The Devil and Mr. Jones

Activist Leroy Jones battled personal demons and has emerged as a radical bent on black empowerment.

In a sterile white conference room on the second floor of the Department of Justice building in downtown Miami, about 80 Opa-locka residents are gathered: old ladies in floral-print dresses, pastors in suits, and police officers in short-sleeve, midnight-blue uniforms.

A serious-looking black man in a dark suit, white shirt, and dark-blue tie takes the podium and explains that a federal program called Weed and Seed is coming to their impoverished town. Hardened criminals will be arrested and jobs created. "I can't find the right words to express how critical it is to address the problems in our community," intones Patrick White, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Then he cites the crime and high school dropout rates. "If we have the strategy, if we have the plan, it's going to work."

Who could argue with that?
Then a hand near the back of the crowd shoots up and White frowns. Leroy Jones, in gray work pants, a striped polo shirt, and boots, speaks: "Right now in our community, we got so many unemployed, they standing on the street corner with the criminals. They the target of police harassment." Jones reaches into a tattered folder and pulls out a sheaf of papers, which he explains are arrest forms stamped "Weed and Seed." Prosecutors declined to pursue the cases, he alleges, because they believed that police had violated the arrestees' civil rights.

Jones launches into a speech that lasts a couple of minutes. Government agencies spend more money to detain people in poor areas than to create jobs, he declares. The crowd murmurs "MM-hhmm," and "All right now." One large man leans forward to touch Jones's shoulder. "Good point, brother, good point." Jones is twisting in his chair, his voice rising, his left hand chopping the air for emphasis. "So all I'm saying is that I think we need to seed first. If we allow the people to have employment, then it will be easy to see who the criminals are."

Liberty City's scrappy black radical has struck again, this time wielding his raw rhetoric on behalf of young black men with criminal records. It's a group Jones knows intimately. He is a product of Miami's projects, a former drug addict and felon who went to prison three times: in 1983 for burglary, in 1988 for illegal gun possession, and in 1991 for cocaine trafficking. It is unclear whether he has left that past behind; last year prosecutors charged him with threatening the owner of a convenience store. The case was dropped when the alleged victim didn't show up in court.

Today Jones says he is a reformed, if unrepentant, man. He has lashed together his experiences as a lawbreaker and a prisoner to fashion a life with a purpose. He's a soldier in what he calls the struggle for self-sufficiency in the black community. He has organized workshops to help black-owned convenience store owners share resources and improve management practices. He has persuaded the county to allow him to turn vacant lots into profitable gardens. He has launched drives for voter registration, Christmas toys, and food for the poor. He has also organized free meals for the elderly and protested unfair treatment of inner-city homebuyers by developers.

His efforts have garnered some unlikely admirers. The Miami-Dade County Commission gave him a grant of $100,000 this year to help run an activist group he founded in 1995 called the Neighbors and Neighbors Association (NANA). And last spring Mayor Alex Penelas awarded him the medal of merit for "turning his life around and becoming a recognized community leader."

But awards have not dulled Jones's enthusiasm for criticizing the system. In 1996 he started a group called Brothers of the Same Mind, which marched against Weed and Seed and also opposed Penelas's Safe Streets/Clean Sweep program (which allocates money to pay for increased patrols in certain areas). Jones and his colleagues claim those plans violate the rights of black people. His complaints about Weed and Seed recently prompted Miami police to review their arrest procedures. His organizations also distribute leaflets outlining citizens' rights, and recently began investigating the police shooting of a Liberty City man in his own back yard.

Jones, along with Brothers of the Same Mind, has protested on courthouse steps against a judge who he says is biased against black defendants. He has called for boycotts of Arab-owned convenience stores in Liberty City. And he has urged residents of inner-city neighborhoods to patronize black-owned establishments.

"He has raised some serious questions about the efficacy [of Clean Sweep]," says Miami-Dade Commissioner Jimmy Morales. "He has shown that it results in a lot of misdemeanor arrests that often get dismissed. He can be very persuasive. And I think what you saw in the most recent budget cycle is that commissioners started listening." Morales is referring to the nearly three million dollars allocated for economic development to Commissioner Barbara Carey's district, which includes portions of Liberty City and Overtown.

Carey is also a Jones booster. "I'm really encouraged by him and impressed with what he's done in our community. I will do whatever I can to help him. He's trying to keep young men out of trouble."

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