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Justice Department Takes a Second Look at New Black Panthers Voter-Intimidation Case

The Department of Justice has begun an internal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the dismissal in May of voter intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party, a black separatist group.

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, disclosed the inquiry this week. Smith has been a strident critic of the Justice Department’s decision to dismiss charges against members of the group who stood outside a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day last November in military-style fatigues and berets. The department previously won an injunction against one of the members, who had carried a night stick.

The original incident was captured on videotape and posted on YouTube, where it attracted national attention. The New Black Panther Party — which despite its name has no connection with the original Black Panther Party — is a black supremacist organization listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, based on the anti-white and anti-Semitic views its leaders and members have repeatedly expressed.

The Justice Department had cited insufficient evidence as the primary reason for dismissing the case, but some Republicans have found that unacceptable. Conservative bloggers and commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, have condemned the decision to drop most of the case. And Rep. Smith has called on Senate Republicans to block the nomination of President Obama’s choice to the head the Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez, over the matter.

Smith was notified of the Justice Department action in a letter from Mary Patrice Brown, chief counsel of the Office of Professional Responsibility, the department’s internal ethics watchdog. The letter, dated Aug. 28, said Brown’s office is 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.

Acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King recommended dismissing most of the complaint in April. The complaint had been filed in January in the waning days of the Bush administration. Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich wrote to Rep. Smith in July, saying the Justice Department concluded 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.

“I am pleased that someone at the Justice Department is finally taking the dismissal of the New Black Panther Party case seriously,” Smith said in his news release this week. “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.”

Rep. Smith’s characterization of the New Black Panthers as “political allies” of the Obama administration may strike some as a bit of a stretch, however. The principal activity of the New Black Panther Party appears to be spouting hateful talk; there is no evidence of any of the health clinics or breakfast programs the original Panthers provided in the 1960s. The new group rose to prominence in the late 1990s under the leadership of Khalid Abdul Muhammad, who previously was the leading spokesman for the black separatist Nation of Islam, but whose incendiary rhetoric turned out too extreme even for that organization. In a September 2000 speech, he railed against “the hooked-nose, bagel-eatin', lox-eatin', perpetrating-a-fraud, just-crawled-out-of-the-caves-and-hills-of-Europe, so-called, wannabe, imposter Jew,” and also said, “There's only two kinds of white folks, there's only two kinds, bad white folks and worse white folks.”

Khalid Muhammad died in 2001 and leadership passed to Malik Zulu Shabazz, who once praised his predecessor for being a man “who gives the white man nightmares … who makes the Jews pee in their pants at night.” Zulu Shabazz was one of three party members named in the original Justice Department complaint in December.

The Justice Department did obtain an injunction against the man shown in the video wielding the night stick, King Samir Shabazz. It prohibits him from brandishing a weapon outside a polling place through Nov. 15, 2012.

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