Ako Abdul-Samad’s been marching for decades. But the pain that powers his steps is a story few know.
Watch: Iowa Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-35, tries to convince protesters to disperse after a George Floyd rally in Des Moines Des Moines Register
The light, fluffy powder fell gently on roofs and streetlamps, lingering just long enough to make the north Des Moines neighborhood outside Ako Abdul-Samad’s windshield look like the inside of a perfectly shaken snow globe.
Pulling up to the curb, Abdul-Samad idled his van, waiting for his son, Ako White Abdul-Samad, better known as Little Ako, to come ambling up the street. Little Ako's shirt was sure to be half unbuttoned despite the snow; the boy believed he was God’s gift to women, Abdul-Samad thought. When Little Ako jumped in the car, they’d play out their winter routine: him comically thumping his son and saying he’s liable to get pneumonia, Little Ako smiling wide, swearing he wasn’t even cold.
A few days earlier, Little Ako told his father he was tired of the gang he’d joined as a teen. He was always looking over his shoulder, worrying about the police on one end, rival gangs on the other and, recently, friction within their own ranks.
Little Ako wanted to put street life behind him, he told his dad, and help the community from “the other side of the fence” at Creative Visions, the public service nonprofit Abdul-Samad founded. They decided to iron out details when Abdul-Samad returned from a short trip out of town.
Abdul-Samad’s ego had grown larger than any room he walked into over those few days apart. With his son set to follow in his footsteps, he finally saw his legacy coming to fruition.
At this exact moment, he remembered thinking, everything felt perfect.
Then a car whipped around the corner, breaking the street’s serenity.
“You’ve got to get to the hospital,” the driver said urgently. “It’s Little Ako.”
With that handful of words yelled into a cold December night, Abdul-Samad’s snow globe, his fleeting ideal world, fell from his grasp and shattered. Abdul-Samad knew his son was dead — he just didn’t know who was behind the gun or whythey had pulled the trigger.
As those questions were answered over the next few days in the waning weeks of 1997, Abdul-Samad would be shaken to his core, forced to examine the life he’d built and, eventually, carve a new path forward, learning how to transform immeasurable pain into profound power.
An elder statesman of racial justice in Iowa, Abdul-Samad, 68, has taken his place behind the bullhorn as protests bubbled up across Des Moines in recent weeks, intervening when a few of the early gatherings turned violent. In the melee, he’s been tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets and struck with a wayward brick.
A former Black Panthers lieutenant, Abdul-Samad is an eight-term state representative for one of the city’s neediest areas. After years spent fighting the system, he’s now dedicated to finding systemic solutions that bring systemic change to a deeply-embedded systemic problem. He reached a new high-water mark Friday, when he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other Black lawmakers, fist raised, watching Gov. Kim Reynolds sign into law the largest overhaul of policing in recent Iowa history.
Sitting in the Capitol — where he stands out not just for his three-piece magenta suit, but also because he is one of just five Black members of the Iowa Legislature — Abdul-Samad carries a weariness from days without rest and decades fighting the same battles in a state that’s about 90% white.
He’s tired, but he can’t sleep; no, he says shaking his head, not until the job is done.
Recently, in the few moments he isn't meeting with fellow legislators, connecting with advocates or talking with community members, his mind’s been wandering to Little Ako.
The death of the activist’s son drew headlines in the year after his shooting, but the story faded as new replaced old in the Capitol City.
Lately, as Abdul-Samad steps in front of protesting crowds, a part of him thinks about what could have been. In the faces of the gathered, he recognizes the agony that has brought them to pray with their feet by marching for justice. He feels their misery deeply, more deeply than many people know.
“When you’re in the middle of the protests and somebody says, ‘When they shot so and so,’ I'm looking at them as, ‘If you only knew,’” he tells me in a quiet corner of the Statehouse.
“When somebody comes up and says, ‘You're in the government. You're with the police. You don't understand our pain,’ I don’t tell them the story," he said, "but I say, 'You just don’t know how much I understand your pain.'”
A father like he never had
Raised by a single mother who wrapped him in love, Abdul-Samad decided early in life that if he was ever lucky enough to have children, he would be the kind of father he never had.
