They call themselves Five Percenters
The Department of Corrections calls them troubleBY ALEX TODOROVIC
Five Percent Nation is a loose-knit religious organization that split from the Nation of Islam in 1964. The group's lack of structure and young members have prompted the South Carolina Department of Corrections to label the group a "security threat," and treat it as a "gang."
Because of their affiliation with Five Percent, about 60 South Carolina inmates have been in solitary confinement for the past year. They are allowed 5 hours of exercise a week, in handcuffs and leg chains, and receive limited visits.
But where the Department of Corrections (DOC) sees a threat, Five Percenters and members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) see religious persecution.
Four of the 60 inmates in lock-down recently filed suit in U.S. District Court against six prison administrators, including Michael Moore, DOC director. It was Moore who last year ordered the lockup of 300 inmates a week after riots rocked the Broad River Correctional Facility. Inmates rioted and took hostages after Moore implemented a policy forbidding long hair and beards.
Steven Bates, director of the South Carolina ACLU, said that because a few rioters were associated with Five Percent Nation the department placed 300 suspected members in lock-down across the state. "Those who were released had to convince officials that they were never Five Percenters or renounce their faith by signing a form," he said.
The four plaintiffs represented by the ACLU and Southern Center for Human Rights say they were not involved in the riots and claim they are in lock-down indefinitely because they refused to sign a paper renouncing their religion.
The attorney representing the plaintiffs, Robert Bensing, said, "Due to the harsh conditions of solitary confinement, several prisoners have recently signed renunciation forms" after being confined in solitary for nearly a year.
DOC has also banned all Five Percent literature and, according to Bensing, some prisons forbid the writings of Elijah Muhammed, which the NOI hold sacred. NOI has for decades been recognized by federal courts as a religion.
While Five Percenters do not claim any scripture unique to their religion, followers often read the Quaran or Elijah Muhammed's Message to the Black Man, the same texts read by NOI members. Members from a NOI community in Virginia are planning to demonstrate in South Carolina in the near future in a show of solidarity.
The department's policy manual requires that a report of rules violation be completed for every inmate placed in solitary. A report for Five Percenter Mario Wagner lists the reason for his segregation as, "Pending investigation for inciting or creating a disruption of institutional operations."
Citing the lawsuit, department officials refused to discuss the inmates in lock-down, the classification of gangs, prison policy regarding gangs nor what criteria are used to determine a legitimate religion.
Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Faye Pollard initially said that the group was considered a gang, but later amended that comment to "security-threat group." She said, "They are not a significant management concern for us at this time."
Pollard stressed that the government does not track inmates based on their religious beliefs, but can track according to behavior and conduct. The federal prison system reserves judgement as to whether Five Percenters are members of a religion.
Georgia's Department of Corrections has paid "closer attention" to its small group of "suspected" Five Percenters, according to spokesman Mike Light, but does not treat them as a gang. "We're sort of watching them like they were loosely affiliated, a group of people with similar interests," he said.
This group that causes corrections departments to split hairs over terms like "gang" and "religion" was founded in 1964 by Clarence 13X after he left Nation of Islam.
Born Clarence Smith in 1929, he moved to Harlem from Virginia in 1946 and joined the NOI several years later. He worshipped at Temple No. 7, then under the leadership of Malcolm X, was a gifted speaker and rose quickly to the position of student minister. When Clarence 13X left NOI in 1963, he took the lessons of the honorable Elijah Muhammed to the streets of New York. Five Percent doctrine remains closely linked to NOI teachings.
Clarence 13X added to Elijah's teachings, but rejected the NOI belief that founder Wallace Fard was God, reasoning instead that the collective black man was God. The religion is named after the idea that only five percent of the population is righteous.
Thanks to Clarence 13X's close relationship with Mayor John Lindsey, in 1967 the Five Percenters leased a prime piece of Harlem property from the city. The "Allah School in Mecca" still serves as Five Percent headquarters. Painted above the building's entrance are the words "The Black Man Is God."
Clarence 13X was killed by unknown assailants two years after Allah School in Mecca was opened, but Five Percenters believe city police were behind the plot.
Clarence 13X taught that once a man achieved mastery of self, he became God, to the extent that he controlled his own destiny. Five Percent men refer to themselves as Gods and women as Earths, and the religion is commonly referred to as The Nation of Gods and Earths.
Five Percenters depart from NOI in their teaching of the Supreme Alphabet and Supreme Mathematics, an arcane system devised by Clarence 13X wherein each letter or numeral denotes a concept with an accompanying parable. "A" stands for Allah, "B" is Be or Born, "C" is See and so on. This process of teaching is referred to as "dropping science" or "sciencing out."
For example, the 14th degree (letter) of the Supreme Alphabet "N" stands for Now and Nation, and begins something like this:
"Now is the time for the Black man to wake up and come into the realization of Islam, which is the true and righteous Self, which is his true Nature and his true Nation."
Clarence 13X's esoteric street gnosis was delivered in a staccato "rap" that mesmerized New York City youth. Members were trained to deliver their rap, and the group won converts by the hundreds. Today the group numbers in the tens of thousands in New York City alone.
From its inception, according to social science professor Yusuf Nuruddin of Medgar Evers College in New York, the prison system was an important conduit for the religion fanning across the country.
In an environment where a bowel movement is a public event and every request a power struggle, adherence to a haughty ideology that deifies the collective Black Man is a political act, a manner in which to register protest against the institution.
There are, no doubt, some followers who join Five Percent precisely for that reason. Black supremacist ideology, as Nuruddin has noted, tends to flourish in environments of impoverishment and decay because the message speaks directly to disenchanted.
By the mid-seventies Five Percenters had become part of the African-American inner city experience, and 10 years later the group had organized meetings on the West Coast, especially in Los Angeles.
Contemporary rap artists like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Lakim Shabazz have used the Five Percent flag on album covers and have written lyrics influenced by its doctrine.
Five Percent continues to be dominated by young adherents. Part of the religion's allure is that there is no leader and the group's meetings, called parliaments, generally occur in public places.
Some members of NOI were once Five Percenters, according to NOI member and printer H. Khalif Khalifa. The group has always been viewed as the most threatening Islamic group because they are young and win converts preaching racial consciousness with a potent inner-city parlance.
While Five Percenters are Black Nationalists, they do not preach violence. Five Percenter Bilal Allah noted in an article, "The task at hand is to maintain one's own righteous existence while teaching others to be righteous. We place major emphasis on being articulate and well-read."
Arguments in court will likely revolve around what constitutes a legitimate religion. Bensing pointed out that the 4th Circuit has recognized Wicca as a religion, a group with a loose structure like Five Percent.
"If we lose," Bensing said, "I know we'll go to the 4th Circuit." The decision could affect the treatment of Five Percenters across the country.