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New Black Panther Party leader Malik Shabazz gets plenty of media attention for his incendiary racist vitriol, but his paltry support within the black community suggests that his radical sound and fury signify very little.
Panther Divisionby Richard J. Rosendall
Originally published on February 9, 2004 in FrontPage magazine.com
A recent appearance on Fox News Channel by outspoken black separatist Malik Zulu Shabazz, defending Michael Jackson to Geraldo Rivera, showed his skill at getting what he wants most: attention. Shabazz thrives on notoriety, which he gains by making incendiary racist statements. His activities as national chairman of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense 1 are chronicled and condemned by columnists, his remarks are tracked by the Anti-Defamation League 2 and the Southern Poverty Law Center 3, his rants are covered by C-SPAN, 4 and he is tapped by public affairs broadcasters to provide instant "balance" on their programs.
Born Paris Lewis, Shabazz is, for all his radical exploits, a member in good standing of the DC Bar who graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1995. In 2003 he organized Black Lawyers for Justice. He is an inveterate organizer. As an undergraduate in 1988, he founded Unity Nation, a "Black Revolutionary" student group. This led to his association with the notorious Khallid Abdul Muhammad, then of the Nation of Islam, who later chaired the New Black Panther Party from 1998 until his death in February 2001.
Muhammad is best known for his address at Kean College in New Jersey in November 1993, when he was spokesman for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. In the three-hour speech, Muhammad denounced whites, gays, Jews, and Catholics, and called for the murder of every white person remaining in South Africa. 5 Muhammad was subsequently fired by Farrakhan, who stated that he differed not with the content of Muhammad's remarks, but only with his manner of delivery.
Shabazz emulates his late mentor in cultivating an inflated impression of his own power and importance. Just as the New Black Panther Party website claims that Muhammad's Kean College speech "shook the racist, Zionist, imperialist, white supremist foundation of the world," 6 Shabazz introduced Muhammad in 1995 by saying, "We want to bring on a man who gives the white man nightmares. We want to bring on a man who makes the Jews pee in their pants at night.... My big brother, Dr. Khallid Muhammad!" 7
Like big brother, like little brother. At a February 1994 rally that Shabazz organized for Muhammad at Howard University, he warmed up the crowd by whipping them into a frenzy with a vicious anti-Semitic call-and-response. 8 In an October 2001 press conference that was televised live on C-SPAN2, Shabazz blamed Israel for the September 11 attack on New York's World Trade Center. 9 At an April 2002 protest outside B'nai B'rith headquarters in Washington, DC, he said, "Kill every goddamn Zionist in Israel! Goddamn little babies, goddamn old ladies! Blow up Zionist supermarkets!" 10
Given this murderous zeal, it may surprise you to learn that Shabazz opposes the death penalty. In early 2000, Janet Reno's Justice Department announced plans to seek the death penalty against Carl Cooper, accused of a triple homicide at a Starbucks coffee shop in northwest DC. There being no death penalty under District of Columbia law (and District voters having overwhelmingly rejected the death penalty by referendum), DOJ decided to prosecute Cooper in federal court. At a press conference held outside the Justice Department by an anti-death-penalty coalition, Shabazz referred to Cooper as "Brother Carl" and talked as if his being black made him incapable of guilt -- and therefore he must have been framed by racist cops planting evidence.
Shabazz adopted a smirking, contemptuous tone throughout. He mentioned the race of the two white murder victims while making no mention of the third victim, who was black. When I challenged him later, Shabazz wrote to me, "Yes, Carl Cooper is my brother. Every Black man is my brother by nature. The same dog that bit him bit me too.... I am not a conspiracy theorist, I am a conspiracy realist." He also wrote, "Sometimes it may seem to be a contradiction, but we teach what appears to be racism in order to destroy that which is racism." Cooper subsequently pled guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Later in 2000, Shabazz walked into the campaign headquarters of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, co-founder of DC's Duke Ellington School of the Arts and a prominent Washington African American, who was running for President of the Board of Education. Her initial campaign posters had not included her photo, and her last name (from a former marriage) led Shabazz, who did not know who she was, to assume she was Jewish. He admitted to her that he and some associates had been ripping down her posters in predominantly black neighborhoods, but now that they realized she was a "sister" they wanted to help her. She was not impressed.
At Al Sharpton's sparsely attended August 2000 "Redeem the Dream" rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Shabazz, then Minister of Justice of the New Black Panther Party under Khallid Muhammad, gave what he called an "I Have a Black Dream" speech. As David Horowitz reported, the speech called for a race war. It included this: "For every casket and funeral in our community there should be a casket and funeral in the enemy's community." 11 Sharpton's co-host was Martin Luther King III, despite the fact that the event's embrace of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam represented a repudiation of King's father, who warned against "Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement" in his famed 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail. 12 In that letter, Dr. King had warned of the "frightening racial nightmare" that would result if his nonviolent approach were rejected in favor of black-nationalist ideologies. Little could he have imagined that his own son would consort with the very hatemongers he cited.
