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By Alan Prendergast
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Rodney Long was at the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., when the spirit "hit" him.
It stayed with him on the trip back to Denver, and it's with him still. "If you go by your heart, you go with your spirit," he says. "You go in the right direction."
On Saturday Long will head in the direction of the Million Man March Panacea community-action rally at 6900 Smith Road, where he and Rashad Alikhan recently purchased 2.2 acres and where they plan to set up their 1-Stop Auto Dealership. The business will offer one-stop service for buying cars, renting cars, repairing cars, washing cars. But Long sees it going a lot further. He sees it as a "cure-all"--a true panacea. He sees it as the first step to healing the black community.
The fabric of that community has been torn since the transcendent day back in October when millions of men--give or take a hundred thousand--came together in Washington, D.C. Once home in Denver, though, it didn't take long for things to fall apart.
The first to recognize the schism was Jeff X, a Five Points businessman. Back in September he'd called an "emergency" Million Man March meeting at his restaurant. "The goal was very simple," he recalls. "One, to get together a group of people interested in attending the Million Man March, and two, to organize that group to get support and raise money. That's when I formed the Million Man March Coalition Inc. The goal was just to go to D.C.--nothing after that."
And 300 Denver men did go to D.C., gathering outside Jeff X's Black Market to board buses and cars for the trip. But within a few days of their return to Denver, Wellington Webb supporter Alvertis Simmons had formed a splinter group, calling press conferences without telling Jeff X or other coalition members--and grabbing headlines. The situation got so confused that in December, Jeff X issued a position paper on Simmons: "Those of you who have been deceived to believe that DMMMC Inc. split the coalition, I ask you one question: If ninety-nine sheep are together and one goes astray, who split the group?"
No matter where the other sheep were going, by then the media were all following Simmons and Jamal X (now Jamal Muhammad), the local Nation of Islam leader who'd moved to Denver from California two years ago. In January the Denver Post offered a glowing profile of Simmons. (Only at the very end did the piece mention that Simmons, who was then working with the city's neighborhood crime watch program, had a record for shoplifting and domestic discord--in a finger-pointing reference to the Westword story that had revealed it.) And in a front-page story at the end of March, even the New York Times used Simmons to symbolize the local actions across the country that had grown out of the Million Man March.
But at that point, Jeff X wasn't the only one fed up with Simmons. Although Long had been going to Simmons's meetings, by January he'd had enough. "Meetings are fine," he says, "but there were too many meetings, and nothing was done." The last straw was a January gathering at a local church, where Jeff X "told the truth," Long says. "There was division, and people were in tears. The pastor put us out of the church."
Long remembers telling people "not to let the spirit leave." So instead, thirty of them wound up going over to his business, Rod's Cars ("Ride Large for Little"), to talk about what they could do. And on January 31 Long incorporated the Million Man March. "That's how the three groups got started," he says.
Simmons didn't get around to incorporating his offshoot until mid-March, when he registered the Local Organizing Committee, Denver Chapter, Million Man March. It is this group that is planning the April 29 Million Man gathering, originally set for Mile High Stadium, then moved to the considerably smaller Denver Coliseum (which has a signed contract and a $2,000 deposit, although recent rumors had the gathering moving yet again). Last week Simmons announced that his event has stretched to four days, including a youth rally and opening ceremony at City Park. But although the Million Man March's D.C. office says former NAACP head Benjamin Chavis will be in attendance, it's extremely unlikely that Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan will appear. (His appearance would go a long way toward filling the Coliseum's 11,500 seats, but it might prove problematic for anyone who saw him on 60 Minutes Sunday.) Farrakhan is currently touring the country, but Denver isn't one of the cities listed on his schedule.
Meanwhile, Long presses on. He started distributing fliers for the all-day Panacea rally early this week, and already the phone is ringing off the hook. "I started hitting our neighborhoods, talking to gang members," he says. "We're getting people's opinions on things we can do to go forward." For example, he learned that kids have a problem getting car insurance--and that if they are stopped by the cops and fail to show proof of insurance three times, they can lose their licenses for ten years, which means they can't get to jobs, which means they might start selling drugs. "This is something I was completely blind to," he says. "We in the community have to save our own community and quit blaming everyone else. We have to start with a solution."