Troubled Life in Malcolm X’s Shadow Comes to a Violent End
By KIA GREGORY and DAMIEN CAVE
Published: May 10, 2013
“I know a lot of people,” Mr. Shabazz said, Mr. Stevens recalled.
Mr. Shabazz, who earned notoriety as a 12-year-old when he set a fire that killed his grandmother, Malcolm X’s widow, pulled out his phone and made some calls. Twenty minutes later, Mr. Stevens said, Mr. Shabazz told him he had a plane ticket to Los Angeles for the next day, and an appointment to see a Hollywood producer in Beverly Hills on Mr. Stevens’s behalf.
Mr. Stevens, 34, drove Mr. Shabazz to the airport.
But Mr. Shabazz soon ended up in Mexico City, where he died early Thursday morning in a popular tourist area after being assaulted outside a bar, the authorities said. It was a violent end to a young and tumultuous life.
Mr. Shabazz had apparently decided to detour to Mexico to meet with a labor activist and a friend who had been deported in April. They were hoping to use Mr. Shabazz’s name to attract attention from the local press, apparently about the deportation, the friend said in a Facebook post.
Mr. Shabazz, 28, spent much of his life seeking to make peace with his past. After pleading guilty to the juvenile equivalent of manslaughter and arson in his grandmother’s death in 1997, he was sentenced to institutions for many of his teenage years, followed by later stints in prison for other crimes.
He lived in the shadow of his grandfather, whom he never knew, and whose legacy he tried to understand. He embraced his famous heritage and, at times, recoiled from the expectations that came with it.
On his personal Web site, he called himself “the first male heir to Malcolm X,” who had overcome “obstacle after obstacle in his life,” and since his release from prison had “been traveling throughout the U.S. and around the world speaking to different audiences about the struggles that confront this generation.”
In a prison interview with The New York Times in 2003, when he was serving time for attempted robbery, he acknowledged the power of his name.
“People know Malcolm Shabazz, whether you like me or not,” he said.
Kinte Burrell, 34, one of Mr. Shabazz’s friends from Middletown, N.Y., north of New York City in the Hudson Valley, where he had a home, said in an interview on Friday that he first met Mr. Shabazz when he was about 18.
“People would ask for his autograph and take pictures with him,” he said. “Other times, they would be like, you should have gotten more time, just because who you are, you shouldn’t get away with this.”
Such tension, Mr. Burrell said, sometimes led to fistfights. “I can see him just wanting to get away,” he said.
Friends said that in recent years, he had often ventured abroad, mostly to the Middle East. The trips, for conferences or Muslim pilgrimages, allowed him to escape his tabloid youth and to step into a role that Malcolm X also played later in life — that of an activist, shedding light on injustice and rallying for black causes worldwide.
“He wanted to be himself, but in connection with what his grandfather had been,” said Randy Short, an activist in Washington who works with groups like the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities.
Mr. Short said he had been helping Mr. Shabazz complete an autobiography.
Because he had no relationship with his father, “he saw his grandfather as his dad, and in many conversations he would say, ‘People need to understand I have a lot of him in me,’ ” Mr. Short said.
He never seemed short of patrons who were eager to help.
David N. Dinkins, the former mayor of New York, and Percy E. Sutton, a former Manhattan borough president who had been Malcolm X’s lawyer, stepped in to represent him after the fire. Most recently, Cynthia McKinney, the former Democratic congresswoman from Georgia, said she “had taken him under my wings,” in an attempt “to help and look out for him.”
In 2011, he joined Ms. McKinney on a trip to Libya, shortly before the country erupted in civil war. In one photo, he can be seen smiling in dark sunglasses in front of a large portrait of Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, who was later deposed and killed. In a blog post on March 9, he wrote that he had met Mr. Qaddafi.
He also wrote on Facebook that he had studied in Damascus for more than a year, and that he had been making plans to go to Iran for a film festival and to give a lecture on violence in cinema.
The trip never happened.
Mr. Shabazz wrote on his blog that soon after he began appearing on Press TV, a news outlet based in Iran, the police in and around Middletown began to harass him.
He claimed that he was being investigated by a counterterrorism team with the F.B.I.
“I was picked up by authorities after I filed for a visa to Iran, and two days before my departure,” he wrote.
In Middletown, he was known to come and go, his friends said.
Mr. Stevens met him about two years ago when Mr. Shabazz came into the barbershop where he worked. Mr. Shabazz saw the tattoo of Malcolm X on Mr. Stevens’s forearm.
“He told me who he was, and we started talking, and we had a lot of things in common,” Mr. Stevens said.
Last week, he recalled, Mr. Shabazz had pressured him about why he was not “doing anything with your music.”
“It’s the kind of business where you got to know somebody,” Mr. Stevens told him.
After going to Los Angeles, Mr. Shabazz texted Mr. Stevens, joking that the people he was with in California did not like New Yorkers.
Within days, he was in Mexico City.
He was taken to a hospital early Thursday morning after a night out near Plaza Garibaldi, a tourist area in the historical center of Mexico City, filled with bars and restaurants, where foreign tourists are known to often be taken advantage of.
Officials said they were investigating the case.
On Friday, his family released a statement. “He now rests in peace in the arms of his grandparents and the safety of God,” the family said.