As a teen, Abdul-Samad struggled, getting kicked out of two high schools before joining the Black Panthers. The group worked to lift up his neighborhood, starting a free breakfast program that fed hundreds of kids before school. Their community outreach was Abdul-Samad’s first hint that what one called a gang, another could call a social service.
After surviving a bombing at the group’s Forest Avenue headquarters, Abdul-Samad worked on a riverboat, traveling up and down the Mississippi River before detouring to Chicago to study law and Islam and eventually making his way back to Des Moines.
The Akos’ father-son relationship was rocky at first, he says, but Abdul-Samad worked at it, picking Little Ako up after school for a few hours together every day.
“We had to grow into it,” he says. “One thing I learned from my baby was how to talk with and not talk at.”
As the relationship matured, Abdul-Samad’s nonprofit, Creative Visions, took off, while Little Ako followed his own path, joining the Black Gangster Disciples.
Abdul-Samad didn’t approve of Little Ako's affiliation, but his son was grown, he says, capable of knowing his actions’ repercussions.
“I think what made him comfortable with me (was) I never told him to get out of the gang,” he says. “I never told him he had to pull up his pants. I just told him when we go to dinner, this is the dress code. That’s the way we ran our life.”
A year before Abdul-Samad lingered in his van imagining his bare-chested son walking down the street, he was in his living room, breaking bread with Little Ako to celebrate the holidays. Flopping on the couch, Little Ako raised his shirt, pulled a gun from his waistband and set it on the cushion.
“Pops,” he said, “I’m not going to live to see my next birthday.”
When the numbness sets in
“Get to the hospital.” Abdul-Samad heard the words, but they felt far away, like he was underwater and the driver was yelling down from the deck.
That evening was Dec. 10, just days before Little Ako’s 21st birthday on the 14th.
“I knew then that he had spoken into fruition his death,” Abdul-Samad said.
Abdul-Samad drove to Broadlawns, where his son’s friends and neighborhood kids had begun to gather. With the assembled youth crying and screaming in anguish, demanding to see Little Ako, hospital administrators assumed Abdul-Samad was there as a community activist, relieved he could help ease the tension in their lobby.
He let the administrators talk at him for a while, before quietly uttering, “Take me to my son.”
They led him away from the chorus of grief, down a corridor — the longest walk of his life, he says — through metal doors and into a room where his son lay on a gurney.
Right where Little Ako would unbutton his shirt — leaving his skin exposed and his father ready to thump him — was a gaping hole. Abdul-Samad limped to his son, kissed his forehead and rubbed his face as he talked to him, letting him know, "Pops was there." He held Little Ako’s mother as she wailed.
“For years my nightmare was that last picture I saw of my baby laying on the gurney like that,” Abdul-Samad says with a measured calm. He doesn’t tell this story often, but when he does, he follows a safe, well-worn narrative path, one that separates the him telling it now from the him experiencing the horror in that moment.
Outside the hospital, Rodney Anderson, one of Little Ako’s best and longest friends, sat in a police cruiser. Abdul-Samad got in and gently told him that Little Ako was dead. Instinctively, the mourners reached to hug each other.
Just as they connected, Rodney, who is Black, squeaked through rolling tears: “Big Ako, I did not mean to shoot him.”
The words’ riptide pulled Abdul-Samad further underwater, forcing him to muster twice the energy to move half as much. He silently stepped out of the car, unsure what to say to Rodney or what he would do if he sat there for one second longer.
There, in the hospital parking lot, a numbness set in, Abdul-Samad says, a numbness that would take over his body for years.
Confronting a killer
The police investigation concluded Little Ako’s death was an accident, the unfortunate result of Rodney “showboating” with a gun. Abdul-Samad had his doubts — still does — but only two people were present when the gun went off, and one of them is long dead.
Rodney rode in the ambulance with Little Ako that night. Later, Rodney told Abdul-Samad that as Little Ako took his last breaths, he chose to forgive him.
But not everyone agreed with that exoneration.
Barely hours after the death certificate was signed, rumbles of retaliation hit the neighborhood.
Rumors swirled as Abdul-Samad visited his son’s body at the funeral home next door to Creative Visions. More gossip spread as he went through the motions of planning a funeral.
His phone rang nonstop and he picked up when he could, assuming it was family or friends seeking arrangements.
