By Michelle Boorstein
Chris Hawthorne was 16 in the spring of 1989 when the Nation of Islam brought hip-hop giant Public Enemy to the banks of the Anacostia River. Crack, AIDS and murder were running roughshod on the District, particularly in Ward 8, where Hawthorne was growing up. But if the Nation guys — clean-shaven, in suits, out in force — were at the park for the concert they helped organize, Hawthorne knew, they would be very visible and things would be under control.
“If there was a situation where guys got out of hand, the Nation of Islam would step in to restore order, and walk up and down the streets if fights or bullets were flying,” Hawthorne said. “The Nation of Islam was very vital in our neighborhood.”
To Hawthorne and others who lived through that period, he says, the Nation’s role in boosting black pride and neighborhood security — including patrolling crime-plagued public housing — is a powerful cultural touchstone. But as with so much of African American life in a newly gentrified Washington, the Nation’s role in Ward 8 is a shadow of what it once was.
“They just aren’t as visible as in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Hawthorne, a 43-year-old wastewater worker and Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative. Young people “just aren’t catching on to the Nation of Islam.”
Gone, Ward 8 residents and members say, is the Muslim offshoot movement’s large recognizable force of members in suits and ties, replaced with what they described as the low-profile, helpful efforts of scattered individuals.
But despite this diminished presence, mention of the Nation of Islam can still stir powerful emotions among some black residents, especially those with memories of its heyday
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