- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Ellis 2X walked through the alleys of Sursum Corda on a cold, crisp day last month, pointing out shadowy spaces where drug dealers once held court in the crime-ridden D.C. community.

“You might go to one place and find people shooting up, and you might go to another place and find people selling drugs,” said Ellis 2X, a member of the Nation of Islam and a lieutenant in its security force, the Fruit of Islam. “The drugs were the biggest problem when we first got here.”

Times have changed in Sursum Corda since June, when directors of the low-income Northwest housing cooperative, just 10 blocks from the U.S. Capitol, contracted with the Fruit of Islam to patrol the grounds 24 hours a day.

Dressed in crisp suits — some with patches proclaiming “In the name of Allah” — and always wearing ties, six guards in four separate shifts now walk where vagrants and junkies once slept.

“You always see them,” said Lula Jackson, a licensed day care operator who has lived in Sursum Corda for nine years. “They always have a pleasant smile or a pleasant look on their face.”

The change has been gradual in Sursum Corda, a U-shaped maze of tan town houses long known as one of the District’s most dangerous neighborhoods, with drug dealers and transients taking up what seemed like permanent residence in the project’s narrow nooks and crannies.

“That area’s like a castle,” said Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Ralph McLean of the First District, which patrols the complex. “It’s almost fortified against you doing anything in there … Sursum Corda is the worst apartment complex for trying to do police work that I’ve ever seen.”

Sursum Corda, which is Latin for “lift up your hearts,” is also where 14-year-old Jahkema Princess Hansen was fatally shot after she witnessed a homicide in 2004. City officials designated the neighborhood the first of 14 crime hot spots in the District soon after the shooting.

After hundreds of arrests and the addition of overtime police patrols, crime in Sursum Corda decreased by 38 percent from 2003 to 2004, statistics show, but drugs and dealers still saturated the area.

“Once the police officers left, the drug dealers came out,” said David Chestnut, chief operating officer of the housing cooperative, which is owned by its nearly 170 residents. “They were effective to a point, but we needed to move to the next level, and we needed around-the-clock security.”

Enter the Fruit of Islam. The group is a wing of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s controversial Nation of Islam, though not all of its “courtesy guards” are members. Those who have the last name ‘X,’ which represents their unknown African last name, are members.

Since police have cracked down on Sursum Corda and the security force has been in place, drug arrests in the neighborhood have increased by 267 percent — from 46 arrests in 2003 to 169 last year, statistics show.

Mr. Chestnut said that Fruit of Islam receives about $60,000 a month for its services from a deal struck last year with Vienna, Va.-based KSI Services Inc. to renovate the neighborhood’s housing.

Joseph Ricci, executive director of the Alexandria-based National Association of Security Companies, said the contract “is probably pretty comparable” to other security agreements in the District.

The Fruit of Islam guards are trained in conflict resolution and martial arts, and they carry walkie-talkies but no weapons. They perform camera surveillance as needed and call D.C. police to handle the most dangerous situations.

During their first day on the job, about 200 Fruit of Islam members walked through the neighborhood “to show a force of presence and manpower,” Ellis 2X said. The guards don’t try to indoctrinate residents with Islamic teaching, but think their behavior speaks louder than words.

“We’re not here trying to convert anybody because we believe we’re all Muslims by nature,” Ellis 2X said. “They see the example and, most likely, they’ll follow it.”

The group has not always had a sparkling reputation. Members were filmed years ago by television news cameras beating a man who had a shotgun at another D.C. complex and were known for not wanting to cooperate with police, Capt. McLean said.

“It was just a real rough start to it,” he said, but “the guys in Sursum Corda have been nothing but great. It’s gotten so quiet up there, people are reporting [maintenance] problems in their apartment for the Muslims to put in the logbook and get service for them.

“There’s still some things going on over there,” Capt. McLean said, “but we haven’t had any big shootings, and I can’t even remember us having any big kid fights or anything.”

Mr. Chestnut said the security investment so far has been worth every penny.

“It’s nice to see our little children control our parking lots and play areas now, versus the drug dealers,” he said. “You can come down and see the kids playing. You can see families sitting out front again, just having conversation. You would’ve thought you were in a suburban neighborhood.”

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