During a Feb. 1 panel on the first year of Trump’s presidency at the College of Charleston, the conversation turned to acts of defiance that, while in the present seem radical, are likely to go down in history as pivotal moments on the frontline of a cultural battle.
Panelist Anthony Greene, a sociology and African-American studies professor, was talking about former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“Colin Kaepernick won’t be elevated to the activist that he is now,” Greene warned a crowd mostly congregated to catch a glimpse of MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid, who was moderating the night’s discussion. “We won’t see that for probably another 20 to 25 years. Now, he’s a troublemaker. People failed to remember when he was protesting, he was doing it silently. It was the media that caught him in a pre-season game.”
It was also the media that caught Muhiyidin d’Baha performing a now iconic feat of resistance at the College of Charleston on Feb. 22, 2017.
A local news camera followed as d’Baha, whose legal name was Muhiyidin El Amin Moye, ran and leapt over police tape to try to tear down a Confederate battle flag being waved by members of the South Carolina Secessionist Party outside of a speech by activist Bree Newsome.
Newsome herself was previously arrested for a similar incident involving the battle flag, which, until very recently, waved in front of the South Carolina Statehouse.
“I remember looking over to my left and looking at the facial expression of two elders,” d’Baha later explained in a video by the Black Collective, a Charleston-based platform for black news and entertainment. “It just showed a little bit of fear, as if this is something they’ve seen before. So just in a protectionist kind of way I was like, you know, let me just go around and take care of this flag real quick.”
D’Baha’s protective instinct earned him an arrest on charges of disorderly conduct and malicious injury to real property. But where some saw a carried away local activist, others saw the makings of a civil rights leader.
The flag-snatching was an active moment of non-conformism. It has become synonymous with d’Baha’s name and inextricable from his legacy, which is slowly being molded after the 32-year-old was shot and killed by an unknown suspect while riding his bike in New Orleans in the early hours of Tues. Feb. 6.
New Orleans Police Department spokesman Beau Tidwell told CP that no new details were available as of Friday afternoon.
Shanalea Forrest met d’Baha in Oregon during the first day of Occupy Eugene, an offshoot of the Occupy movement, a disparate group of nationwide protests that sought to raise awareness about income inequality.
She remembers a particularly cold, rainy, and stressful day. The Occupy campers had just finished a meal, and d’Baha was guiding them through meditation with the help of a flute he carried in a singing bowl, an instrument used for meditation in Buddhism and other faiths.
“The energy in the camp in general, but specifically of those doing the meditation, just shifted and just brought a lot of peace,” Forrest said in a phone interview with CP. “When I think of him, I think about that moment, and just how he held a lot space for a variety of people.”
After Occupy Eugene, Forrest found herself in South Carolina. The 20th anniversary of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. in 2015 inspired a similar rally in Charleston. Attendees then planned a community meeting, which planted the seed for an anti-police brutality group in the area to be named Black Lives Matter, a name now inevitably attached to any mention of d’Baha.
People like d’Baha, Newsome, and Kaepernick are the sacrificial lambs that keep social justice movements alive. Their tangible, physical acts of disobedience, such as taking a knee or taking down a flag, keep the wheels of discourse and dissent spinning by offering symbolic images that can be played over and over again.
Tamika Gadsen, who organized this year’s Women’s March at Brittlebank Park, says that Charleston’s propensity to filter what it sees, and who it hears, often creates a skewed perception of activism in the area.
“Charleston has an uncanny ability to pick and choose the voices of color, the black voices specifically, that it wants to prop up or deem worthy,” she said in a phone interview with CP. “They almost ration their tolerance or patience for black awareness, for activism … and that tends to create an environment where you only hear one dominant voice for one period of time.”
The truth of what inspired d’Baha to run towards the flag was far more complicated than photo captions and soundbites can convey. He often hosted drum circles, participated in demonstrations across the country, and spoke openly about the callous indifference shown by white elected officials when confronted by their Black constituents.
At a wake for d’Baha at Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, Shakem Akhet, a friend and local community organizer, recalled one such instance.
D’Baha was restless with his city’s inaction after North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shot and killed an unarmed Walter Scott in the back following a traffic stop in April 2015. At a North Charleston City Council meeting, d’Baha called for a review board to improve relations between police and the public. Akhet noticed North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey’s face turn red with frustration.
