Kowtowing in Los Angeles
Prosecutors back down from a confrontation with the Nation of Islam.


The statement seems simple enough, and anyone unfamiliar with Los Angeles politics might assume after reading it that the case against Muhammad and his two bodyguards was somehow faulty and unworthy of presentation in a court of law. Such an assumption would be false.

Delgadillo is a man with grand political ambitions, this despite the drubbing he took from Jerry Brown in last June’s Democratic primary for state attorney general. There is not a single decision that comes out of his office that isn’t meticulously measured for its potential impact on those ambitions. Indeed, in the “newsroom” section of his website, one can read press release after press release extolling his accomplishments: “L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo Takes Part in Crackdown on Illegal Pharmacies”; “City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo Honors Recipients of Senior Citizen of the Year Awards”; “City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo Secures Jail for Identity Thief.” Conspicuously missing from the list is something along the lines of, say, “City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo Chickens Out and Refuses to Prosecute Muslim Who Fought with Police.”

Delgadillo, no doubt in consultation with others in city government, apparently felt that a criminal trial featuring Tony Muhammad in the starring role would be more of a spectacle than he was prepared to endure. Given Mr. Muhammad’s fondness for publicity and his penchant for provocative antics, surely there is a risk that any such trial would devolve into farce, but any talk of “insufficient evidence” is nothing more than legalistic cover for a political decision. Worse, the decision only paves the way for the next confrontation between an emboldened Muhammad and the police. When you give a rat a cookie, don’t be surprised when it comes back looking for a glass of milk.

The incident occurred in south Los Angeles last August 25, when Muhammad and his entourage attended a street vigil for a gang member who had been shot to death in the same neighborhood two days earlier. They double-parked their two SUVs on a residential street and refused to move them when asked to do so by a pair of LAPD officers. The heated exchange that followed was tape recorded when one of the officers pressed the transmit button on his portable radio. An officer can be heard warning Muhammad not to walk behind him. Muhammad replies by shouting, “Make me!”

And make him they did. About 100 cops from all over south Los Angeles and beyond responded to the ensuing melee, during which two police officers and Muhammad himself were slightly injured. Two police radios were stolen, and one officer had the pocket flap of his uniform shirt ripped off. Muhammad and two of his bodyguards were arrested and taken to the 77th Street police station, where soon was gathered an angry crowd demanding their release. While confined in a holding cell, a tearful Muhammad was consoled by an LAPD deputy chief, a move that did not sit well (and still doesn’t) with the officers involved in the altercation. Muhammad had been struck in the face during the struggle but refused an offer of ice packs, preferring to appear as bruised and swollen as possible after posting bail and addressing his admirers and the press.

“This is why we need a movement, because ain’t nothing’s changed in 40 years,” Muhammad said after his release. “We’re at the bottom, and we might as well stand the hell up today, and so my family for this nation of black people, I’m with you, I ain’t going nowhere. Power to the people.”

And all they asked him to do was move his car.

Muhammad next inserted himself into controversy last fall, when he joined those appealing for clemency for Stanley “Tookie” Williams. Appearing on KFI radio’s “The John and Ken Show” in November, Muhammad leaped beyond the bounds of reasoned debate when he compared quadruple-murderer Williams to America’s Founding Fathers. “He has admitted that he is the co-founder of the Crips [street gang], you see,” Muhammad told the disbelieving radio hosts, “but heck, the co-founders of America didn’t start off right, so therefore, the co-founders of the Crips didn’t start off right, either.” (You can hear the whole exchange here.)

There is a seldom-discussed fear that animates just about everyone in city government here in Los Angeles: the fear of a riot like that which followed the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King in 1992. It is this fear that causes them to embrace charlatans like Tony Muhammad and others, who use the threat of such a riot as a means to increase their own influence and to lay claim to a share of the millions of dollars in “gang-intervention” money that the city spreads around each year. And it is this fear that also requires the periodic sacrifice of police officers involved in controversial incidents. Muhammad has sued the LAPD over this incident, and there will of course be the inevitable demands for at least one of the involved cops to be fired.

Contrary to his own claims, Muhammad does not enjoy a wide following in south Los Angeles. But he can summon a vocal crowd to city hall or police headquarters at the drop of a hat, so he is given undue deference by those who find it more palatable to kowtow to him than confront him. Some people, both in and out of city government, are so deluded as to think he can bring peace to neighborhoods long torn by gang violence. One such person is LaWanda Hawkins, head of a Los Angeles-based organization called Justice for Murdered Children. Last September, Hawkins told the Los Angeles Times that Muhammad commands respect from young people beyond those in the Nation of Islam. “If Minister Tony calls down and says, ‘No killin’ tonight,’ there won’t be none,” she said. “That’s how influential he is.”

About 140 people have been murdered in south Los Angeles so far this year. Now that he’s in the clear with the city attorney’s office, perhaps Minister Tony might be persuaded to make those calls a bit more frequently.

Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.