Covering Obama, press encounters Nation of Islam

Washington Examiner

President Obama’s home is in the same Chicago neighborhood as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.  On Saturday night, the overlapping of Obama’s and Farrakhan’s worlds made for a strange, and sometimes testy, encounter between the Secret Service, the press corps covering the president, and the paramilitary security force, the Fruit of Islam, surrounding Farrakhan.

The encounter was written up — for distribution to the press, not necessarily for publication — by the New York Times’ Jackie Calmes.  It began a little after 4:00 p.m. when Obama and his family walked to the nearby home of longtime friend Marty Nesbitt for a backyard cookout.  It just so happens that Nesbitt lives across the street from Farrakhan.

A few hours after Obama went to Nesbitt’s home, the press pool, including Calmes, was waiting in a bus parked near 49th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, next to Farrakhan’s mansion.  The reporters’ Secret Service minder allowed them off the bus to stretch their legs.  As they stood on the sidewalk, some of the journalists inadvertently touched the grass next to the sidewalk, and that is when the encounter began.  From Calmes’ report:

Immediately a polite man in jeans and T-shirt emerged to ask us to stay off the grass. Though this grass was the curbside city property, we obliged.

But it turned out that simply staying off the grass was not enough to satisfy the man in the T-shirt.  Calmes continues:

Soon, however, he was pacing and talking on a cell phone. He went inside the mansion’s black wrought iron fence, crossed the well-landscaped yard, lifted a water bucket behind rose bushes and, voila!, a walkie-talkie. He was heard to refer to “the CIA” once he began speaking into it.

Soon he approached our [Secret Service] agent, asking him to move the van and its occupants, though your pooler could not hear much else he said. But the agent said, “How is this a security breach?” And he asked if the house was a government property.

The man said something else and at that point the agent stuck out his hand to shake hands and introduced himself as a Secret Service agent. He added, “Sir, I can assure you that we will do nothing to interfere with whatever is going on in there.”

It might be assumed that an assurance from the Secret Service would be enough to satisfy any security-minded guardian of Louis Farrakhan.  But not in this case.  Calmes continues:

The man is back to pacing and talking on his cell, walkie-talkie in hand.

A co-pooler searched the Internet for the address and found it listed on a Web site called NotForTourists and another called Taxexemptworld.com. Indeed, another pooler found a county Web site that confirmed this property is tax exempt for being a religious institution.

Reinforcements arrived — three men in T-shirts reading “Wide or Die!” One surly man has been staring daggers at us. Asked if this is Minister Farrakhan’s house, he just stared at your pooler. Asked again, he said, “I don’t have no comment.”

At nearly 8 p.m. local time we are still holding while POTUS and family remain at the Nesbitts.

More time passed.  The men in T-shirts were joined by even more men,  from the Fruit of Islam, Farrakhan’s security force.  From Calmes:

It’s 8:45 and nearly dark; your pool has retreated back inside the van. We’re outnumbered now by roughly a dozen Fruit of Islam agents for the Nation of Islam. As each casually dressed man arrives, he exchanges elaborate handshake/hug/double air-kisses with others. Two walked by your pooler chanting “Islam.”

Several have filmed and photographed your poolers, the van and its license plates with their cell phones.

One came and stood close to a couple poolers and OUR [Secret Service] agent. He asked if he could help. No answer. He asked again. The man said no. The agent said, “Secret Service — Please move away from this group of people.”

He did. Soon the agent asked us to go in the bus. We did.

At that point, the Secret Service was badly outnumbered by the Fruit of Islam, who apparently believed that some sort of “security breach” had occurred.  Were Farrakhan’s men armed?  Were there more on the way?  The Secret Service agent called for backup.  From Calmes:

9:20 local time and our agent got reinforcements from three Secret Service agents. One shook hands with one of the 22 Fruit members we now can count from the van. After a short discussion the three Secret Service agents walked away again.

No word on when we get to leave. We’re guessing POTUS is watching the Blackhawks game at the Nesbitts’ home.

While this was happening, word of the standoff apparently got around as a result of Calmes’ pool reports (they were sent out piecemeal by email).  Someone who had read the reports got in touch with Farrakhan to let the Nation of Islam leader know that the people waiting outside were just covering Obama.  From Calmes:

The power of pool reportage! Standoff ends, apparently with help of intermediary in Detroit:

Your pooler got a call at about 10:15 local time from a pool report reader who identified himself as the Rev. Gary Hunter, a Baptist minister in Motown who writes and blogs for the Detroit Times. He said he had called Minister Farrakhan and his son and asked them to have the Fruit stand down.

“I told him you were good people,” Rev. Hunter said. “He said he didn’t know you all were just waiting for the president.”

As it happens, the Fruit of Islam indeed had mostly gone by then. The Rev. Hunter apparently is remembered by [White House social secretary staffer Samantha] Tubman, and he said he knows our frequent press rustler Ben Finkenbinder from past travels with Obama.

Anyway, at 10:33 we pulled away and we are at the Obama residence. Never saw POTUS at all.

And that was the end of it.  Some observers will make light of the whole thing — just a little misunderstanding with those weird Nation of Islam guys — but the fact that Farrakhan’s security force is close to the president’s home is likely a matter of continuing concern to the Secret Service.  And on Saturday night, the two forces ran into each other.

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