Activists revive the Black Panthers, at least in name

The new generation of African Americans is too radical for original members, who are suing the group.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Dressed in his crisp black uniform, gold braids at the wrist to mark his title as national chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz of the New Black Panther Party jabbed his finger at an old blown-up photo of two lynched black men.

"You want to talk about terrorism? Come talk to the black people of America, because we have been terrorized by America for the last 400 years!" he bellowed at the audience at the National Press Club last fall. "Sept. 11 was the result of America ... reaping the results of her historical crimes!"

With a rage reminiscent of the rebellious 1960s, Mr. Shabazz and his small group of radical activists have emerged as a controversial presence in America's already-charged racial landscape.

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To some, including members of the original Black Panthers - the radical antipoverty group - this new, small organization is an aberration that embodies a strain of hatred akin to Osama bin Laden's. But to others, it represents a legitimate voice of dissent that is a product of the persistent poverty and lack of opportunity in America's most brutalized neighborhoods.

"I believe that one has to listen when groups emerge who are alienating, hostile, and militant - even if I don't agree with them. We have to understand what is driving them to exist," says Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

Exploitation?

In some circles, Shabazz and his New Black Panthers win instant credibility, not for their politics or ideology, but simply because of their name. And that infuriates some original members of the Black Panthers. They say this new group, which they believe espouses antiwhite and anti-Jewish hatred, is exploiting the Panther name and symbolism and tarnishing their legacy. They've already gone to state court in Texas, and now plan to head to federal court to stop the group from using their name.

"They are the personification of everything negative that's been said of us," says David Hilliard, a former Black Panther and executive director of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, dedicated to carrying on the original Panther legacy. "They totally abandoned our survival programs, and the racism that they espouse flies directly in the face of the Black Panthers' multicultural ideology and purpose."

During its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, the original Black Panthers were feared by many for their fiery rhetoric. But they also won deep respect in poor neighborhoods for setting up free breakfast programs, clinics, and ambulance services, even as they were being attacked by the FBI and demonized by the media.

Charles Jones, chair of the department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, says the original Panthers' organization was multiracial, multicultural, and designed to mobilize and empower impoverished communities. Their model has been replicated around the world - by the American Indian movement and the Dalits, or untouchables, in India.

But not by the group calling itself the New Black Panthers, says Mr. Jones. "We don't see this extensive community service at work within the New Black Panther Party," he says. "You see almost a grabbing for headlines rather than the hard, incremental, day-by-day community organizing."

Another difference is the new group's "decidedly antiwhite bias," says Jones. That is one of Mr. Hilliard's frustrations. In 1966, when Huey Newton approached him about joining the Black Panthers, there were two other people with him - one Jewish, the other Japanese.

"That should show you the differences between our class-based analysis and these guys, who are racist," says Hilliard.

Opposed to oppressors

The New Black Panthers insist they are neither racist nor anti-Semitic, but advocates for the downtrodden and the victims of racism, imperialism, and Zionism. Hashim Nzinga, the New Black Panther's chief of staff, says if anything, they are opposed to any and all oppressors.

"We really think and feel that our communities are totally run by outsiders, and they don't know how we feel about our children, our community. So we need to run them," he says.

But the New Black Panthers often articulate that with racially charged language. When Bill Clinton moved his office to Harlem last summer, two dozen uniformed Panthers stood silently in formation while Shabazz attacked the former president as a "cracker" and a "missionary of gentrification" determined to drive poor blacks from their homes. When riots broke out in Cincinnati last spring after police shot a 19-year-old black man, they carried his coffin, their clenched fists raised in the black power salute. Shabazz urged the community to continue to resist "by any divine means necessary."

And Shabazz has never made a secret of what he believes is one of America's fundamental problems. "We have to make it plain that the Zionists control America lock, stock, and barrel," he said during a press conference aired by C-SPAN last fall. "The European Jews have America under their control."

The New Black Panther Party made its first appearance on the national scene wearing trademark black fatigues and berets in 1998, to protest the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas. Their leader at the time was Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a former spokesman of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. There is a dispute about whether Mr. Muhammad left or was ousted from the Nation of Islam, but not about the fact that he was far more militant in his views than many in that group. He attracted a number of young people to the New Black Panthers, including Shabazz, who took over the group after Muhammad died in 2001.

The group claims to have 30 chapters in the US, but refuses to discuss how many members. And unlike the original Panther organization, which was based on a political ideology, the new group embraces Islam. Shabazz routinely invokes the Koran, as well as the legacy of the original group - despite a 1997 court injunction in Texas prohibiting them from using the Panther name.

Mr. Nzinga declined to comment on the injunction, but he noted they have the support of some of the original Panthers.

While he declined to name them, the new group is currently protesting outside the trial of former Panther Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. He was previously known as H. Rapp Brown, and is accused of killing a sheriff's deputy and wounding another in Atlanta. His lawyer argues he was only briefly associated with the Panthers in the late 1960s.

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