“Ako, you're the only one who can save my son's life,” said a voice on the other end.
It was Rodney’s mother, and Abdul-Samad felt the tide rising around his ankles again.
“They’re threatening to kill my son,” she said, her voice feeling farther and farther away. “They’re threatening to burn down my house.”
Abdul-Samad couldn’t form the words to reply in the moment, but he got in his car and drove to see her. He spoke with Rodney as the boy's mother wailed a cry like the one he'd heard a day earlier. If he was going to help, he told Rodney, the teen would have to leave the streets and change his life. Rodney agreed.
He went back home and spent the afternoon praying, thinking about his son’s legacy. If Rodney got shot, a punitory death would be the epilogue to his son's story. The two senseless losses would be forever connected, and Abdul-Samad refused to let violence have the last word.
“It says in the Quran, ‘It is best to forgive,’” he tells me today, and he did just that.
He scheduled a press conference for just two days after Little Ako's heart stopped beating and called for peace as he held his son’s killer and told him he loved him like his own.
“Father comforts his son’s killer,” a headline in the Des Moines Register blared. A few pages on in the same edition, Ako White Abdul-Samad’s baby face stared up from the obituaries.
When the lights faded and the news crew left, Abdul-Samad drove Rodney to Abdul-Samad's home, where the teen lived for two weeks as they waited for a safe house to open up.
As Abdul-Samad mourned Little Ako’s birthday, Rodney was there.
As he buried the boy who’d always be 20, Rodney was there.
A few years later, Rodney told Abdul-Samad he had named his oldest son Ako.
And his son Ako — the Littlest Ako — has a birthmark on his chest, right in the place where a wayward bullet pierced his best friend.
A mercy for himself
When you’re an anti-violence advocate and your son dies in violence, everyone wants you to say you’re more motivated, more in the fight than you ever have been, Abdul-Samad tells me. It’s almost like they want you to say your Black son’s death means any more than the deaths of other Black boys and girls.
But in the wake of his son’s passing, Abdul-Samad had to convince himself to stay — in the movement and in Des Moines. His body wanted to leave the place where he lost Little Ako, his mind ached to find peace afar, but his soul said Creative Visions had “touched too many souls” for him to quit now.
So Abdul-Samad locked the pain of his son’s death deep away and kept doing the work.
About two years later, on the cusp of Y2K, Abdul-Samad happened to be driving past Glendale Cemetery. He’d never visited his son’s grave before, but an internal force, almost like a current pulling him out to sea, told him to turn in, to go to Little Ako.
He walked toward the plot slowly, taking it all in, and collapsed at its edge, “bawling like a little baby waiting to be fed.”
There, crying over his son’s headstone, he realized the pain he’d locked away had taken up residence in his body, festering silently and rotting him from the inside out like a broken ankle he’d walked on for 100 miles.
Wounds, he forgot, need air to heal.
When Abdul-Samad forgave Rodney years earlier, he did so out of obligation. He wanted to save the teen’s life and protect his son’s elegy from one more act of violence.
But in his grief, he overlooked the true purpose of forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t really for the forgiven — it’s for the forgiver.
So he forgave Rodney again, not as an absolution for the killing or an acquittal of all guilt. He forgave him as a mercy for himself.
He forgave so he could take control and start flushing out the ache that had long overgrown in his heart. He forgave so he could start turning all that pain into the power to work harder, to help more people, and to keep making change on that moral arc Dr. King talked about.
Abdul-Samad is more sentimental in his old age, he says. He cries about Little Ako more, even misses him more.
“People say, ‘Well, he was in a gang,’ and I know, but to me that's what unconditional love is about,” Abdul-Samad said. “You don't love somebody because they fit into your mold. You love them for who they are.
“Many days I wanted to lock him up in my basement, say when you get common sense, you come up,” he adds. “But there were more days that I loved hugging him. I loved kissing him on his forehead.”
Behind the bullhorn, gazing on these seas of “adopted babies,” Abdul-Samad sees the legacy he lost that cold December night. It’s the legacy of young Iowans praying with their feet, demanding change with each step.
The legacy of young Iowans who are channeling anger and pain and hope into a better future.
When he looks out, he sees in each of them a part of his son — a son who in a different life would have been right by his side.
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