Friends and Family Question the Media’s Coverage of the Life and Death of Malcolm X’s Grandson

Yousuf Fahimuddin,
Politics Editor

His friends described him as charismatic and soft-spoken. He was seen as a promising young activist, and a rising black star who shared much in common with his legendary grandfather, Malcolm X. Many of his closest associates still could not comprehend Friday morning how their friend and colleague, Malcolm Shabazz, had died on May 9, 2013 in Mexico at the age of 28.

The funeral service, held at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California in Oakland, drew close to 100 people. Many of his family members, including his mother Qubilah Shabazz, and friends from across country were in attendance.

Aliya Iman-Torres stood leaning against the wooden door frame and watched silently. She wore a simple black dress with a red shawl wrapped around her shoulders, dangling from her thin frame. A second black scarf covered her hair. She is a Muslim, and Shabazz was her good friend.

The funeral services ended, the eulogies were finished, the prayer was done, but the tears were still rolling. Friends gathered in the open road to say goodbye one last time to their friend, whose heavy casket had been carried down the long flight of stairs and loaded in the hearse. Its destination was New York City. His mother requested that he be buried next to his grandfather.

Iman-Torres shared a close relationship with Shabazz. They met four years ago in Atlanta, where he and a friend stayed with her family for a time. She last spoke with him just four hours before he died.

“He was one of the most humble, quiet, misunderstood, alone people when he shouldn’t have been alone. He shouldn’t have been alone,” she said, her voice filled with silent emotion.

“We had a great love for each other,” she continued. “When he traveled all over the world, he would always check in with me and tell me where he was going, who he was with, if he was safe or not, and we had a mutual understanding. Wherever he hit down, he would call me. And four hours before he got murdered in Mexico, he told me he was safe.”

Some of his friends pondered out loud if perhaps Shabazz had been too trusting. Iman-Torres recalled how he once told her to not show weakness to the wrong people, because they’ll turn around and use it against you. She became concerned when she learned that his activism would take him to Mexico.

Shabazz at the time was working with the Revolutionary United Mexicans in Combat to raise money to build a mosque in downtown Oakland, said childhood friend Thomas Love. RUMEC is not an Islamic organization; they were merely one of the many groups that were part of Shabazz’s network of activists.

“I’ve been very angry that he actually went down in the first place. But it was his job. A man has to do what a man has to do,” Iman-Torres said.

Love paused for a minute to think back fondly on his experiences with Shabazz. He first met him when he was 16 years old. Their mothers were close friends, which cemented the bond between Love and Shabazz’s family.

“We’re best friends; I’ve known him since I was young. We got in a lot of trouble together. A lot of trouble together,” Love said laughing. “I watched him grow. He could have been anything else other than what he was, and I’ve seen him in many different stages, many different cocoons and every stage he goes through is better than the last. He was a good father, he was a good friend, he was a good brother. Period. He was pure. One of the most polite and humble people you’ll ever meet, ever. ”

Love flew in from New York to attend the funeral. Both he and Shabazz’s mother Qubilah Shabazz, whom he affectionately refers to as “QB,” flew back to New York the same day of Friday’s service to prepare for the burial. In attendance will be the mother and child of one of Shabazz’s two children.

Love and Iman-Torres had never met before but quickly connected over their shared intimacy with Shabazz. Both of them doubted the veracity of the stories that have circulated in the media surrounding Shabazz’s death.

“It’s bulls—,” Love said. “First of all I know him, and—I know him and I know Mexico. You’re not going to run up a twelve hundred dollar tab in Mexico first of all. Second of all, he’s not going to be in a whorehouse, drinking and doing all that other stuff. Everything just didn’t sound right to me. It didn’t sound like something he would do.”

Iman-Torres believes the media is deliberately trying to destroy Shabazz’s image and his legacy by focusing on his troubled youth and not mentioning the work he did in his later life.

“First you assassinate his character, and then you assassinate him, and it’s okay,” she said emotionally. “And it’s not okay. That’s exactly what they did. So I don’t believe the story, I believe that he was lured, made comfortable, and killed. That’s what I believe.”

“Like I said I’ve known him when he was at his worst, and I’ve watched him grow,” Love added, “It just doesn’t seem like something that he would take part in. He went down to Mexico with all his Islamic books and everything like that, so, just that alone, he didn’t go down there to have a good time and be with prostitutes and be doing the things that they said. He was dropped off there too; it didn’t take place there at the bar. It’s just a whole bunch of stuff. The media will have you believe in anything, you know, it’s sad to me. Like I feel like this is going to be one of those things where we’re never really going to get to the bottom of it, and I hope we do. But, man.”

The funeral service was intended to be private, and was attended mostly by family and friends. Prior to the eulogies, and the prayer, friends took the stage to speak on the memory of Malcolm Shabazz, who lay in a casket nearby.

Shabazz’s close friend and one-time housemate Hashim Alauddeen completed the Islamic rituals of preparing and washing the body for burial. Originally, Shabazz was supposed to be buried at the Rolling Hills Cemetery in Richmond, Alauddeen said. But at the request of his mother it was moved to New York City, so that Shabazz could be buried with his grandparents Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz.

Alauddeen was sitting at home one day when he received a Facebook message from Shabazz. Shabazz was traveling in Damascus to study Islam, and converted to Shia Islam after making a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter Zainab.

Shabazz felt an emotional connection with Zainab, Alauddeen said, because like Zainab he had witnessed many members of his family killed and he felt it was his burden to maintain the family legacy.

Alauddeen noted humorously that prior to that Facebook conversation they had never met before. Reliving that memory proved difficult for Alauddeen, who broke down emotionally as he looked longingly at Shabazz’s casket.

