DILLON, S.C. (AP) – Lord Premier was playing chess when the guards came for him. They entered his cell, cuffed him, took his books and papers.
At first, they wouldn’t tell him what he had done. They carted him off to a prison within a prison at the Evans Correctional Institution in Bennettsville, S.C., a maximum security institution of 1,000 inmates.
There he spent 23 hours a day locked up. For his hour a day in the rec yard he was shackled hand and foot.
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His crime? He followed the teachings of the Five Percent.
For the Five Percent, education and family are of prime importance. The word “peace” is central to the teachings. The 34-year-old movement rejects drinking drugs and fornication.
It also rejects most accepted history, authority and organized religion. The black man, the Five Percent teaches, is god.
South Carolina corrections officials see those teachings as a threat to authority. A violent hostage incident at one prison three years ago was blamed on the movement, which prison officials labeled a gang. Every member across the state was locked down; every known member in the prison system still is.
South Carolina is not alone. In New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Massachusetts and North Carolina, prison officials have censored the group’s teachings despite complaints by inmate advocates that they are trampling on freedom of religion. Some prison systems label all Five Percenters gang members.
Thousands follow the teachings in Harlem, where the movement began, and beyond: New England, California, the Midwest. Elders say they hear from Alaska and Europe.
Prisons are where many members first learn and study. The lyrics of hip-hop music by such stars as Busta Rhymes, Wu Tang Clan and Erykah Badu spread the word on CDs and radio. Although the lessons teach a moral code, the Five Percent reject being called a religion. They call themselves “a culture” and “away of life.” They also call themselves the Nation of Gods and Earths.
A New Name
Like lots of kids in his neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y, Von Huggins knew about the Five Percent.
The fiery teachings came slamming off the radio, off boomboxes. It was part of hip-hop, a bit of instruction amid the steamy beats and the boasts.
Growing up, he heard it from his family; too. A cousin named Prince was a God.
Huggins heard but he didn’t listen There was the street outside his mom’s apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood: music and girls, drugs and money. Too fast, too loud, too much to hear anything but right now.
At 17, after he and his mother moved back to her South Carolina hometown, he was imprisoned for assualt and dealing cocaine. Suddenly, there was little to do but remember.
There were others at prison who called themselves gods, and they were ready to teach. Now Huggins listen. He learned that he was a god, too.
He took a new name, Lord Premier.
“It’s always been the way. Some brothers learn on the street, and some brothers learn in jail,” he says, 24 now and starting his life over a few months after his release. “I was just wild like that, and it slowed me down. It made me see life in a different aspect.”
These are the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths:
The black man is god and women are Earths. Family is all Important.
Only 5 percent of the population knows and teaches the truth. Ten percent conspires to hide the truth. They are the devils, the slave makers of the poor. The rest, 85 percent, have not yet received knowledge.
The teachings are called Supreme Mathematics. They draw in part from the Nation of Islam, such as the teaching that a scientist created the white man from the black man, who in turn tricked the black man into slavely.
Teachings speak of Allah as supreme being. Each man is god only of his own universe, his family, and not of other people.
While only black men are gods, others who accept the knowledge of the Five Percent can become “civilized people.”
Baseball bats and boiling water
For South Carolina, the Five Percent exploded into awareness one steamy spring day in 1995. Angered by new rules requiring shaves and haircuts, several inmates attacked five guards. They beat some with a baseball bat, scalded one with boiling water. Hostages were taken.
When the five inmates surrendered at day’s end, they gave Arabic names. An investigation concluded that the uprising had been organized by a violent organization spread throughout the state’s 33 prisons: the Five Percent.
“Really they’re organized crime is what they are,” said Mike Moore, head of South Carolina’s Corrections Department.
All 300 suspected members were locked down in administrative segregation.Among them was Lord Premier, though he was imprisoned in Bennettsville, 100 miles from the violence. They could return to the general prison population only by renouncing all ties. Today, 100 remain locked down – the rest renounced ties or finished their sentences.
New Jersey has known about the Five Percent for decades. Ron Holvey, the state’s top prison investigator, estimates the state’s prisons hold at least 1,000 Five Percenters and perhaps several times that.
What was a loose, disorganized gang changed in recent years, Holvey said. “We started to see a different level of organization within the Five Percenters,” he said. “More acts of violence within the prison, more assaults on inmates, more assaults on staff.
In January, New Jersey prison authorities said they caught eight members of the group ready to attack and kill guards. Lives, officials said, were saved by an informant’s tip.
New Jersey put 80 members in its gang management unit after that. Federal prisons classify the group as a gang, though they haven’t been singled out for special punishment.
Although authorities say they know the threat the Nation poses in prisons, few can talk with firsthand knowledge of its work on the streets. One is Detective Louis Jordan. Once a teen-age gang member, now he’s a gang expert in the prosecutor’s office in Monmouth County; N.J.
There are two sides to the Five Percent, he said, those who are serious about the lessons and those who use the name to hide criminal activity There are the five Percenters and the “jive percenters,” as he puts it.
In his jurisdiction, he figures there am 400 or so real Five Pereenters. Then there’s a gang of about 60.
Many American blacks have looked to versions of Islam for much of this century, starting 1913 wtth the Moorish Science Temple.
Several more recently formed groups, including the Nation of Islam, have added a core of beliefs that are not part of traditional Islam: That blacks were the original beings and must separate from white society; physically and spiritually.
