Black Panther voter-intimidation debacle still gnaws at nation's values

King Samir Shabazz , whose armed presence turned away voters in 2008, witnesses say.
King Samir Shabazz , whose armed presence turned away voters in 2008, witnesses say. (RACHEL PLAYE / File Photograph)
Posted: December 18, 2011

J. Christian Adams

is an election lawyer who served in the Voting Rights Section at the U.S. Department of Justice and is author of Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department

Most who have seen the video of the New Black Panthers standing in front of a Philadelphia polling place in 2008 have well-settled opinions about the matter. However, with the presidential election next year, and with the injunction that barred the baton-wielding King Samir Shabazz from appearing at city polling places set to expire, it's worth considering some facts you might not have heard before.

As we know, the Justice Department brought a voter-intimidation lawsuit against the Panthers in the final days of the Bush administration. I was one of the four lawyers who brought the case. It was dismissed entirely a few months after President Obama's inauguration, apart from a temporary slap on the wrist for Shabazz. The dismissal occurred despite a default being entered against all of the Panther defendants because they never responded.

In hindsight, the case marked the first in a series of controversies that have sullied Eric Holder's tenure as attorney general. The Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal is the latest. Though some regard the Black Panther dismissal as "no big deal," few are making that argument about thousands of American guns killing hundreds of people in Mexico.

Perhaps it is a good time to debunk a few of the myths surrounding the dismissal of the Panther case - especially because we now have facts from internal Department of Justice reports and sworn testimony.

First, there was sworn testimony from eyewitnesses that voters indeed turned away at the sight of the club-wielding Black Panthers. A favorite canard of Holder's defenders has been that no voters were affected. Multiple eyewitnesses, including Chris Hill and Bartle Bull, testified under oath to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that they saw voters intimidated by the Panthers.

Those who support the dismissal of the case mock those who believe intimidation occurred, accusing them of being afraid "of scary black men." Yet those hurling such racialist taunts overlook an important fact - even Holder's Justice Department disagrees with them. After all, it pursued an injunction, albeit a paltry one, against Shabazz. If he committed voter intimidation, then certainly so did codefendant Jerry Jackson. Sworn and uncontroverted testimony revealed that Jackson acted in unison with the armed Shabazz to block the entrance to the polls. Was Jackson cut loose because he is a Democratic city committeeman?

Second, the internal ethics investigation of the dismissal revealed hostility toward using civil rights laws against minority wrongdoers. This testimony was given under penalty of perjury. Multiple lawyers stated that it is a common view inside this Justice Department that black wrongdoers should not be defendants in civil rights cases. The attorneys providing this testimony were longtime department employees, and liberals.

Philadelphia was not the only place where this nasty hostility toward race-neutral enforcement of election laws scuttled or impaired Justice Department investigations. As I document in my book Injustice, it has also happened in Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere.

Yet the Black Panther case was about much more than two racist jokers strutting in front of the Guild House. It is about what sort of nation we want to be.

The most tragic part of the Panther dismissal is how it erodes the precious principle of equal protection. No part of our Constitution was purchased with more blood and treasure than the Civil War Amendments - the 13th, 14th and 15th.

The 15th Amendment secures the right to vote free from racial discrimination and is the basis of the Voting Rights Act, under which the Panthers were sued. These amendments stand for the principle that the law treats everyone equally, regardless of race. People continued to die for this precious idea in places like Selma and Philadelphia, Miss., even a century after the Civil War ended.

Have we grown tired of equality before law as an aspiration?

Let's hope not. Because rapid demographic changes likely will mean that no racial group will be a majority in a few decades. The constitutional command of equal protection will be especially essential when no group constitutes a majority in this nation. We will enter dangerous territory if too many still think stalking a poll with a weapon is "no big deal" if the person happens to be of a certain race.

The authors of the Civil War Amendments long ago provided the best path to legal harmony in a diverse nation. Simply, the law should treat everybody equally. The sacrifices made for this principle warrant a fresh look at the facts of the Black Panther dismissal, particularly before the 2012 election.


E-mail J. Christian Adams at adams@electionlawcenter.com.

See NEW BLACK PANTHERS on D2

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