The new voice of black power

Panthers: The black nationalist organization with the familiar name is not your father's Black Panthers.

April 22, 2001|By Jay Apperson

IN BOWIE EARLIER this month, they crashed a "Unity Day" rally and scoffed at a pledge to reject bigotry. A few days later in Harlem, they protested Bill Clinton's plans to rent an office there and described the former president as a "cracker."

Then, last weekend, the New Black Panthers climbed a stage in Cincinnati and found an even brighter spotlight. They eulogized the unarmed African-American teen-ager whose shooting death at the hands of police sparked days of rioting. When the service ended, they carried the casket from church to hearse, raising their clenched fists in the Black Power salute made famous in the turbulent 1960s.

"Continue to resist," New Panthers national leader Malik Zulu Shabazz urged the mourners, "by any divine means necessary."

It was a scene that suggested that the Black Panthers, the '60s-era brand name in militant black activism, are back in the forefront of the national debate on race issues. But while the trademark images of black berets and pumping fists may seem a throwback, some say these new, black nationalist Panthers are a different animal.

"If at any point the Black Panthers presented some answers in the '60s, it's hard to understand what answers Malik Shabazz could provide now," said David Friedman, director of the Washington regional office of the Anti-Defamation League. "Shabazz has a very thin resume other than his having climbed up the ladder of fame by using the most classic anti-Semitic and racist language."

And Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said: "The reality was, yes, the old Panthers also showed up in a lot of places with guns and projected a very militant image. [But] the old Panthers were very willing to embrace white progressives, Puerto Ricans, people of other colors in progressive coalitions. That's absolutely untrue of the new Panthers."

The new organization, he said, is "a straight-up hate group."

It's a label that Shabazz rejects.

"We are in no way to be compared to the Aryan Nation or the neo-Nazis or any of those groups," he said. "The Ku Klux Klan hates black people just because they're black. ... The tactics we take, the language we speak, are all in response to the oppression we face."

And while Potok says the New Panthers have no connection to the older group, Shabazz says some original Panthers are supporters and advisers, and adds, "Our ideology and doctrine is rooted in what they taught, with some modifications."

Those changes, he said, include an increased emphasis on spirituality, and a dream of a black nation that would be made possible under reparations made to African-Americans - in the form of land.

"Much of that land would be in the areas where we picked cotton, and our blood was soaked in the soil, in the South," he said. "There is a race problem in America that continues to have us begging and crying and pleading for justice, so as we continue to work on a day-to-day basis to meet our daily needs, we have concluded that ultimately our true solution for peace and justice lies with a state and territory of our own."

The history of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense has been traced to about 1990, when a Milwaukee alderman formed the "Black Panther Militia" and warned that white America would face "urban guerilla warfare" if the government did not alleviate black poverty, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center report. Chapters formed in Indianapolis and Dallas, and the name eventually changed to the New Black Panthers.

"They gain instant name recognition," Potok said of the choice of name. "Good, bad or indifferent, the old Panthers were very famous and very much a part of our recent history. There aren't many people over 30 who don't remember the old Panthers."

In 1997, two original Black Panthers won an injunction preventing the Dallas group from using the Panther name or logo, but the injunction was never enforced, according to the poverty law center's fall 2000 report.

A year later, the group received its first widespread attention. Wearing paramilitary garb and armed with assault rifles and shotguns, the New Panthers appeared in Jasper, Texas, where James Byrd Jr. had been dragged to his death behind a truck. Police stayed between the Panthers and hooded marchers from the Ku Klux Klan.

By then, Khallid Abdul Muhammad had became the organization's national leader. A former spokesman for the black separatist Nation of Islam, Muhammad was known for his inflammatory language - including references to "bloodsucking Jews" and "white devil crackers." With Shabazz, he spearheaded the Million Youth Marches in New York City. The marches have suffered from dwindling attendance.

Muhammad died in February, and Shabazz, the national spokesman, took over as party chairman.

The New Black Panthers now have thousands of members across the nation, Shabazz said, but he did not provide a more precise number. The group's Washington-area chapter, formed last summer, has at least 70 members, he said.

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