“They largely look at the evils, inherent evils, of Mncan people buying into western mainstream society;” said Adonijah Bakari, history professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
In 1964, the Five Percent was begun by a minister who broke from the Nation of Islam. Clarence Jowers Smith, a youth minister with the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No. 7 run by Malcolm X, changed his name to Allah and turned to the young people of Harlem with his vision.
He was killed by unknown assailants in 1969, shot seven times in a Harlem basement, But his movement lived on, reaching beyond the neighborhood where it began. Now members are in middle-class suburbs, colleges, business.
Numbers are hard to gather. Few acdemics study the group, and government agencies have no reliable statistics. The Nation itself doesn’t keep track.
Every Five Percenter is by definition a teacher, and lessons are taught in school cafeterias and street conversations. There are no prayers. The spirit of the Five Percent comes in discovering the links between each person’s daily life and Allah’s vision of history and science and family.
“The beauty of the teachings lets you know that destiny and fate is in your own hands,” said Bilal Allah, a god and a record executive with MCA. “It’s all on you, man, it’s all on you.”
Lord Premier mumbles when he talks. He lives at his mother’s house, making hip-hop tapes to sell. He wants to get his own musical career going as a producer.
As he talks about the Nation of Gods and earths, his voice becomes stronger. He brings out books he began to read since he started his studies — Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”
In prison, many people come to the Nation. Some study, he said, but others use the movement for themselves.
“It’s like, you’re not a Five Percent,” he said “You’re a snake in Five Percent clothing, just using it for protection.” He’s left prison behind,, he said. He has a 6- year-oId daughter; he wants to teach her what life’s really about.
A nation gathering
Dumar Wa’de Allah is spreading the teachings of the Five Percent. Tall and lean, and wearing a charcoal suit despite the sour heat drifting off the sidewalk, he stands in front of P.S. 154, his hands moving to the beat of his words.
Once a month, the Nation of Gods and Earths gathers for its Universal Parliament. Two blocks away is 125th Street: the Apollo Theatre, Jamaican restaurants with beef patties and ackee. Malcolm X used to preach around the corner.
A half-dozen young men listen as Dumar, an elder; uses fairy tales to build his lesson.
He starts with the Three Little Pigs: the flimsy houses of the first two are built on ignorance, the solid house of the third on a foundation of knowledge that can stand up to the wolf — the devil. The pigs kill the wolf but evil never dies, and the wolf comes back in the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf loses his head to the ax But pronounce “ax” as “ask” and you see that it takes tough questions to reveal and vanquish the devil. But the devil is inside us, And when Jack, of the Beanstalk fable, climbs to the giant’s lair in the sky he’s only seeing the result of his own greed.
He ends with a traditional command “Each one, teach one.”
Buses bring the faithful — older men in suits, young men in baggy jeans, women with babies. There are rappers and law students, music executives and maintenance workers. The women wear dresses that reach from elbow to ankle.
Parliament is in the school auditorium. People take turns to stand and talk about the day’s mathematics. There are maybe 75 people; nearly all black, a few white, Hispanic, Asian. Two industrial fans blow warm air. The American flag is pulled out of sight.
“Peace,” each speaker says to begin. “Peace,” the crowd calls back.
Born Justice Allah, an elder, starts to speak. He talks about how the prisons are cassifying the movement as a gang.
“There’s a lot of brothers that come among us that’s not me. Not me; that’s god,” he says. He warns memebers away from those who say the are Five Percenter but don’t live the lessons.
Few outside certain black communities and prisons know of the Five Percent, but many hear their teachings.
Erykah Badu, who sold 3 mIllion CDs of her 1997 debut and won a Grammy for rhythm and blues album of the year, credits the Nation as an influence. Several of her songs include bits of the teachings.
Wu Tang Clan, a powerhouse in today’s hip-hop world, sings explicitly about the teachings. Rakim,, an old-school rapper; drops “jewels” from the lessons into his songs. Busta Rhymes is a member.
Born Justice, one of the elders in Harlem, said he has received calls from people who want to learn after hearing the Wu Tang Clan. “Everybody listens to music.”
“Hip-hop, that music there, they give it to you raw, you know what I’m saying?” said Divine Melquan, a rap music producer and long one of the Five Percent “They don’t give it with angels and spirits. It’s actual truth, actual facts. That’s how rap music is. The people speak it the way they see it, real, raw.”
Freedom of religion?
Words can catch fire.
The lessons can be misunderstood, elders acknowledge. Prison officials say the lessons are often code between gang members, or incite violence.
One answer, elders suggest, is to let them into prisons to teach. “The only way to do that is if there’s somebody in the institution that has a heart and that says let’s try them out,” said Born Justice.
Mike Moore in South Carolina and Howard Byre; New Jersey’s assistnt prison commissioner, say they’re willing to listen. But so far, prisons have focused on punishment; and the Nation’s efforts to reach out to prison officials have been sporadic and unsuccessful.
Inside, teachings continue to attract the curious, the searching, the angry. Rappers sing about drive-by shootings on one track, mathematics on another. Prison authorities see writings about devils and destruction and censor them.
But fiery words of retribution are part of the teachings of Christianity; Judasim and Islam, inmate advocates say. When a group of prisoners who are Christian lead an uprising, authorities don’t lock down all Christians, they point out.
“The question is whether or not the prison system can lock people down simply because of their religious affiliation,” said Robin Toone of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. “This person’s belief systems — whether they qualify it as mathematics or whatever –does it qualify as a religion? In this case, I think it does.”
He and other advocates, with support from the ACW, are in courts in South Carolina and New York, arguing that the crackdown tramples on inmates’ freedom of speech and freedom of religion — despite elders’ rejection of the label “religion.”