Go to Sleep, Little Devil
Shabazz does get around. He has addressed anti-police rallies in such cities as Cincinnati, Louisville, and Decatur, Alabama, and boasts of lecturing on college campuses across the country. But notwithstanding his talent for organizing radical demonstrations and spewing hate-filled rhetoric, there is reason to doubt that Shabazz is really anybody's worst nightmare. Here in post-9/11 Washington where he has his law practice, we face greater threats than his radical Sixties rhetoric and paramilitary posturing. In fact, judging by his election returns as a local candidate for public office, he appears to be more of a bad dream for his fellow African Americans.
When he ran in the 1998 election for two at-large DC Council seats, Shabazz came in fifth with 15,644 votes, or 8 percent. 13 That is not an altogether insignificant number, but it left him roughly 25,000 votes shy of the victorious Republican candidate and 56,000 fewer than the Democrat. It is noteworthy that Shabazz placed so far behind David Catania, a popular reformer who has been re-elected twice while being a white, openly gay Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city which is 60 percent black. (The city's rules guarantee that half of the at-large Council seats go to non-Democrats, but they could just as well go to people like Shabazz, who ran as an Independent, as to Republicans.)
As an activist in DC I have encountered Shabazz a number of times, and he always seems to bring a retinue with him. The first time he ran for DC Council was in a special election in 1995 to fill the seat vacated by Marion Barry when he returned to the Mayor's office. There were about 20 people running in that election, and they were all invited to speak and answer questions at a gay issues forum. At one point Shabazz made a remark that suggested he misunderstood something, so afterwards I approached him to clear him up on whatever it was. His bodyguard blocked my way, as if to protect Brother Malik from me; or perhaps I was simply unworthy of his presence. I told him to get over himself, and explained my reason for approaching. Shabazz motioned the man to let me pass. It occurred to me that he was emulating Louis Farrakhan, surrounding himself with lieutenants like an African warlord. He lost the election despite these ritualistic displays, which after all are not emblematic of democracy.
In October 2000, I sent Shabazz an email needling him about the sparseness of his support, and added provocatively, "Which is too bad in a way, because I have always loved the Black Panthers' paramilitary get-up, particularly the black berets, which I think are wonderfully homoerotic.... Now be honest: isn't all this strutting and posturing at least partly intended to appeal to white people's Mandingo Complex?"
No, Dear Reader, this was not respectful, but I thought he had it coming. Talk about poking a stick in a hornet's nest. Shabazz fired off the following response, in all caps:
"LEAVE ME ALONE SICK LITTLE FAGGOT. THATS WHY WE HAD A STANDING ROOM ONLY 800 PLUS CROWD AT THE MASONIC TEMPLE LAST THURSDAY, MEETING ON HOW TO RUN DEVILS LIKE YOU OUTTA HERE.
"17,000 REGISTERED VOTERS BACKED ME FROM THE 98 ELECTION. ANOTHER 20,000 ON THE STREETS SUPPORT ME. MANY BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.
"WE ARE BUILDING A BLACK POWER ARMY RIGHT IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD.
"SINCE YOU LIKE PANTHER GEAR, (IN A FREAKY SICK SADO MASOCHIST-SATANIC WAY), I WILL SPARE YOU A PAIR OF BLACK STEEL TOE BOOTS UP YOUR ASS. I FEAR YOU WILL ENJOY THAT.
"YOU WILL GET CRUSHED, LITTLE DEVIL, IN SELF DEFENSE."
Have you ever noticed how some of the toughest macho poseurs can't handle it when the tables are turned? He must have thought he was being terribly intimidating, but all he provoked was hilarity. One black gay city official with whom I shared the email exchange was so delighted that he treated me to dinner. The fact is that relatively few black people take Shabazz seriously, and the ranks of the "army" marching behind him are thin.
Warm Brown Eyes
This is not to say Shabazz is harmless. His venomous incitements of anti-Jewish hatred, his 9/11 conspiracy mongering, his calls for racial apocalypse - all appeal to the worst in his listeners and could lead to the violence he glorifies. His intimidating visits to Asian shop owners, in which he presses them for "donations" and threatens boycotts if they refuse, harm the social and economic climate in marginal neighborhoods while helping no one to copy the Asian entrepreneurs' success. But the greater harm he poses is not to his chosen "devils" but to members of the community he claims to be defending. When he released a hip-hop CD in 2003 featuring songs with titles like "Amerikkka's Most Hated" and attacks against President Bush, the principal market for his poison, as usual, was African American.
