By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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."
Jones's tangles with the law don't bother commissioners. "It probably gives him a greater degree of credibility on the street," Morales says. Adds Carey: "It's not every day someone gets out of jail and says 'I want to help.'"
To describe Jones, Max Rameau, who works at NANA, mentions an anecdote from Malcolm X's autobiography about a black man who memorized entire ledgers of numbers for bookies. His purpose was to avoid carrying incriminating slips of paper. "Malcolm concluded that if this guy had been white, he would have been able to take advantage of his natural abilities in our economic system. I see a lot of similarities with Leroy. He's got above-average intelligence, but because he grew up in a certain community and looked a certain way, he was undereducated and not able to live up to his potential -- until recently."
White contends Jones's beefs about law enforcement are wrong-headed. The government must focus on arresting criminals and creating employment at the same time. "Anybody who says 'I don't care about the murders, rapes, and aggravated assaults going on because these guys need jobs,' that is insane. What you're saying in effect is that we're going to hold hostage the whole community in Liberty City until we get jobs for these folks."
Adds Frank Boni, assistant director of investigative services for the Miami-Dade Police Department: "Certainly many of the people we interact with are victims of the system. ... But it's ridiculous to say we should cancel our enforcement efforts."
Savannah, Georgia, was a slow-moving Southern city when Leroy Ivory Jones was born there in September 1962. The doors of corner stores were left unlocked and shoppers took what they needed, then left money on the counter. But it was a hard place to be poor and black. Jones's father Jack died of diabetes when Leroy was about five, leaving behind his widow Ola and five children. When Jones was nine, the family moved to Overtown, where his mother thought job prospects would be better.
When Jones was fifteen years old, the family moved to a housing project called Larchmont Gardens in northwest Dade. The first time he went to play baseball in a nearby park, on the very first swing of his very first at bat, he hit a home run. He wasn't as good at football; the other kids called him "Slow Motion." But every day he went to that park after school.
Until it closed.
"There wasn't nothing for us to do except hang out on the corner," Jones recounts. They dubbed their spot at 84th Street and NW Fifth Avenue the "hole." One day someone brought some dice and they learned to gamble. Cops passing in their cruisers would slow down and eye them. Cautiously, the players would continue their game. For Jones it was all part of an interminable inner-city dance of suspicion: police watched them as they watched police.
Though the boys looked for work, they soon lost their zeal. They each took a nickname. "Carburetor," "Jim Dandy," "Money." Jones says he was called Paul but doesn't remember why. They started planning more than just dice games. At one point, Jones says, an Arab convenience store owner gave him a cheap, .25-caliber pistol as a gift. Jones put it in a sock in his closet.
"Me and an older gentleman got into a fight over his daughter, who liked me. He didn't want her to see me, saying I was trouble and all I did was stand on the corner. Well, we started arguing and he hit me. I was so angry I ran home to get my gun.
"My sister saw me walking out with it. And she told me, I remember it clear as day, 'Leroy, if you walk out that door with that gun, one of two things is going to happen: Either you're going to end up hurting that man or he's going to take that gun away from you and kill you. Somebody's going to get hurt and somebody's going to have to pay for it.' That made me stop and think, it really did. And I put it back." Jones says his mother later threw the weapon away.
At age sixteen Jones broke into a store. Police caught him in the parking lot and a judge sent him to a youth detention center for about a month. "That's when he was into the streets," remembers Renee Reddick, who dated Jones for a few months that year. "I had a very strict mom. She was not into that at all." Today Reddick and Jones are engaged.
Two years later, after dropping out of Miami Edison High School, Jones was caught trying to break into a house. A judge sentenced him to a year and a day. In prison, Jones says he learned to read, a skill he had not mastered at Edison. "I made it all the way to the twelfth grade and couldn't read a third-grade book."
After about six months in prison, Jones entered a work-release program as a laborer for a concrete company. Then he started drinking hard and freebasing cocaine. "I was a functional addict. I always paid my bills," he says. That doesn't mean he was happy. He kicked the habit after approximately five years in a haze. The end came as he watched TV one afternoon with his toddler sons, Orpheus and Pernell. "I was so high, I had cartoons on and they wouldn't watch the cartoons. They just kept watching me. They knew something was wrong," he recalls. "Right then I said, 'This is it, no more'."
