New Black Panthers: Noisy but small
FOR A POLITICAL movement that serves as a 50,000-watt boogeyman for conservative talk radio in America, finding your local representative of the New Black Panther Party is not easy. There’s no party headquarters and no membership roll — just a doorbell at a modest brick home in the lawn-checkered, rebuilt stretch of North Philadelphia between the Temple campus and Center City.
FOR A POLITICAL movement that serves as a 50,000-watt boogeyman for conservative talk radio in America, finding your local representative of the New Black Panther Party is not easy.
There's no party headquarters and no membership roll — just a doorbell at a modest brick home in the lawn-checkered, rebuilt stretch of North Philadelphia between the Temple campus and Center City.
When King Samir Shabazz, the Philadelphia chairman of the New Black Panther Party, emerges, he agrees to an interview only if it can be conducted while he paces up and down the sidewalk out front.
The mid-40s Shabazz is a beret-wearing, dreadlock-flowing bundle of contradictions — with a nervous laugh and a "Kill Whitey" tattoo etched into his cheekbone.
He is short in stature but long on the kind of political hate speech that has gotten his NBPP dinged by the extremist-tracking Southern Poverty Law Center.
"I hate every last white person," says Shabazz, who adds during a rambling 30-minute dialogue that Christianity has "a Satanic mind-set," that he believes the U.S. government carried out the 9/11 attacks and that he'd just been doing some research on a video website that he insisted on calling "Jewtube."
And Shabazz makes a mockery of the talk-radio notion that the New Black Panthers are somehow an adjunct to President Obama's political campaigns. The first African-American president, Shabazz says, "has not made the conditions for black people any better — in fact it has made things five times worse because we've gone back to sleep. We put our hopes and dreams into a man who is an outright murderer of his own people"—a reference to the bombing of Libya.
The New Black Panthers are a political party with no elected officers, and even trackers have no idea how many members it has nationwide — probably somewhere in the hundreds. A website maintained by Shabazz called RebelSlaves.com promotes a weekly meeting at a former post office on Girard Avenue, but this week no one showed up.
Yet this small fringe group has a remarkable knack for making headlines, most recently when a Florida New Black Panther announced a $10,000 bounty on the head of George Zimmerman, the gunman in the racially charged Trayvon Martin case.
Before that, the Philadelphia NBPP was at the center of a national brouhaha over the actions of Shabazz and another party loyalist on Election Day in 2008, when Shabazz stood outside a polling place in Fairmount brandishing a nightstick. Conservatives insist that after the Obama administration took office the next year, Shabazz and two other New Black Panthers got off with an inconsequential slap on the wrist over alleged voter intimidation.
The party gets a lot more attention on popular bastions of conservative radio than in the cities like Philadelphia where its small chapters are located. In March, America's most-listened-to talk-radio host, Rush Limbaugh, insisted in the middle of a rant about Obama that the president is "a supporter of the New Black Panther Party."
So are the New Black Panther Party and its undeniable hate speech a threat to the broader society that should be taken seriously? Or is it an inconsequential fringe group of attention-seekers that conservative pundits are using as a "dog whistle" to voters on the far right by mentioning Obama and a radical black party in the same breath?
Locally, Dom Giordano, popular morning host on talk station WPHT 1210, has discussed the New Black Panther Party on several occasions — interviewing Shabazz and bringing national attention to a video in which the Philadelphia activist spoke at a South Street event about "killing cracker babies."
Yet Giordano also readily admits that the group's few members are "knuckleheads" and that when it comes to actual violence, "to my knowledge they haven't done anything." He said the reason to focus attention on the group is the "double-standard" in how the anti-white extremist group is portrayed in the media and handled by the government.
In particular, the aftermath of the 2008 Philadelphia polling place incident captured on video — the Justice Department won an injunction barring Shabazz from future intimidation but failed to pursue more punitive steps or go after two other NPP members, in part because no voter reported feeling intimidated — angered conservatives. They've argued the feds would have come down much more harshly on a white group accused of intimidating black voters.
The old Black Panthers from the 1960s and early 1970s, such as movement founder Bobby Seale, have disowned the New Black Panthers, insisting they were focused then on uplifting black communities and not on anti-white rhetoric and threats.
Indeed, the NBPP isn't connected to Seale's movement as much as to the Nation of Islam. The founder and inspiration for the New Black Panthers was the late Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a one-time right-hand man to Louis Farrakhan who was bounced from Nation of Islam in 1993 after a New Jersey speech in which he called Jews bloodsuckers and called Pope John Paul II "a no-good cracker."
Today, the New Black Panther Party is just one of three predominantly black organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group.
Heidi Beirich, who leads the SPLC's Intelligence Project, said a hate-group determination is not something the center takes lightly—"but in the case of the New Black Panthers it's easy to make that determination—we have video of them making incredibly anti-Semitic statements and anti-white statements."
Beirich said there's little difference between hateful remarks about Jews uttered by NBPP members and statements by neo-Nazis or skinheads. Indeed, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Anti-Defamation League also list the party as a hate group.
Shabazz insists the movement is a necessary response to white supremacy embedded in America's body politic.
"If we are intimidating white supremacy — that is the job of black men," he said last week. "We're supposed to intimidate, we're supposed to upheave and uproot evil when it comes to protecting our people."
Reportedly born Maurice Heath in Trenton, N.J., Shabazz was not eager to speak about himself the other day — although past articles including an extensive 2003 profile in Philadelphia Weekly said he was a passionate follower of the late Muhammad, and that he's the father of eight children by different mothers who was in the criminal justice system for small-time drug dealing over a decade ago before he refocused on politics.
However, Shabazz is hardly shy in his online profile. On RebelSlaves.com, he peddles his own debut hip-hop CD called "The Stress of a Field Nigga." On his profile at BlackPlanet.com, Shabazz has posted pictures of himself brandishing a handgun in various poses and toting a rifle in the woods — and he also writes that "I don't have time for foolish unintelligent azz females who don't want nothin out of life but drama."
When it comes to the New Black Panthers, Shabazz has two speeds: Outrageous and defensive. On the 2008 incident, he insists that he brought a nightstick to the polling place because white skinheads had posted threats in the neighborhood. "So the party took charge—we stood up as black men should do," he said.
He also said that the recent $10,000 NBPP bounty didn't call for the killing of the Florida gunman Zimmerman, just his legal arrest — although NBPP Florida official Mikhail Muhammad later told reporters that party also believed in "a life for a life." Said Shabazz of Zimmerman, who later was arrested and charged with murdering Trayvon, "if the government is going to do nothing about it, it's time for the black man to stand up."
Shabazz said the New Black Panthers were a presence at several recent rallies for Trayvon in Center City. If so, they stood where the party usually stands, which is not on center stage but in the shadows.
"We're in the streets for the minds and hearts of our people every single day, Shabazz said. "Nowadays it's all about survival of black people." With that, he vanished into the dusk of a North Philadelphia night — alone.
Contact Bunch at 215-854-2957 or email@example.com or follow on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog, Attytood.com.