“Summey said, ‘Your time is up,’ Akhet said. “And [d’Baha] said no, ‘Your time is up!'”
Summey’s spokesman, Ryan Johnson, says that the mayor typically announces when a citizen has exhausted his or her time limit during a public comment period, and that “any interaction with Muhiyidin would have been no different.”
D’Baha was arrested at a different North Charleston City Council meeting — while asking for the same thing — almost a year later, that time for “congregating for an unlawful purpose,” according to The Post & Courier. He was released the same night on $470 bail.
That kind of pushback is why Akhet called it “strange” that Charleston mayor John Tecklenburg showed up to a memorial drum circle held for d’Baha at Hampton Park on Feb. 10, considering the mayor’s initial reluctance to allow for an independent review of the Charleston Police Department, a cause near to d’Baha’s heart.
Those at his wake, which drew everyone from acquaintances to complete strangers to members of Walter Scott’s family, including his mother, echoed the “your time is up” line as Akhet delivered it — a choir of faithful adherents to a near-legendary figure.
Man vs. Myth
D’Baha no longer represents himself. His actions, and everything they stood for, are up for discussion, dissemination, and devotion by those he left behind.
Archivist Barrye Brown at the Avery Research Center is doing her best to ensure that we don’t rush to print the legend.
Brown sprung into action shortly after hearing of d’Baha’s passing. She is now collecting as many social media posts, newspaper clippings, fliers, and videos of him as she can.
“We try to preserve all materials and all perspectives because that’s what’s most important in terms of maintaining an accurate historical record,” Brown said. “You definitely don’t want to create a false narrative.”
While it’s still early, she’s most excited about a series of photographs she’s been called about.
“It’s definitely been a large outpouring of love and sadness, which really speak to his influence and presence here in the Charleston community,” she said.
While d’Baha’s journey is stitched together, Charleston’s fledgling activist community has some work to do itself.
Passing the torch
February 2018 has been a roller-coaster of a Black History Month in Charleston. The death of Muhiyidin d’Baha sent shockwaves through the media, where it lives amidst joyous stories about the premiere of Marvel’s Black Panther and the ever-problematic presidency of Donald Trump.
In an interview with Jennifer Gibson earlier this year, the S.C. House candidate for District 99 expressed hope that the group that helped raise money to bail d’Baha out of jail after the flag snatching incident at CofC, the Charleston chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), would shut down soon.
SURJ’s mission charges white people with the duty of dismantling white supremacy, an ambitious task made even harder when those affected by white supremacy are ignored.
“As white people, we can’t know what the challenges facing communities of color are,” Gibson said. “Is that work possible, even with partners guiding you through the process? Does that [space] just give us a place to park our white fragility? I’m of the opinion that SURJ was a failed experiment,” Gibson told CP.
Gibson has since distanced herself from SURJ. The chapter archived its Facebook group earlier this month amidst allegations that it sometimes ignored its black accountability partners, but it opened the group for comments following the death of d’Baha. The group has since been closed once again.
Gadsen, the Charleston Women’s March organizer, says that national SURJ leadership had previously recognized problems with this chapter.
“White social or racial justice movements promote the very systems they seek to dismantle because they’re not listening to the black community,” she said. “While some have benefited from SURJ, my experience has been the opposite, and SURJ has chosen to ignore the pain that they’ve inflicted. They re-opened the page and re-opened the wound, and that’s real.”
A number of other activist groups are still flourishing, hoping to carry on d’Baha’s messages of peace and unity.
Akhet, who works with multiple activist groups in the region, plans on opening an after-school program at the Community Resource Center in Summerville for children who struggle with reading. Originally named the Asafo Leadership Academy, after the Akan warrior group, Akhet has since changed the name to the Muhiyidin d’Baha Leadership Academy.
At the CofC panel, Dr. Greene said, “We celebrate Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, but when they were alive, not so popular.” Two weeks later, at d’Baha’s wake, Pastor Nelson B. Rivers joked about the number of people who now claim to have marched with Dr. King.
“If this many people had been next to him, he would’ve still been alive!” he mused.
Akhet, Forrest, and others toiling away on the ground in Charleston can confidently say they once walked with Muhiyidin d’Baha. Now, all they can do is watch as d’Baha’s legacy unfolds before them, in a way they hope he would be proud of.