“And then I started seeing this man’s grandfather. And he’s asking me to care for him. To have me communicate with him,” Alauddeen said in tears. “So I’m going back and forth with the brother, and he’s in Syria, and he’s saying ‘I just want to learn about Islam man, I’m in Syria’ and on and on. And I’m looking back [at the conversation] and he said, ‘Can I come live with you?’ …and I cried and I was like, ‘Yeah.’”

Alauddeen described his experience living with Shabazz as being rewarding, but full of surprises. He recalled how he would play chess with Alauddeen’s son, and how they would fight, and the one time he got in an accident and totaled Alauddeen’s car. The family had to sell furniture to pay back the $6,000 it took to fix the vehicle, he said.

“But this is what living is really about. You don’t love somebody if you aren’t ready to struggle with them,” Alauddeen said, laughing at the memory.

Before Shabazz moved to California, he traveled to Washington DC at the height of the Occupy protests to join the movement there, said Imam Akbar Abdul-Karim Bilal. Bilal is the National Minister of Justice for the New Black Panther Party. When he worked with Shabazz he said he saw a “great aura” in him when they were together.

Bilal dressed in an immaculate black suit, paired with a laced black kufi and a colorful bowtie, an expressive outfit indicating his great affection for the Nation of Islam.  At the age of seven, Bilal watched Malcolm X speak at a mosque in Washington DC. As a youth he admired both X and Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam. For Bilal, Elijah Muhammad and his followers were saviors to him and the black community. Muhammad helped many black youth break out of the vicious cycle of drugs and imprisonment they found themselves entangled in during the 1960s.

Shabazz was more of the spirit of Elijah Muhammad than that of his grandfather, he said, and the religious leaders at the procession that day failed to recognize that. Many religious leaders over the years had tried to reach out to the black community, he said, but none had the effectiveness of the Nation of Islam.

“It’s hard to match Elijah when it comes to the cleaning up of black men. Taking a guy from the penitentiary, giving him counseling and helping him to get straight, getting him off of alcohol and drugs; oh my! I didn’t see nobody stop even a tip to do that work, but Elijah Muhammad,” Bilal contested.

Like Shabazz’s other friends, he too was not confident in the legitimacy of the official story. Looking back on his life, and the circumstances that led to his death, Bilal stopped to emphasize one point.

“My appeal personally is that: Do not look for love in the wrong places. Please do not look for love in the wrong places. Because the evidence that there’s never a good end, a good result, comes from that,” Bilal said with remorse.

A quiet man from Philadelphia known as Sheik Hussien Mekki, led the religious aspect of the funeral service. He remembered how he helped Shabazz further his education of Shia Islam when Shabazz visited him in Houston. Mekki said that like Malcolm X, he saw a constant progression of maturity and philosophy in Shabazz that he respected.

“I never got the impression, not for a single moment, that Malcolm was a stagnant individual,” Mekki said. “And I was excited for the potential that he had and where he could be. I was excited to see in five years or ten years what he could have grown into.”

In his time with Shabazz they put on interfaith events together and Shabazz would often go out to feed the poor and do outreach for youth, primarily of the Muslim faith. He was most impressed by how Shabazz as a young black leader was able to connect with Muslims of all ethnicities.

He recalled an occasion where Shabazz gave a speech at a mosque in Houston, Texas, on Shia Islam, and the patience he had with the worshippers who wanted to speak with him after the event.

“The program started sometime in the afternoon, and he stayed to the very last person who wanted to talk to him, which was well after the center was closed, around 12 or 1 in the morning,” Mekki said.

After repositioning Shabazz’s casket so that it faced toward Mecca, Mekki led a congregation of 30 men and women in the janaza, or funeral prayer. When a Muslim is buried, according to Islamic tradition, their head is turned facing toward Mecca.

Following Islamic customs, Mekki shouted “Takbir” five times. Each time he shouted Takbir, the worshippers shouted back “Allahu Akbar.” Then they cupped their hands in prayer, and asked god to forgive Shabazz for his sins.

Then they carried the casket out of the congregation room, down the staircase, and into the hearse waiting outside.

Damian Bascom, as fate would have it, arrived late to the funeral. He was visibly distraught when he learned that he had just missed the procession of the casket from the mosque to the airport. Bascom flew in from Washington DC to see his old friend one last time. He had once provided Shabazz with a place to stay in the capitol when he was involved with Occupy in 2011.

“When I first met him, I asked him about some of the accusations he had with his family, and just his upbringing accusations. He had basically said, man that, people have you under this microscope all the time, and just it’s hard to be yourself under this great magnitude of the microscope that people would try to put you in and judge you under,” Bascom said.

“And that was something really touching, and it really hit me, he asked me what did I know about him. And I didn’t. I had no past knowledge of him. That moment when I first met him that night—he was just a young man. Just a young man. Just a regular old human being.”

Alauddeen invited the poet Amir Sulaiman, known for his expressive poetry and his loud booming voice, to perform for the worshippers after they completed their Friday prayers. While he traveled in Iran, Alauddeen observed their tradition of inviting poets to recite poetry in between prayers so that more people would come to the mosque.  Sulaiman recited for his audience the poem “Dead Man Walking.” The evocative gestures, the sadness and at times rage in his voice sought vainly to encapsulate all the desperation and hopelessness of black Muslim youth.

When he  finished, the air in the room hung silently until one man spoke up, and he said, “That’s a nice tradition brother.” And then they said “Takbir,” and the men yelled back “Allahu Akbar” in that curious, unconscious way Muslims shout that phrase, oblivious to emotion, forgetting the past and presuming a better future.