The New York Times

September 4, 2002


PUBLIC LIVES

A Black Pioneer Takes a Police Union Role in Stride

HERE are a few things known about Mubarak Abdul-Jabbar. He is the first African-American officer to be elevated to the executive board of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, a union long seen as a source of the hostility between the police and New York City's black and Latino residents.

He's a veteran transit officer with 14 years on patrol, and his pioneering role is receiving a lot of attention. One black officer offered the analogy of Colin Powell's being appointed to the vice presidency to describe Officer Abdul-Jabbar's ascension. (Let's not get crazy here.) There is talk that he could become the union's No. 1 peacemaker.

On a recent afternoon, the officer is emerging from a union board meeting. He is smiling easily even as he is stopped every few paces by someone with urgent business.

Officer Abdul-Jabbar, 46 and known as A. J., is not one to become worked up by things. A tall, elegant man with a trim, graying beard and rectangular glasses, he leans back in his sparse, temporary office in the union's headquarters in the financial district. He is serene, but impenetrable on some subjects.

He's aware of the symbolism of his appointment, though. "Obviously, it's new ground for the P.B.A.," he says, not keen to dwell on this line of questioning. "Me being African-American in this role is what it is. The community makes its own judgment as to how it perceives you, and that I can't change."

He says he has been involved in union business for 18 years. "This is just a natural progression for me." In 1999, he became the first black to win election to the union's lower board. "When I became that, that was history," he notes.

He now holds the No. 3 position on the union's five-member governing board, succeeding the second vice president, John Loud, a 61-year-old officer and longtime delegate who led a reform movement in the union. Officer Abdul-Jabbar's appointment was made by Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the 22,800-member union.

The appointment of a minority officer would have seemed improbable a year ago, says Eric Adams, a co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. He says Officer Abdul-Jabbar's demeanor earns him respect.

"If somehow we can all maintain the level of peacefulness he has, I think we could probably iron out many of our problems," Mr. Adams says.

The new union executive became a transit officer in 1983. He thinks his being a Muslim actually presented more obstacles than being black. He recalls how it took two years to join the force after he saw a subway advertisement about transit officers. He says he was disqualified for medical reasons that were disproved on appeal.

"Could it have been the name?" he asks. "The name can be a barrier in a Christian society. Anything other than that becomes suspect: `How American are you?' "

RAISED in Harlem and the South Bronx, he became a Muslim as a teenager. A voracious reader, he was attracted to the theology. His mother, a Baptist who worked behind a restaurant counter, was more receptive than his nonreligious father, a hat factory laborer, who worried his son's religion would be one more strike against him.

Officer Abdul-Jabbar, who lives in Co-op City in the Bronx, says he's always had an activist spirit, from high school to Hunter College to Columbia University, where he joined black and Muslim student groups. He dropped out of Columbia, which he attended on scholarship with an eye to becoming a lawyer, after a couple of years.

"In order to maintain the scholarship, you had to stay poor, and I was tired of being poor," he says. "I was trying to get my head out from that poverty thing."

At this point, he will say no more, refusing to discuss his life outside of work. (He told a reporter for The New York Times in a previous interview that he had been married for 26 years and had four children.)

"The whole other side of my life, nobody really cares about," he declares, brushing aside questions. "The people who know me, know me."

The conversation returns to the union, which he thinks is unfairly criticized. He dismisses criticism that the union fails to represent the interests of black and Hispanic officers as aggressively as it does for whites.

"If you look at the facts of cases, we have represented blacks and Latinos and women as fairly, as equitably, as whites," he says. "However, the media takes a story and highlights that story; the black-white issue, and that becomes the story."

Moving on. Let's hear his take on the case of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was tortured by a police officer and who sued not only the city and the Police Department, but also the union, which paid $1.625 million in a settlement.

Mr. Abdul-Jabbar says he can't talk about the case because of the settlement. (It was believed to be the first time a police union anywhere in the country paid to settle a brutality case.) "You had unique qualities in and of itself," he says.

So how deep, really, are changes at the union? "The true test comes at election time," he says slowly, calmly, referring to June, when the union's entire board is up for election.

He says his very presence, though, shows that the union is no longer forbidden ground.

"I want to leave a legacy," he says. "This is what it's all about; that this is something you can venture into. If a low guy like Abdul-Jabbar, a nobody like me, can do it, trust me, this new educated cop we got going on can excel to it all."