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The New Black Panther Party is Unlike its Namesake of the 1960s

Trading on the name of a group of black militants famous in the 1960s and 1970s, the "new" Panthers portrayed themselves as the only men bold enough to take on the violent racism of the Klan and other white supremacists.

Brandishing assault rifles and shotguns, 50 black men clad in fatigues and berets appeared two years ago on the troubled streets of Jasper, Texas. They were there, they announced, to protect fellow blacks against attacks following the truck-dragging murder of James Byrd Jr. and to face down the Ku Klux Klan.

Twice, a large contingent of police and Texas Rangers turned back the black-clad militants attempting to confront the hooded marchers who had come to Jasper to "defend" local whites in the aftermath of the Byrd killing.

At one point, police had to intervene to prevent opponents from overturning a van full of Klansmen. But the police, sensing the supercharged nature of this very public confrontation, avoided - probably wisely - trying to disarm the black men from Dallas.

That tense day in June 1998 introduced the nation to a group that few Americans had heard of: the New Black Panther Party.

Trading on the name of a group of black militants famous in the 1960s and 1970s, the "new" Panthers portrayed themselves as the only men bold enough to take on the violent racism of the Klan and other white supremacists.

Eschewing the health clinics and free breakfast programs of the original Panthers, the new group's leaders have seemed to focus almost exclusively on hate rhetoric about Jews and whites.

"We will never bow down to the white, Jewish, Zionist onslaught," is the way Washington, D.C., attorney Malik Zulu Shabazz put it not long before becoming the chief spokesman for the New Black Panther Party.

Panther leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad, Shabazz added, is the man "who gives the white man nightmares ... who makes the Jews pee in their pants at night."

Whites as the Enemy
Lacking a national office, a publication or even a web site, the New Black Panther Party may seem somewhat disorganized. But despite that, the new Panthers have managed to sustain themselves through several incarnations since their beginnings about 10 years ago.

Today, the party appears to be a federation of as many as 35 chapters in at least 13 cities with informal but important links to certain black Muslims and other small black groups. In the last year, the Panthers have appeared publicly in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, New York, Norfolk, Va., and Washington, D.C.

Dallas leader Robert Williams says there are chapters scattered throughout the East and Midwest, and adds that new chapters are being organized in Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans. He said he could offer no estimates as to the national group's size, but added that in Dallas there are "just over 100 members."

The party's overall ideology - and the uniformity of that ideology within the party - is difficult to assess. Some local leaders seem far less radical - and less given to anti-Semitism and hatred of white people - than their national spokesmen.

Williams says the chapter heads meet annually, but adds that communication among the party's leaders is usually quite informal - he himself says he knows little more than the phone numbers of the other chapters.

Even the party's official platform is unclear. Members variously have claimed to have 10-, 12- and 14-point platforms, each adapted from the original Panthers' 10 points.

Shabazz, the party's national spokesman, refused to describe his organization to the Intelligence Report. "I've discussed it with my national committee," he said, "and I've been instructed not to answer any of your questions."

But certain things are obvious. One version of the new Panthers' platform, drawn from a 1997 web site, is very similar to the original Panthers' - with a key difference.

Where the original Panthers demanded "an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities" the new party calls for something quite different - "an end to robbery by the white man."

'Who's Pimping the World?'
And then there is Khalid Muhammad.

Muhammad, who first appeared publicly as the new Panthers' leader at the Jasper demonstration in 1998, had long been known as the leading spokesman for the black separatist Nation of Islam. He lost that post after Nation leader Louis Farrakhan was widely criticized for Muhammad's violently hateful speeches.

With a fondness for speeches with titles like "Who's Pimping the World?" (answer: "the Jews"), Muhammad has rarely minced words.

He has blamed slavery and even the Holocaust on the "hooked-nose, bagel-eating, lox-eating, perpetrating-a-fraud, so-called Jew."

He has called for building a Student Violent Coordinating Committee - a takeoff on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that was a key player in the civil rights struggle.

He has launched repeated diatribes against his enemies: "white devil crackers," "bloodsucking Jews" and "f------."

