Right call on the Black Panthers

Monday, October 4, 2010

THE AMATEUR VIDEO shows two men dressed in the paramilitary-style uniform of the New Black Panther Party, standing outside a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day 2008. One of them wields a nightstick and, according to poll workers, periodically points the weapon at passersby and at times taunts that they "were about to be ruled by the black man, cracker."

In January 2009, after concluding that it could not bring a criminal case, the Bush Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit accusing the two men, as well as the party and its national leader, of attempted and actual intimidation of voters and voting officials.

None of the defendants challenged the lawsuit, but, before the judgment became final, the Obama administration in May 2009 dropped charges against all but King Samir Shabazz, the man with the nightstick and the head of the Black Panthers' Philadelphia chapter.

Critics charged the Obama Justice Department with refusing to apply civil rights law in a colorblind fashion; the Justice Department, they argued, would never have watered down the case had the alleged wrongdoers been white. The matter made headlines again last week because of allegations by Christopher Coates, the Justice Department lawyer who originally brought the case, that the voting rights section has long been "hostile" to anything but cases in which minorities are victims, not perpetrators. These assertions should be explored by the department's Office of Inspector General in its review of the voting rights section.

But even Mr. Coates did not offer specific evidence that the department acted improperly. For example, there is no evidence that Mr. Shabazz's actions were directed or incited by the party or its national leader; the party essentially repudiated Mr. Shabazz in a posting on its Web site and later suspended the Philadelphia chapter. The second Black Panther at the voting facility was a certified poll watcher and appears not to have verbally or physically attempted to intimidate voters.

Much of the controversy that has surrounded this case for more than a year has been fueled by partisan hyperbole, conspiracy theories and misinformation. Far from acting recklessly, the Justice Department did what every law enforcement entity is ethically obligated to do: press only those charges that are supported by evidence.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company