Scouring the city for Black Panther victims
Meet the neighbors of America's most famous crank.
By Daniel Denvir
The fourth precinct of the city's 14th ward encompasses about eight square blocks north of Chinatown, made up of small, suburban-style houses, a few abandoned lots, and the Guild House West, a retirement home. The home is where people of the fourth precinct vote and, on Nov. 4, 2008, where two members of the New Black Panther Party briefly stood, one armed with a nightstick.
The group is as obscure as it is bigoted. But as Americans elected our first black president, the right-wing media began a relentless campaign to portray Barack Obama's victory as auguring the rise of black racism. The story eventually found its way into the mainstream press.
The idea is that whites are being oppressed, much as Southern blacks were warned away from polling places by Klansmen and violent cops in the pre-civil rights era. But this Philadelphia neighborhood is almost entirely black, and no white voters - or, for that matter, any voters - complained of intimidation. On the grounds that voter intimidation requires at least one intimidated voter, I walked the fourth precinct in search of a victim.
Angel Rivera, 49, and a friend were enjoying a cold beer on a shaded bench around the corner from the Guild House. Rivera had just finished 10 years behind bars and was exploring his old stomping grounds.
"The neighborhood's more relaxed - no more gangbanging," he said, recalling the bleak public housing that once stood nearby. Over the past 15 years, it was remade into a federally subsidized community dubbed West Poplar Nehemiah: single-family, owner-occupied homes for working-class Philadelphians. The nearby Cambridge Plaza and Richard Allen Homes - where Bill Cosby grew up and set Fat Albert - underwent similar transformations.
Neither Rivera nor the guys from the homeless shelter at Broad and Ridge had heard of any black-power thugs striking fear in the neighborhood. Rather, they kept bringing up teen pregnancy and bad schools. So I moved on, still searching for black racism and an intimidated voter.
A block away, I found Carmen Candelaria, 42, getting out of her car. She reported no trouble exercising her franchise in the last election. And Candelaria - unlike millions of Fox News viewers nationwide - has somehow never heard of the New Black Panthers terrorizing her neighborhood.
On another street, I cornered a 32-year-old architectural designer who would discuss her neighbors only on the condition of anonymity. I asked if she had heard of the intimidation; she had not. The militants? She had.
"One of the guys lives in the development," she said, pointing a block west.
As I rounded the corner of Parrish and Park, I found the militant headquarters, its Black Liberation flag standing out a bit from its surroundings. I walked past the neighbors' lawn furniture, grills, and driveway basketball hoops. A plaque on the man's door read: "Coloreds only. No whites allowed."
Here was the neighborhood crank who had launched a thousand cable-news jeremiads, nestled among his hardworking, indifferent neighbors. But I was having trouble finding victims or sympathizers. It almost seemed as if he were - a cartoonish anomaly?
"Oh, I don't even deal with it," said Boo, a neighbor, shaking his head when I asked about the militant down the block. "We can't control what people think. He's holding onto the past. Lots went on years ago that wasn't right, but we can't hold onto that."
Sitting on his porch and petting a very small, fluffy white dog, Boo, 47, was in prison two years ago and unable to vote in the last election. Like other neighbors, he had never heard of the Black Panther controversy ricocheting around the right-wing echo chamber, ostensibly concerning the voting rights of the people of this very precinct. But he seemed truly dismayed to hear conservatives were charging that President Obama fostered black racism.
"No. No. It was time for a change, and people need to welcome that change," he said. "Just because an African American man was elected president doesn't mean the Black Panther Party is going to run crazy, or the Muslims are going to run crazy."
At a park down the block, a few homeless guys enjoying cold tall boys pointed out a young white man mowing his lawn. I had found my victim.
"I'm a Democrat, so they wouldn't need to intimidate me," joked Tim Greaves. The 20-year-old Temple student had recently moved into the neighborhood, and he insisted that his mostly black neighbors were not oppressing him.
The Black Panther episode is, of course, just one of many complicated stories about race in America that have been opportunistically disfigured by the right. Shirley Sherrod's is another.
We occupy an ever more alternate universe, in which tea partyers pretend to be victims of Obama's "deep-seated hatred for white people," as Glenn Beck put it. Yet at ground zero of one such supposed victimization, I couldn't find the hate - save for one solitary, if expertly drawn, caricature. If Fox News wants to talk about race, a conversation with real people might be a good place to start.