Some of his most famous comments, regarding politics in post-apartheid South Africa, came in a notorious 1993 speech at Kean College in New Jersey.

Muhammad had clear ideas for dealing with whites who did not leave immediately: "We kill the women. We kill the babies. We kill the blind. We kill the cripples. We kill them all. We kill the f-----. We kill the lesbian. ... When you get through killing them all, go to the goddamn graveyard and dig up the grave and kill them a-goddamn-gain, because they didn't die hard enough" the first time.

Just this fall, Muhammad made similar comments in a Detroit speech. "There's only two kinds of white folks, there's only two kinds, " he said, "bad white folks and worse white folks. ... [Malcolm X] said if you find one good, kill him first, before he turns bad. Because he's only faking."

Old Panthers vs. New
Williams, the Dallas chapter head, told the Intelligence Report that the Panthers aren't racist - "because to be racist you have to have power" - although he backs segregated education until high school. Jeremiah Ward, the Panther leader in Gulfport, Miss., insists the group is "about uplifting our own people."

But key opponents disagree. Bobby Seale, a founding member of the original Panthers, calls Muhammad's organization "a black racist hate group." In 1997, two original Panthers from Dallas - Fahim Minkah and Marvin Crenshaw - won an injunction against then-Dallas leader Aaron Michaels preventing him from using the old Panther name or logo. The injunction was never enforced.

"We worked with all different ethnic groups, especially the white left, to build a coalition," says David Hilliard, an early member of the original Panthers and now director of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, in Oakland, Calif., that bears the name of a deceased Panther leader.

The new Panthers' "whole philosophy is 'Black Power, Black Power,' to the point of being separatist," he says.

"We were never separatist."

Although its beginnings are somewhat murky, the New Black Panther Party apparently began around 1990 in Milwaukee, where a city alderman organized what he called the Black Panther Militia.

If black urban poverty was not alleviated with a massive infusion of government funds, Alderman Michael McGee angrily threatened, white America would face "urban guerilla warfare" from blacks who would cut phone lines and burn tires on highways to snarl commuter traffic.

Black men, McGee declared, needed to "stop being sissies."

Nazis and Panthers
Although it's unclear at what point the Milwaukee group changed its name, McGee soon managed to organize chapters in Indianapolis and Dallas and to become the new group's "national commander" in the process.

In Indianapolis, Mmoja Ajabu - a man who would soon acquire a significant criminal record - was the leader. In Dallas, it was Aaron Michaels, who for years had produced the controversial radio show hosted by John Wiley Price, a relatively militant black county commissioner who some whites have accused of racism.

Indications of the new party's radical direction came early on. In May 1993, McGee and Michaels organized a demonstration reportedly calling for separation of the races and the overthrow of the U.S. government.

It was attended by 200 blacks and one specially invited white guest - Tom Metzger, the white supremacist ideologue who has a fondness for publishing grotesque caricatures of black people. It was one of a number of meetings of black and white separatists over the last 15 years joining in a common cause.

Despite the meeting, McGee was no lover of neo-Nazis. Not long after, appearing on the trash-talking "Jerry Springer Show," McGee punched Arthur Jones, a long-time leader of the National Socialist White People's Party.

Muhammad's first contact with the Panthers may have been in Indianapolis in 1993, when he joined Ajabu, the local leader, in organizing a protest of a planned Klan demonstration. Both Ajabu and Williams, the current Dallas leader, say that it was during this period - when Khalid Muhammad was being widely attacked for his violent New Jersey speech - that the Nation leader got involved.

Muhammad, Williams says, "formally entered the organization in 1997, but has been involved since 1994." Muhammad became national commander in 1997 or 1998.

"Khalid took it on because he was disenchanted with the Nation of Islam," Ajabu told the Intelligence Report. "He did not leave because he was mad. He left because he thought the Black Panther Party was better adapted to our struggle. ... There was a meeting of all the chapters in Texas and he was voted in."

(Still, Muhammad is critical of the Nation. This fall, he called Farrakhan a "hypocrite" for allowing whites to attend the Nation's "Million Family March.")

