The Devil and Mr. Jones

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

Despite the vow, his problems with the law and drugs weren't over. In 1987 police found a .38 revolver in a car he had been driving. Because it is illegal for a felon to possess a firearm, he spent another year in prison. When he got out in 1988, he started a landscaping business and bought a house, a fixer-upper in a quiet neighborhood near a school on NW 112th Street and Eighteenth Avenue. He paid $3000 down and $650 a month.

In 1991 he returned to prison for a third time after police raided an apartment he was visiting and found three ounces of cocaine. Police also alleged they found cocaine in his car, which Jones denies. The sentence: a year and a day.

But Jones's third time in prison was different. He kept up with his business and contacted family and friends to ensure that his house payments were current. When Jones's incarceration ended, he picked up where he had left off and started living an activist's life.

He designated one bedroom in his house for hardship cases. "I can't count the number of times I done took a person off the street who didn't have a place to live and let them stay in that room until they found a job and got on their feet," he declares. "I thought it would be selfish of me to do anything else. Here I was with this big old four-bedroom house. There were too many young brothers and people who didn't have a place to stay."

Jones credits a black radical named Mahaka (the spelling is phonetic; Jones has never seen it in print) with propelling him into a life of activism four years ago. He met the man near a convenience store owned by his sister Joann on NW Seventeenth Avenue and 40th Street. Mahaka was distributing flyers that called for release of Mumia Abu Jamal, a black radio journalist convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. He believed it was a frameup. Jones was impressed by the man's dedication.

"He had a little job, I can't remember what. I think he made about $130 a week and he lived in a room in Overtown," Jones says. "After he paid for that room and bought some food, he would put all his money into flyers promoting black businesses and black causes. That hit me. Here was a brother dedicating his whole life to the advancement and struggle of black people and I wasn't doing anything."

A little later inspiration took hold. Jones formed NANA, a group of about 80 business owners. Its aim was to strengthen the black community politically and economically. The organization's first act was to launch a voter registration drive. Then Jones started hosting talent shows in a community room at his sister's store. During intermission, NANA members would lecture about subjects such as the Abu Jamal case. They also prepared holiday meals and raised money to buy toys for poor children. Today the group is housed in a dingy, steamy storefront on NW 22nd Avenue. The door is often open and the sound of grinding truck gears echoes through the office.

Eventually Jones became more innovative. To help black-owned convenience stores, which were losing business to markets owned by immigrants from the Middle East, Jones started a buyout program. Activists would descend on a black-owned store and buy everything on the shelves, giving the owners a cash infusion. The buyers would then donate the merchandise to the poor. After a Palestinian store owner, alleging self-defense, shot a black employee named Charles Nelson in 1996, Jones began a controversial drive to boycott all Arab-owned stores.

It was around this time that Jones met T. Willard Fair, president and chief executive of the Greater Miami Urban League. Fair remembers: "He came to me once when he was attempting to get the black community to support smaller black-owned businesses. That notion is tied clearly to ethnic solidarity, not to consumer demands. I advised that I did not think that was appropriate." Fair urged him to help blacks gain a competitive edge, advice that didn't jibe with Jones's more interventionist inclinations.

On March 25, 1997, Jones says, he was driving by an Arab-owned store when a worker threatened him: The man allegedly stared at Jones while drawing his finger across his throat. What happened next is in dispute. Jones says he returned alone, confronted store workers about the gesture, then left after some heated words were exchanged.

But store employee Nadir Mohamed told police Jones entered with three armed friends. The men purportedly smashed a cash register and the store's video camera; Jones was later arrested and charged with aggravated assault. The case could have been a disaster for him because of state sentencing guidelines. If convicted, he would have been classified a career-felony offender and sentenced to a minimum of 30 years. But prosecutors declined to press charges because the alleged victims did not show up in court.

"I didn't go there with no guns and I didn't tear the place up," Jones maintains. "I asked them what they meant by [the finger across the throat]." The store is now closed and Mohamed could not be reached for comment.

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