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Tuesday, June 17, 2003  

Meet the Portland Seven:
Part VI: Patrice Lumumba Ford

He was a promising young man -- bright, well-spoken and a good worker. His path to success seemed as assured as that of any African-American's until two years ago. Then, married and recently the father of a son, he appears to have diverged from that path.

According to the indictment, five of the suspects set out for Afghanistan in October 2001 with the intention of helping al-Qaida fight U.S. troops but never made it through the Chinese border.

Patrice Lumumba Ford, 31, was one of the five.

Named after the African resistance leader and first president of Congo, Ford, 31, worked as an international relations intern in 1986 for then-Portland mayor Bud Clark and again in 1998 and 1999 for Portland Mayor Vera Katz, but no one at city hall could recall distinct memories of the soft-spoken man. "He was very quiet, very professional," Katz said in an interview.

. . .Ford also taught physical education at an Islamic school in the Portland suburb of Tigard, operated a private shuttle service and worked to resettle recently arrived Muslim refugees into the Portland community.

But by fall of 2001 his life became less prosaic. Witnesses say he sent threatening messages to the offices of one of the same mayors he had worked for, Vera Katz, a Jewish grandmother originally from New York turned politician.

Today, the boy once known as Patrick now goes simply by Lumumba. Interviews and Portland Police Bureau records combine to paint a picture of an intelligent, gentle, exemplary young man, well-known in Portland's African-American community, who was raised in an atmosphere of learning and political activism. But they also reveal a man who, just prior to the events of 9/11, was so upset by this country's Middle Eastern policy that he sent an email to Mayor Vera Katz's office that was troubling enough in its anti-Semitism to be forwarded to the Portland police. They reveal a man who bought a gun three days after 9/11 and, worried about this country's hostility toward his new Islamic faith, asked a cop whether he could use it in self-defense. It is possible that Patrice Lumumba Ford is the threat that the federal government claims. But looking at the charges through the prism of his life, something does not add up.

Ford is the son of parents who have been well-known in Portland's small traditional nonwhite area, Northeast, for decades. His father, Kent Ford, formerly headed the Portland chapter of the Black Panthers in addition to being involved in less controversial activism. The elder Ford has a portfolio with the police branch that surveilled suspected radicals in the city at least through the 1980s to prove it. There was other evidence of the family being watched, including a visit from an FBI agent posing as a meter reader. Ford's mother, Sandra, helped staff a clinic for the poor and participated in other minority efforts at self-help.

Ford had only one encounter with agents of the law before his present troubles arose. When he was 21, he got into a spat with a Portland cop over alleged reckless driving. The incident suggested that even a 'model minority' black youth had not escaped the message that he was unwelcome in his native country.

The 21-year-old Lumumba told Bailey [the cop] he "should be arresting car thieves instead of picking on him," adding that "I wasn't dealing with a bunch of stupid niggers,'" wrote Bailey, describing the arrest. "He was under the impression that the only reason I stopped him was because of race prejudice, and he said I didn't know what I was dealing with."

The anger evident in the police report seems rarely to have broken the surface; Lumumba is widely described as a gentle, mellow guy.

Ford attended prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta for two years before completing his education at Portland State University. He obtained a degree in Chinese and international studies. Part of his training included three terms abroad studying in Beijing. Muslim Chinese, who are considered oppressed, won Ford's empathy and respect. He became a convert to Islam.

Back in Portland, Ford continued to make a good impression.

Upon returning to Portland, Lumumba's newfound faith was not detectable, but his intellect was, says PSU professor Gerald Sussman, who had Lumumba in an advanced-level international-relations class. "He was head and shoulders above everybody in the class," says Sussman. "He was a very nice guy, smart and tremendously responsible."

Ford later returned to graduate studies in China, where he met and married a Chinese woman.

The other path was apparently taken shortly afterward. First, there were the threatening emails to the mayor's office, which were investigated by the police. Then, Ford was among a group of five Muslims who attracted the attention of law enforcement while engaging in target practice in rural Oregon weeks after the historical date of Sept. 11, 2001. On Sept. 14, he had purchased a shotgun. But, supporters point out that buying a weapon for self-defense is not proof of an interest in terrorism.

"I have a shotgun for the same reason," the 63-year-old [Kathleen Sadat] says with a pointed stare. "You can't be surprised by the fact that black people in this country still feel very vulnerable to the hateful views of some whites."

In October, Ford traveled to China, allegedly as part of a plot to enter Afghanistan and join al-Qaida in its fight against Americans. His country may have lost the allegiance of the man who had held such promise.

[6/17/2003 9:48:14 AM | J. G.]

11:02 PM