But Muhammad was already deeply involved. In June 1996, he and Michaels held a news conference in Dallas that was attended by a group of new Panthers, members of the Nation of Islam, and a bevy of reporters. "We must understand the nature of the white man," Muhammad said. "The white man is the devil."

Two Arsons and a Trial
Beginning in 1993, Ajabu organized protests in Indianapolis against the Klan, against the harassment of a black family living in a white neighborhood, and for a black boycott - which proved unsuccessful - of the school system.

But at the same time, controversy dogged the Indiana leader. In May 1994, Ajabu's house burned down in what was ruled an arson. No charges were ever brought in the case, but Ajabu's insurance company refused to pay his claim. Ajabu sued the company as a result, but lost after attorneys presented evidence that he had a financial motive to start the fire. No money was ever paid.

Three months later, Ajabu appeared in Wedowee, Ala., after a principal there sparked nationwide outrage by threatening to cancel the high school prom if interracial couples attended and by demeaning one biracial girl. Hours after Ajabu gave a speech touting the New Black Panthers, the school was burned to the ground.

Christopher Johnson, son of the local Panther leader, was tried. But jurors apparently did not believe testimony that Johnson had boasted of starting the fire, and Johnson was acquitted. Ajabu will not discuss his speech of that night.

In January 1996, Ajabu was convicted of intimidation because of threats he made against a prosecutor who was seeking the death penalty against Ajabu's son in a murder trial. In the end, Ajabu served a year in prison - but only after failing in a bid to become a congressman during appeals. After a June 1996 protest against the death penalty, Ajabu was convicted of resisting arrest, a misdemeanor.

Guns and the Press
Of the new Panthers' original leaders - McGee, Michaels and Ajabu - only Michaels apparently remains involved. Ajabu left around the time of his prison term, and is now studying to become a Christian minister. There is no record of McGee's involvement in the New Black Panthers after the mid-1990s.

Since the mid-1990s and right up to the present, the new Panthers have specialized in confrontational, armed demonstrations - protests guaranteed to win attention from the media.

A Dallas school board meeting was canceled in May 1996 after Panthers threatened to come with loaded weapons. In June of that year, the Panthers went to Greenville, Texas, in a bid to demonstrate black solidarity against the presumably racist arsonists of two black churches. (In the end, a black man confessed.)

In 1997, Panthers showed up again in Dallas in an unsuccessful bid for a separate school district for blacks. In 1998, they made two very public trips to Jasper in the wake of James Byrd's murder.

And, inspired by key Houston member Quanell X, Panthers protested this year at the Texas Republican convention and at the execution of a black man, Gary Graham, in Huntsville, Texas.

'Praying for Rain'
The most public activities of the Panthers have been seen in Muhammad's organization of Million Youth Marches, held in Harlem, N.Y., in each of the last three years.

The idea for the marches grew out of Louis Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March, held in Washington, D.C., and the 1997 Million Woman March, held in Philadelphia. Muhammad had no role in the two earlier events.

But the constantly declining attendance at Muhammad's New York City marches has not helped the Panther image as a powerhouse organization. Shortly before the first of Muhammad's Million Youth Marches, there were predictions of 1 million or even 2 million participants.

In the event, 10,000 actually showed up. In 1999, attendance was down to just 2,000. And this year, a hardy 200 came to hear Muhammad, who blamed the turnout on "the white devil media."

The fact is, the New Black Panther Party, despite some similarities to the vastly more successful Nation of Islam, has not picked up the support of millions of black people. It has angered whites, Jews and most blacks, who see it as fundamentally racist. And it has left a bitter taste in the mouths of at least some of the communities that its members, guns in hand, purport to be helping.

The residents of Jasper, Texas - including many of the ostensible victims who the new Panthers said they sought to protect from the white man - may have said it best.

Looking at the confrontation between Panthers and Klansmen, one woman said "it would be God's own miracle" if the outsiders left town. Another woman from Jasper seemed to sum up the attitude of many in the East Texas community.

"We're praying," she said, "for rain."