National Action Network, Najee Ali part ways
Najee Ali has a long history of collaborating with Rev. K. W. Tulloss on civil rights issues in Los Angeles
Najee Ali with National Action Network Western Regional Director Rev. K.W. Tulloss (left rear) at a civil rights protest. Photo courtesy Najee Ali
Najee Ali barred from activism with National Action Network; West Coast NAN director bars Ali over dissent with R.J. Reynolds’ position on menthol cigarettes
COMPTON — Activist Najee Ali, who collaborated on social justice issues with the National Action Network in recent years, has parted company with the civil rights organization, the Compton Herald has learned. Ali had been serving as the Los Angeles political director for NAN.
Ali, who worked in solidarity with the civil rights group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, was barred from further activism with NAN by its Western Regional Director, the Rev. K. W. Tulloss over a disagreement with the tobacco giant’s efforts to fight efforts by public health advocates to restrict its menthol sales.
In recent months, RJR has elicited the aid of civil rights activists like Sharpton and ex-Florida Congressman Kendrick B. Meek, to hold meetings at prominent African American churches on the theme of “Decriminalizing the Black Community.”
Sharpton and Meek, along with speakers from groups involved in criminal justice reform, have embraced the controversy, seemingly in solidarity with RJR and have been facilitating forums at churches in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Oakland in recent months.
Ali has a long history of collaborating with Tulloss on civil rights issues in Los Angeles. When RJR reached out to NAN, Tulloss, the organization’s point man here turned to Ali to gather together local community leaders to hear the position by R.J. Reynolds.
Ali, a cancer survivor, initially helped to facilitate a meeting with local community leaders at Buffalo Wild Wings in South L.A. to hear a presentation by R.J. Reynolds on the potential for negative encounters between law enforcement and Black youth if a ban or restrictions were levied against the RJR product. The tobacco giant’s signature menthol brand — Newport cigarettes — is very popular with young African American males.
Ali said after listening to the presentation, he had a change of heart.
“I was paid a small sum to invite a group of leading South L.A community leaders for a private presentation on the tobacco issue a few weeks ago,” he said. “But after listening to the presentation, I realized that I didn’t want an association with a corporation responsible for so much death, disease, and suffering. [Afterwards] I apologized to all my colleagues I had invited.”
Tulloss, the senior pastor of Weller Street Missionary Baptist Church in downtown L.A, near Boyle Heights, said he and Ali “had a disagreement” over NAN’s participation as a facilitator of meetings for R.J. Reynolds.
“Najee Ali was not fired. It was not a paid position. He was never paid anything,” Tulloss said. “We parted ways on the basis of [his] affiliation [with NAN]. He’s been a friend and brother [but] we just have a disagreement. He was in support of the dialogues at first, then, after talking to someone [else], changed his mind.
“R.J. Reynolds has been having dialogue on menthol cigarettes for three years. That’s all the meetings have been about, here,” Tulloss continued. “We want to know why there is talk of banning menthol cigarettes when Black Americans smoke [them] in greater numbers. We’re not taking a position.”
R. J. Reynolds has dug into its coffers to assure menthol tobacco profits, investing in paid travel costs for panelists at the forums and monetary contributions to their organizations, according to R.J. Reynolds spokesperson David Howard. Where the waters get muddied, however, is the seemingly tacit endorsement of the RJR position by the National Action Network, not merely as a facilitator of forums to examine the issue. Some have suggested that NAN is the main sponsor of the church meetings, rather than the tobacco company.
“How can the tobacco industry care about criminalization when they don’t even care about killing you?” Ali asked. “The tobacco industry has been spending money for decades to create beautiful lies to hide the ugly truth. Those lies are spread by community leaders who should be ashamed of themselves for selling out and selling death to those who believe and trust them.
“The tobacco industry has a long history of co-opting community leaders and organizations through financial donations and sponsorship. In doing so, the tobacco industry is able to buy silence,” Ali said.
Meek, a Reynolds consultant who serves as moderator at the meetings, served four terms in the House of Representatives before losing to Marco Rubio in the 2010 race for U.S. Senate. Over the years, the tobacco industry contributed $202,510 to his congressional campaigns, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Meek received $104,342 of that in the 2009-10 campaign cycle, more than any other member of Congress except North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
According to FairWarning, a news organization that investigates consumer issues, Sharpton told them in an interview that Meek, asked NAN “to consider the unintended consequences of a menthol ban,” and also asked him to appear at several of the churches.
Sharpton said he is “not on either side of the argument. I want to hear and listen,” adding that he expects the National Action Network to take a position on a menthol ban at its 25th National convention in April 2018.
Smoking remains the nation’s leading preventable cause of death and illness, causing more than 480,000 deaths each year.
Meek stressed he isn’t in favor of smoking and reportedly said in an interview with a newspaper in Minneapolis last January, “We have to deter smoking, okay, but we also have to make sure that… we’re not giving tools to law enforcement” to increase negative encounters with young Blacks in the criminal justice system.
Ali, who appears to have had a long-time amicable working relationship with Tulloss regarding community issues, said he doesn’t have a personal beef with Tulloss or anyone at NAN.
“I have a difference of an opinion. I’m not going to support anyone who is trying to kill Black people for money. If our people can’t trust religious leaders who can they trust?” Ali said.
There is no evidence that menthols are more toxic than other cigarettes, however, health authorities describe menthol cigarettes as a starter product, saying menthol anesthetizes the throat, making the harshness of tobacco smoke tolerable, ultimately leading to addiction. The Food and Drug Administration issued a 2013 report that it is “likely menthol cigarettes pose a public health risk above that seen with non-menthol cigarettes”
The landmark 2009 law that authorized the FDA to regulate tobacco products included a ban on candy, fruit, and spice cigarette flavorings because of their appeal to young smokers. But Congress balked on menthol, directing the FDA to do research on whether it, too, should be restricted or banned.
Along with Sharpton and Meek, speakers at the Reynolds-sponsored meetings have included John I. Dixon III, former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which lists Reynolds American Inc., parent of R.J. Reynolds, as one of its corporate partners. Other panelists have been Neill Franklin, a former Maryland State Police narcotics officer and executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership; and Art Way, Colorado state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Franklin said his group, whose focus is ending the war on drugs, received $75,000 from Reynolds in 2016 but is not controlled by any of its donors.
The forums haven’t been limited to Black churches. In June 2016, the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a trade group of African-American newspapers, at its annual convention featured a panel discussion on Criminal Justice Reform hosted by Reynolds American Inc. (RAI), an American tobacco company and subsidiary of British American Tobacco and the second-largest tobacco company in the U.S., with holdings that include R. J. Reynolds .
Meek, Dixon, Franklin, and Way were listed on the panel at the NNPA convention. In 2015, RAI contributed $250,000 to the publishers association, according to the company’s website.