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The Cops and Minister Tony

It's late on a Friday afternoon when an unusual mix of police and South L.A. community leaders manage to cram themselves into 100 folding chairs in an uncomfortably warm classroom at the back of St. Michael’s Catholic Church on Manchester Boulevard. A quick glance around the room suggests that nobody’s happy. This is an “emergency meeting” called by Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, commanding officer of the South Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department. He’s asked everyone to come because of a scuffle involving LAPD officers and Minister Tony Muhammad, the western regional director of the Nation of Islam.Chief Paysinger is a tall, bald, good-looking guy and something of a rising star in the department. He is also the LAPD’s highest-ranking African-American officer — an issue that rankles certain members of the South L.A. community who say they are underrepresented at the highest levels of command staff. Yet, the fact that so many pastors, activists and other influential folk have shown up at all suggests that Paysinger and the department are doing something right.The latest trouble began the night before, on August 25, when Tony Muhammad was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer. Tensions increased this morning, when Muhammad bailed out of jail and held a press conference to announce that cops kicked, slugged and pepper-sprayed him without provocation. Muhammad’s alleged mistreatment was dramatized by an obviously swollen eye and mouth, plus the large photo blowups of his battered face that hung behind him as he spoke.The possibility that the encounter could have a dangerously explosive effect on South L.A. residents — particularly once Muhammad’s photos hit the evening news broadcasts — really worries the LAPD, a fact made clear by the number of Parker Center brass in attendance. Police Chief Bill Bratton is out of town, but Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell stands at the back of the room with a cluster of deputy chiefs — all of them looking decidedly grim. “This day has been so crazy,” McDonnell whispers, “you have no idea.”As the two-hour meeting progresses, Paysinger encourages people to air grievances and to suggest solutions — both for the police and for the community. “I attended Minister Tony’s press conference,” says Los Angeles NAACP president Dr. Geraldine Washington, a small, soft-spoken woman wearing a pageboy haircut and an opera-length strand of pearls. “And you think, ‘If they did that to one our leaders, what will they do to me?’ ”Others murmur in assent. “We need an independent inquiry,” says a church pastor. “What do we do about the bad cops?” asks Kerman Maddox, from the First AME Church. Paysinger doesn’t blink. “Yeah, there are some bad cops out there,” he says. A tiny woman sitting in front nods. “When the police make a mistake,” she says solemnly, “it’s honorable for them to admit it.”The idea that the LAPD — for all its considerable progress and transparency over the past three years — is unwilling to acknowledge how deep the problem of misbehaving cops still goes is a theme that meeting participants cite over and over.Xavier Hermosillo, a Harbor-area businessman, who works with the Police Commission on officer discipline cases, says that although major changes in officer training have been made to satisfy the consent decree, the real transformations of mind and heart have yet to occur. “It’s like the teachers who teach to the test,” he says. “But the kids aren’t really learning. Here’s the thing,” says Hermosillo, “no matter how I look at it, I find it hard to understand how officers could confront someone like Minister Tony and take him down to the ground so that he came up with the injuries that he has. I really do.”Neither Paysinger nor the rest of the command staff acknowledge any wrongdoing, but — at this closed-to-the-press meeting, anyway — they aren’t defensive or dismissive. “I realize our credibility, on some levels, is about as low as a snake’s belly,” says Paysinger, and gets a laugh. “But last year we responded to nearly a quarter of a million service calls in South Bureau, most without incident. What we do know,” he adds after the meeting, “is that what happened that night was what you might call the Perfect Social Storm. Community emotions were already scratched raw and had no chance to heal. All the combustible elements were there.” He pauses. “They still are.”The sequence of events leading to Muhammad’s arrest began on the night of Wednesday, August 24, when a handsome 21-year-old named Nahum Beaird was shot in the head and chest by gang members while standing on the sidewalk in the 6300 block of South 10th Avenue, a high-crime locale in the Hyde Park area of South Los Angeles. When paramedics arrived, they determined Beaird was already dead, so they covered his shattered face and body with a sheet. But as he was being loaded into an ambulance, someone in the crowd was sure he saw the sheet move. “He’s alive,” someone else shouted. Paramedics thought otherwise, but still uncovered Beaird and tried, unsuccessfully, to revive him. In the 24-hour period following Beaird’s death, rumors continued to float that things would have been different if only paramedics had performed lifesaving actions sooner. Thus, when his mother, girlfriend and other community members gathered for a vigil near where Beaird died, there was anger mixed in with the heartache. Local community activist Tommy Walker asked Tony Muhammad to attend the vigil — in part to counsel the grieving family, but also to “preach peace” to the still-outraged mourners. According to Walker, the vigil wasn’t large, “20 or 30 people at most,” but by the time Muhammad and his Nation of Islam bodyguards arrived at around 7 p.m., there was no parking available, so they double-parked their two SUVs. “It’s a residential street,” says Walker. “And they left plenty of room for other cars to get by.” By 8 p.m., the mourners had mostly dispersed, but an LAPD black-and-white saw the SUVs and the waning crowd, and, according to police, the patrolling officers decided the two vehicles had to be moved.There are differing accounts of what happened next. Walker says the police barreled toward the vigil too fast for safety. LAPD spokesman Lieutenant Paul Vernon says reports indicate that the officers drove fine, but were met with hostility from Muhammad and the others. Walker, who works with the Westside gang-intervention group Venice 2000, says he doesn’t think that the cops had a clue who Tony Muhammad was. “These officers were young,” says Walker, “rookies. There was one white guy, and one Latino, and their attitude was very angry and aggressive from the minute they jumped out of the car.”Paysinger too admits that the officers were young, and likely didn’t know Muhammad. “We do our best to familiarize officers with the community leaders. But maybe we don’t do enough. Of course,” adds Paysinger, “it shouldn’t matter. You shouldn’t have to be someone important to be treated with respect.”In any case, Walker says that Muhammad identified himself fairly immediately. “And the Latino officer said, ‘I don’t give a damn who you are!’ ” It’s undisputed that some kind of angry words were exchanged, and at 8:05 the officers called for backup. Since LAPD dispatch calls are taped, the next set of verbal exchanges was captured on police audio. The transcript shows a cop telling someone not to walk behind him. Then a voice that the LAPD says is Muhammad’s responds, “I’m not doing nothing, I’m not going nowhere.”“Back up,” says the officer. “I’m not going nowhere, nowhere. I’m not backing up, no way,” says “Muhammad.” “Back up,” repeats the officer. “Make me,” says the putative Muhammad. “Back up!” “Make me!” And there the tape transcript mostly ends. (It should probably be mentioned that Tony Muhammad is not a laid-back guy but a political provocateur with an ego the size of Wyoming. Yet he is also a tireless street minister, who helps gang members and other disaffected kids whom many members of the Southside’s clergy tend to ignore.)It is at this point that Muhammad does an interesting thing. He calls Earl Paysinger.“At least he knew who to call,” says Paysinger afterward. “Whatever did or didn’t happen, I felt good about that.” Paysinger says he could barely hear Muhammad’s words because of the shouting and commotion. Walker contends that after reaching Paysinger, Muhammad turned to the Latino cop and said, “I’ve got your superior right here . . . ,” at which point, according to Walker and Danny Bakewell, publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, the young officer pepper-sprayed Tony Muhammad right in the face.LAPD spokespeople say the opposite occurred. They say that Tony Muhammad became part of an out-of-control mob that attacked the police officers.What is known is that, in less than 10 minutes after the original recorded call, more than 100 officers arrived on the scene, many with helmets on and batons already out. Walker says the helmeted guys started swinging almost immediately. By this time, Muhammad had recovered somewhat from the spray, and, according to Walker, he approached a black sergeant who appeared reasonable. But it was too late. The helmeted guys swarmed Muhammad, says Walker. “Then I watched him disappear into a sea of blue suits and swinging clubs.”Police say Walker’s story is nonsense — that if Muhammad got injured, it was only after attacking an officer himself, and that they have the cop’s ripped shirt to prove it. Walker shrugs at this. “Truthfully, I don’t know how the pocket got ripped off the shirt. Maybe Minister Tony grabbed it when he was going down. I just know that none of us laid hands on a cop, and that those officers had no reason to swarm him.”Walker says there is a videotape of the incident. “It doesn’t show Minister Tony getting sprayed. But it shows everything after that.” The police have heard about the video too — and each side seems equally positive that the tape will vindicate its own position. Unfortunately nobody seems to know who did the filming. “But I’m determined to find the guy,” says Walker. There have been many other meetings, many other press conferences. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made strong public statements about how the city and the police will get to the bottom of things, and that no one is above the law, not priests, or police. Bratton has met with a high-level East Coast representative from the Nation of Islam. At Paysinger’s urging, clergy have walked the streets for several nights running, advocating calm; others preached calm from the pulpit — and it seemed to work. There have been no outbreaks of civic unrest. And nearly everyone — police and community both — says that this clash with Muhammad must not distract from the task of somehow stopping the terrible gang killings that weekly drench South and East L.A. neighborhoods with sorrow. Yet in churches and in homes, the discus­sion and the anger continue. And, in the end, only one thing seems truly clear: The story of Minister Tony Muhammad and the LAPD is not over.