The Justice Department’s dismissal of voter intimidation charges against members of Philadelphia’s New Black Panther Party, a decision at the center of testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Tuesday, is one in which every American — particularly ones of color — should be interested.
In sworn testimony, J. Christian Adams, a former Bush administration hire who resigned last year, told the Commission that “over and over and over again,” Barack Obama’s Justice Department showed “hostility” toward cases with black defendants and white victims. Adams, who worked in the department’s Civil Rights Division, cites specifically a case stemming from an incident on Election Day 2008, when two members of the New Black Panther Party showed up to a polling place near downtown Philadelphia and clashed with Republican poll watchers. Though the encounter never got physical, one of the Panthers brandished a nightstick, and affidavits allege they used racial epithets.
Some video footage of the day in question is available on YouTube, but it doesn’t depict the epithets or threats; what it does depict, however—two men in paramilitary uniforms shuffling around the polling place, only identifying themselves as “security” — seems to be a pretty clear case of intimidation. So why didn’t the Justice Department see it that way?
“That’s simple — politics,” says Bartle Bull, a former civil rights attorney who organized against Strom Thurmond before eventually leaving behind modern progressive politics. Bull was poll watching in Philadelphia for Democrats for McCain on November 4, 2008, affording him a front-row seat to the case at the heart of the Adams-DoJ riff. “The simple fact is that who was being intimidated in this situation were not so much voters, because this was a black neighborhood,” says Bull. “Who was being intimidated were the poll watchers. … What they were doing was intimidating the [GOP] poll watchers, several of whom they drove out of polling places in Philadelphia.”
Bull, who says he was in Philadelphia to ensure fraudulent ACORN voters were kept at bay, claims he not only saw the Panthers outside the polling place, but that he was actually harassed by them. “He said to me and another man I was with, ‘Now you will see what it means to be ruled by the black man, cracker,’” he says.
It should be noted that inquiries into Adams’ place at Justice have ascertained that he was hired “under a process the DOJ Inspector General later determined was improperly influenced by politics” (you can read more about that here). Also, according to a statement from Justice spokesperson Tracy Schmaler, it’s inaccurate to say Justice never pursued the case against the Panthers. Though she couldn’t go into internal deliberations, she notes the department obtained an injunction against King Samir Shabazz, the man who wielded the police baton, barring him from displaying a weapon within 100 feet of a Philadelphia polling place until 2012. “This was the only defendant known to have brought a weapon to the Philadelphia polling place during the election,” she says. “After a thorough review, the top career attorney in the Civil Rights Division determined that the facts and the law did not support pursuing claims against the other defendants in the case.”
As things become further mired in partisan bickering by the hour, it’s important to continue questioning just what happened to the case against the New Black Panthers in Philadelphia. While it’s unlikely that Adams is operating strictly in good faith when he calls the DOJ “lawless,” also unlikely is that the Justice Department’s response would be similar were armed white men patrolling polling places and calling people “niggers.” Which is a shame, as justice, above everything, should be one size fits all.