crimes. I also knew from my prison reform work that it was common for the Seattle police to harass black men. This ran the gamut—from keeping their photos on file and monitoring their activities, stopping them on the street and detaining them for petty or non-existent crimes, fabricating evidence against them, beating them up and charging them with resisting arrest—to shooting unarmed African Americans in the process of apprehending them.
The FBI file was two pages of fine print with all the names other than Jabari’s blacked out. It consisted mostly of entries by an unidentified Seattle field agent regarding the activist’s attendance at rallies in the mid- and late-seventies that were organized by the Seattle Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society. There was also a brief psychological profile, obtained by interviewing one of Jabari’s former high school teachers. He spoke highly of the black youth’s performance as quarterback for the Garfield High School football team. He also expressed concern over Steve’s—in high school Jabari still used his European name Steve Williams—lack of close friendships.
“The FBI has always collaborated with the PO-lice.” Although Jabari grew up in Seattle, he put the stress on the first syllable like African Americans I worked with from the South or the big-city ghettos. Jabari loved to dazzle new acquaintances with his incisive logic and instantaneous recall of facts and dates. “It is well known there is a historic government conspiracy to strip the ghetto of its competent male role models. It’s nothing but an extension of four hundred years of violent European settler colonialism, as well as the determination of the white ruling class to deprive African American youth of their authentic identity and culture.” He finished by reminding us about the unarmed mentally ill black man the Seattle police shot and killed in 1984.
Jabari’s claims struck me as credible. It was well known on the left that the FBI spied on and harassed Martin Luther King. I had also heard widespread rumors of FBI involvement in his and Malcolm X’s assassinations.
“What about you, Jabari? Don’t you ever worry about getting shot?”
Locking his gaze on mine, he pointed his index finger at my breast bone. “White professionals who fraternize with black radicals are at much greater risk than I am.”
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