The New Black Panthers may hate white people, but did they intimidate them on Election Day 2008?
It’s just starting to get dark when I stroll up to Jerry Jackson’s house in north-central Philly, a tidy, well-landscaped brick single with a red, black and green flag flying out front. A small sign by the door reads: “COLORED ONLY. No Whites Allowed.” I go for the bell anyway, at any moment expecting someone to tell me to get my cracker-ass off the property.
Jackson—chief of staff of the Philadelphia branch of the New Black Panther Party—answers, and we cordially shake hands. He tells me to wait, going back inside and locking the door behind him. Soon, the door opens again and three Panthers dressed in black file out and take up positions guarding the sidewalk. A woman in street clothes comes out and starts walking around the house, peering behind bushes and into corners.
They stand “at ease” but are alert, with their eyes on the street. No weapons are visible but the martial atmosphere is palpable as daylight fades to night on the otherwise deserted block.
Jackson comes out again, setting an old office chair in the center of the porch. Assistant Chief of Staff Ayotefnut Ba takes up position at the back of the porch. Finally, the chairman himself emerges.
King Samir Shabazz is shorter than I’d expected but otherwise looks just like he does in various YouTube videos—dreads, face covered in tats, and dressed like a soldier. I hesitate—would he be offended to shake the hand of a white man? I extend mine anyway and he takes it; a solid, firm handshake.
Shabazz sits in the office chair and starts talking. “We’re just tired of being demonized,” he says. “When you demonize the New Black Panther Party, you demonize the ideology of black power, black struggle and love."
The New Black Panthers have been all over national news since Election Day 2008, when Shabazz and Jackson were accused of intimidating voters at a Fairmount Avenue polling station in the 14th Ward. Evidence is sparse to what actually happened on that day at the Guild House West Retirement home. A videotape distributed on YouTube shows Shabazz and Jackson standing out front, with Shabazz holding a nightstick and telling the cameraman he is providing security. According to the Department of Justice, which brought a case against the men, “Every voter necessarily had to pass within the mens’ armed purview, and within a distance at which the weapon could potentially be swung to hit them.”
Bartle Bull, a white civil-rights attorney known for working on Democratic candidates’ campaigns, was checking in at various polling stations that day, and when he stopped in on Fairmount Avenue, he said Shabazz yelled at him, “Now you will see what it means to be ruled by the black man, cracker!”
Two poll watchers stationed inside the building reportedly told a third poll watcher that they were intimidated, but they later denied it and said that they were unaware of the Panthers’ presence.
“I didn’t see anybody outside. Nobody said nothing to me about anything,” poll watcher Larry Counts testified at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, though he had previously told Justice Department lawyers that before leaving the polling place, he “first checked to see if the Black Panthers were still deployed outside.”
There were no reports of voters denied entrance to the polls. The neighborhood is primarily black, and out of more than 1,500 voters, fewer than 100 were registered Republican. So it’s unclear who exactly Shabazz and Jackson would have wanted to prevent from casting ballots.
Vice Chair of the Civil Rights Commission Abigail Thernstrom said, “So far —after months of hearings, testimony and investigation—no one has produced actual evidence that any voters were too scared to cast their ballots.”
Citing lack of evidence, the Department of Justice dropped the intimidation charges but issued an injunction banning Shabazz from Philadelphia polls until 2012. Critics are accusing the DoJ of “backing off” voting cases involving black defendants, under the direction of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. A number of lawmakers have called for the DoJ’s Inspector General to investigate why the case was dropped, but the office declined, stating that its jurisdiction is to uncover waste and fraud, not political bias.
Meanwhile, Shabazz and Jackson have said very little about Election Day 2008.
“It’s not about a night stick. It’s about the very fact that the New Black Panther Party was there providing security for our elders. The KKK and neo-Nazis in the city of Philadelphia were putting out fliers saying they would be attacking elders and youth. We were there to secure the elders’ home.
“Everything else that happened after that, it is what it is.”
Shabazz says he can’t speak more about the voter-intimidation charges because the case is still under review by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He and Jackson were subpoenaed by the Commission but declined to testify when their lawyer did not show up to the deposition in January. “To be honest, I don’t want to talk about it,” Shabazz says. “The white man has lied about it so much. That’s small potatoes.”
The New Black Panthers should look familiar. They borrowed their name, logo and much of their "black power" rhetoric from the original Black Panther Party, which gained notoriety by organizing for the self-defense of black neighborhoods in the late '60s and early '70s. But many members of the original Panthers reject the hyper-racial view of the new group.