Authorities are still learning about Micah Johnson, the shooter who killed five officers in Dallas on Thursday night. But as that investigation continues, some light has been shed on philosophies he might have held.
On his Facebook page, Johnson appears to have “liked” two black nationalist groups: the New Black Panther Party and the African-American Defense League. Police say Johnson told them he was not affiliated with any groups. At some point, though, he reportedly showed some interest in the message of the New Black Panther Party. One official said Johnson was a member of the group for about six months several years ago, according to local reports. Quanell X, the head of NBPP’s Houston chapter, told KPRC News that Johnson was “asked to leave” because he did not want to follow the “chain of command.”
In a written statement, a national leader of NBPP distanced the group from the gunman.
“Mr. Micah Xaiver Johnson, was not a member of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense,” said Chawn Kweli, NBPP’s chief of staff. “For the record, a simple like by Mr. Johnson or anyone else on any like page via a social media website, does not represent membership, affiliation, or endorsement. It simply is what it is… a like on the page.”
Although the NBPP shares its name with the original Black Panther Party of the mid-1960s, members of that organization have criticized the New Black Panther Party as a racist hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The former chairman of the New Black Panther Party, Malik Zulu Shabazz has along with other members been recorded as advocating the hatred of white people and the destruction of Jewish supermarkets.
Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale is said to have accused the NBPP of having “hijacked our name and … our history,” the Anti-Defamation League reports. It adds that in 1997, the original Black Panther Party won an injunction against the NBPP that banned it from using the Black Panther name, but the legal action has not stopped the group from doing so.
The New Black Panther Party is tiny in both size and influence compared with its namesake, appearing in small groups on street corners in major cities to shout their philosophies. But it became the source of further demonstrations Saturday as its senior members organized a rally outside the grocery store in Baton Rouge where Alton Sterling was shot to death by police.
Shabazz urged followers on his Facebook page Saturday to gather at the Triple S Food Mart east of downtown.
“THE NEW BLACK PANTHER PARTY WILL JOIN THE LOCAL ACTIVIST Arthur Reed AND OTHERS WHO HAVE BEEN FIGHTING HARD ON THE GROUND,” Shabazz wrote on his Facebook page. As of Saturday afternoon, several dozen people had heeded Shabazz’s call. Some were selling plates of barbecue. Others stood before pallets of bottled water. On social media, one attendee described the event as “empowering.”
“There are no words right now,” she wrote.
The New Black Panther Party views itself as a defensive organization. Formed in Dallas in the late 1980s, its official platform, according to a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, calls for the formation of an “African United Front.” It aims to deter police violence against black Americans “by organizing black self-defense groups (Black People’s Militias/Black Liberation Armies) that are dedicated to defending our Black Community from racist, fascist, police/military oppression and brutality.” It advocates for taking up arms and is structured in a paramilitary manner with ranks and titles, according to the report.
From its start, the NBPP quickly gained a reputation for controversy. A proposed rally in New York in 1998 was denied a permit by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a key figure in the group, said that if the permit was not granted, the rally would migrate to Brooklyn, “noting the longstanding tension between the Jewish and Black communities there,” according to an Anti-Defamation League report.
Muhammad later won permission to hold the rally in Harlem from a federal judge, but the massive event with 6,000 attendees ended in violence between police and the demonstrators, the report said. The event was reportedly marked by anti-Semitic and black nationalist rhetoric.
Babu Omowale, who serves as minister of defense for the NBPP’s Dallas chapter, said in an interview that Johnson had attended multiple events held there — including one as recently as a few months ago — but that he was never a formal member. The last time Omowale saw Johnson was a few months ago, when he showed up to what Omowale described as a “social event” hosted by the NBPP at the Pan-African Connection, a Dallas bookstore that also has a meeting space where the movement sometimes gathers, he said.
NBPP and a sister organization founded by Omowale, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, hold occasional demonstrations in the Dallas area, in which members often carry long guns and dress in military apparel in a display against the oppression of blacks in America and “to let people of color know that it is legal to carry weapons,” Omowale said.
“We want every black man and woman throughout the country to legally arm themselves,” he said. But Omowale said Johnson never attended any of those events, and he never saw him carrying a weapon.
The NBPP has been vocal in its opposition to police, and it has been involved in a number of political controversies. In 2009, the Justice Department filed civil charges against the group, accusing it and several members of voter intimidation in Philadelphia. King Samir Shabazz, the local NBPP leader, appeared at a voting station in military garb and made threatening and overtly racist comments to voters, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Years later, White House officials dropped many of the charges.
More recently, members of the group in 2012 said they were placing a $10,000 bounty on George Zimmerman for having shot and killed Trayvon Martin.
“If the government won’t do the job, we’ll do it,” said Mikhail Muhammad, the local Florida leader of the NBPP, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.