Feds investigate decision to drop case against Panthers
The Department of Justice has launched an internal investigation into the dismissal of voter intimidation charges against members of the racist New Black Panther Party who positioned themselves outside a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day last November. They wore military-style fatigues and berets and one of them brandished a police-style baton.
The New Black Panther Party (NBPP) — which despite its name has no connection with the original Black Panther Party — is a black separatist organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies the NBPP as a hate group based on the anti-white, anti-gay and anti-Semitic views its leaders have repeatedly expressed.
NBPP members were present outside polling places in at least six major U.S. cities last Nov. 4. The group claimed they were providing voter information and protecting the rights and safety of black voters.
Only in Philadelphia were any members visibly armed. The Philadelphia incident was captured on videotape and posted on YouTube, where it attracted national attention. A voter intimidation complaint was filed against the NBPP members in January during the waning days of the Bush administration.
In April, acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King recommended dismissing most of the complaint, provoking an outcry from right-wing bloggers and commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, who repeatedly condemned the decision on his radio show.
Several prominent Republican lawmakers took up the cause and blasted the Justice Department. Loudest among them was U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
In July, Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich wrote to Smith, saying the Justice Department had concluded that the evidence did not support the allegation that the New Black Panther Party had directed its members to block polling places across the country. "[F]actual contentions in the complaint did not have sufficient evidentiary support," Weich said.
Smith responded by calling on Senate Republicans to block the nomination of President Obama's choice to head the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez (despite that, Perez was confirmed in October). Then, in late August, Smith received a letter from Mary Patrice Brown, chief counsel of the Office of Professional Responsibility, the DOJ's internal ethics watchdog. The letter said Brown's office was conducting an "inquiry," a preliminary step that indicates the office found more grounds to explore the complaint, while stopping short of opening a more formal investigation.
"I am pleased that someone at the Justice Department is finally taking the dismissal of the New Black Panther Party case seriously," Smith stated in a September news release. "The Justice Department's decision to drop a case against political allies who allegedly intimidated voters on Election Day 2008 reeks of political interference. The Justice Department's refusal to provide Congress with an explanation for the dismissal only further raises concerns that political favoritism played a role in this case. … I look forward to seeing the results of the Department's investigation."
Meanwhile, the national leadership of the New Black Panther Party has suspended the group's Philadelphia chapter indefinitely. "The New Black Panther Party has never, and never will, condone or promote the carrying of nightsticks or any kind of weapon at any polling place," reads a "Public Notice" on the group's website. "It is true that volunteers in the New Black Panther Party successfully served as poll watchers all over the country and helped get the Black vote out. We were incident free. We are intelligent enough to understand that a polling place is a sensitive site and all actions must be carried out in a civilized and lawful manner."
The Justice Department has obtained an injunction against the man shown in the video wielding the nightstick, King Samir Shabazz. It prohibits him from brandishing any weapon outside a polling place through Nov. 15, 2012.