Shabazz feeds on grievance itself, which depends more on perpetuating conflict than overcoming it. In the words of black historian and Columbia University professor Manning Marable, "The New Black Panther Party is really a cult utilizing or manipulating the name of the Black Panther Party and their political credibility for their own sectarian purposes." 14 You know Shabazz has a problem when even admirers of the original Panthers censure him. In fact, the surviving leaders of that group have denounced his exploitation of their name and history. 15
Like Al Sharpton being treated as a serious presidential candidate by his opponents and many who cover the campaign, Shabazz is aided by pandering members of the civil rights community and the press who insist on treating him as a responsible mainstream voice no matter how beyond the pale his public statements. For example, the Washington City Paper, in a 2001 cover story on Shabazz, described his "warm brown eyes" and stated that he was a likable guy if you ignored all his racist vitriol. 16 That's like saying Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh was a humanitarian if you overlooked all the children and adults he mutilated for his diamond profits -- or like former DC Mayor Marion Barry saying that the crime rate was going down if you didn't count murders.
This deferential media treatment stems from a refusal to regard blacks as equals rather than designated victims, and leads to ludicrous incidents like the one in Barbados reported by the Associated Press in October 2002, in which non-blacks were excluded from an international conference against racism. 17 The justification was that it was too traumatic to discuss slavery in front of white people. Or, to paraphrase an allegedly anti-racist black British delegate, it's an African family thing you wouldn't understand.
Perhaps Shabazz's new Panther organizing, in which he uses the Malcolm X phrase "By any means necessary," is based on a belief that not enough black men martyred themselves the first time around. But don't worry about Shabazz: When the pathetically overnamed "Million Youth March" that he helped organize in Harlem in 1998 (the crowd was estimated at 6,000) deteriorated into a clash with police, Shabazz sensibly slipped away with the bucket of cash he had collected. The honor of self-sacrifice was left to his followers. 18
I am not for a moment suggesting that there is no racism in this country, or that it does not continue to pose serious problems. I myself have served on a local NAACP task force on police abuse. But racism can hardly be countered effectively by black racists stirring up mobs. Like the Nation of Islam, Shabazz takes a legitimate message of self-reliance and warps it with racial scapegoating and paranoia. As Dr. King taught, if you seek justice you must act with justice, rather than with the utter contempt for America and for white people that are the stock in trade of black nationalists. To listen to them, one would think that no progress has been made since the Civil War. Real reform, as opposed to mere self-promotion, requires better aim and more productive efforts.
Alas, the trash talking of Malik Shabazz is too entertaining for many news organizations (or me, for that matter) to pass up. But we should be on guard against allowing his media coverage to create its own reality. For the present, this proud son of the African Diaspora, who fashions himself as a warrior leading an army into epic racial battles, is merely another rabble-rousing opportunist. The more he is recognized for what he is, the smaller the chance that his bloody dreams will come true.
1 The New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, official website
2 "Malik Zulu Shabazz in His Own Words," Anti-Defamation League
3 "40 to Watch," Southern Poverty Law Center
4 Michelle Malkin, "More Muslim enemies from within," November 2, 2001
5 "Anti-Semitism and Black Student Groups," Schooled in Hate: Anti-Semitism on Campus, Anti-Defamation League, 1997
6 "Dr. Khallid Abdul Muhammad," The New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, official website
7 "Malik Zulu Shabazz: Counseling Hate," Anti-Defamation League, August 1998
8 "Malik Zulu Shabazz in His Own Words," Anti-Defamation League
9 "American Muslim Clerics Join Malik Zulu Shabazz of Anti-Semitic New Black Panther Party for Press Conference on C-SPAN," Anti-Defamation League, 2001
10 "Malik Zulu Shabazz in His Own Words," Anti-Defamation League
11 David Horowitz, "The civil rights movement is dead, RIP," Salon.com, September 5, 2000
12 Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," April 16, 1963
13 DC Board of Elections and Ethics, General Election results, November 1998
14 CNN transcript, "Million Youth March Gets Under Way in Brooklyn," September 6, 2003
15 "There Is No New Black Panther Party: An Open Letter From the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation," official Black Panther Party website
16 Mark Francis Cohen, "Black Power," Washington City Paper, January 19-25, 2001
17 Bert Wilkinson, "Light Skin Too Much for Racism Delegates," Associated Press, October 4, 2002
18 Nat Hentoff, "Co-conspirators: Khallid and Safir," The Village Voice, September 16-22, 1998