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.
Jones pressed on. In June 1997 he and a half-dozen men in black "Brothers of the Same Mind" T-shirts carried placards outside the courthouse on NW Twelfth Street, denouncing Circuit Court Judge Barbara Levenson. Levenson had revoked the bond of one of the group's members, Worrine Terrel Sams, after he allegedly appeared at a hearing under the influence. Later the Brothers criticized Levenson for detaining several black construction workers on the suspicion they had threatened a juror.
The dispute trailed Levenson into her re-election campaign this past September. Jones bought radio ads on WMBM-AM (1490) denouncing her. Levenson then filed a complaint with the Miami-Dade Bar Association, alleging the ads were purchased by her opponent, Assistant Public Defender Rosa Figarola. "These ads were allegedly paid for by a group called BROTHERS OF THE SAME MIND," Levenson wrote. "It would be unlikely that such a group would pay for this expensive effort without the involvement of my opponent or her consultants." Figarola denied the charges and politely requested that Brothers discontinue the ads. Jones refused. The Bar scaldingly declared that the "ads are clearly designed to incite voters to select candidates based on improper ... racial grounds." Figarola lost the election.
Asked for a comment, Levenson said only: "I don't know enough about them to say anything. I understand they are a very small group." That's a common theme among the Brothers' targets. Remarks Patrick White: "Brothers of the Same Mind, as far as we can tell, is only a handful of folks, about three of them. So they don't speak for the community." Adds Miami-Dade Police Department's Frank Boni: "They appear to be a small group."
Jones laughs when told of the comments. Though he won't give membership numbers, he produces a picture of the first meeting in 1996; about 30 men are shown in matching T-shirts. "We don't like them to know how many we are. We like to keep 'em guessing."
In July Brothers of the Same Mind investigated the shooting of Liberty City resident Carl Williams by a Miami-Dade police officer. The results of their inquiry are scheduled for release this month. The group is also busy clearing a lot near NW 114th Street for a community garden. In his office one day recently, Jones shows pictures of other gardens where rows of collard greens and sweet potatoes were ready for harvesting. "We're going to pay young men to cut them and maintain the lots, and then we'll sell them through the stores," he declares.
Jones now owns seven homes in northwest Dade. He bought most of them at fire-sale prices, according to county land records. He acquired one of the properties in 1989 for $8000, another in 1990 for $18,000, another in 1992 for $15,000. He says he earns a living by cobbling together profits from renting the homes with his $25,000 yearly salary as head of NANA. Jones and Max Rameau, whose salary is $23,800, are NANA's only paid employees.
On a recent weekday afternoon, after monitoring a Miami City Commission meeting, Jones drives his clunky 1969 Lincoln to a house he owns on NW 112th Street. He plans to repair the bathroom before a new, female tenant moves in. The woman, who is fresh from drug rehab, will pay no rent, he says.
But minutes after he arrives, Jones is on the phone to Commissioner Carey's office nagging her aides about funding for the Martin Luther King Day parade. He wants to confirm that there's enough money this year.
One of the house's current tenants, Steve Kennedy, ambles out. Kennedy, who works nights at a Denny's restaurant, pays only $30 per week rent, which is less than the other two tenants pay. Jones gives Kennedy a break because he must make child support payments.
"Leroy is an all-right person," Kennedy says. "He's understanding, that's for sure. I owe him money now, and he ain't threatened to throw me out."
After hanging up, Jones explains that the house is the center of his activism. "Some positive people have come out of here," he recalls. "One guy, he was homeless and on drugs, and now he's a welder earning $20 an hour. Another guy became a pilot." To Jones, the home is solid reassurance that, after a life nearly derailed by mistakes, he is still a worthy person.
"I've apologized before the county commission and the city commission for growing up like I did and being a troubled kid," he says, leaning back in a vinyl chair. "Sometimes I think about what I would do if I could do it all over.... But if it was different, I wouldn't be doing the stuff I'm doing today." He pauses and looks around. "I've done pretty good for a brother who stood on the corner."