A Contrarian View Of The New Black Panther Case

One conservative argues that the "scandal" over the New Black Panther Party's alleged voter intimidation is a tempest in a teapot.

Over at National Review, Abigail Thernstrom, an AEI scholar who also happens to the Vice-Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, tells her fellow conservatives that they are over-reacting to the supposed scandal over voter intimidation at a Philadelphia polling place:

Forget about the New Black Panther Party case; it is very small potatoes. Perhaps the Panthers should have been prosecuted under section 11 (b) of the Voting Rights Act for their actions of November 2008, but the legal standards that must be met to prove voter intimidation — the charge — are very high.

In the 45 years since the act was passed, there have been a total of three successful prosecutions. The incident involved only two Panthers at a single majority-black precinct in Philadelphia. So far — after months of hearings, testimony and investigation — no one has produced actual evidence that any voters were too scared to cast their ballots. Too much overheated rhetoric filled with insinuations and unsubstantiated charges has been devoted to this case.

A number of conservatives have charged that the Philadelphia Black Panther decision demonstrates that attorneys in the Civil Rights Division have racial double standards. How many attorneys in what positions? A pervasive culture that affected the handling of this case? No direct quotations or other evidence substantiate the charge.

Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, makes a perfectly plausible argument: Different lawyers read this barely litigated statutory provision differently. It happens all the time, especially when administrations change in the middle of litigation. Democrats and Republicans seldom agree on how best to enforce civil-rights statutes; this is not the first instance of a war between Left and Right within the Civil Rights Division.

The two Panthers have been described as “armed” — which suggests guns. One of them was carrying a billy club, and it is alleged that his repeated slapping of the club against his palm constituted brandishing it in a menacing way. They have also been described as wearing “jackboots,” but the boots were no different from a pair my husband owns.

A disaffected former Justice Department attorney has written: “We had indications that polling-place thugs were deployed elsewhere.” “Indications”? Again, evidence has yet to be offered.

Get a grip, folks. The New Black Panther Party is a lunatic fringe group that is clearly into racial theater of minor importance. It may dream of a large-scale effort to suppress voting — like the Socialist Workers Party dreams of a national campaign to demonstrate its position as the vanguard of the proletariat. But the Panthers have not realized their dream even on a small scale. This case is a one-off.

Moreover, as others have pointed out, the district at which these two members of the NBPP were filmed was a majority black district that had gone overwhelmingly for John Kerry in 2004. If these two guys were really interested in intimidating white voters in the Philadelphia metro area rather than engaging in street theater, they would’ve shown up at a polling place in King of Prussia or Bensalem, not one in the inner-city at which, conveniently a guy with a video camera had shown up.

As I noted in an earlier post, there’s no evidence that any actual voters were intimidated by these two men, or even that their “protest” lasted longer than the amount of time that the camera crew was there filming them. In fact, judging from this video, it seems clear to me that these two guys were playing for the cameras:

Back on Election Day 2008 when this story was breaking, Politico’s Ben Smith said this:

I’d been a bit skeptical of the reports that the Black Panthers were out intimidating voters on Obama’s behalf, largely because the precinct is in the city’s northern 14th Ward, which went (.pdf) overwhelmingly — more than 95% — for John Kerry in 2004. You don’t typically intimidate your own voters.

But a reader sends over a link to clinch the deal: The Panther in question appears to be one King Shamir Shabazz — and he’s no Obama supporter.

“[Obama] is a puppet on a string. I don’t support no black man running for white politics. I will not vote for who will be the next slavemaster,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News a few days ago, one of the least crazy things he said amid some straightforwardly racist riffs.


So what was he doing there with his nightstick? Trying to intimidate Obama voters? Just hanging around? There isn’t actually any evidence that he tried to chase away any of the ward’s (overwhelmingly black) voters.

In other words, street theater, just as Thernstrom described it.

As for the alleged “scandal” related to the dropping of the civil claim against the NBPP, it is worth noting that there is reason to doubt the credibility of J. Christian Adams, the former DOJ attorney who has become the darling of Fox News and the conservative talk show circuit. More importantly, though, Thernstrom makes a persuasive case that this whole issue is much ado about very, very little.

H/T to commenter Sam in his comment to this post for the link to Thernstrom’s NRO article.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Evan Pokroy says:

    The main issue, that no one is contesting, is that a civil suit was filed. The case went forward and since the defendants didn’t show up, a default judgment was entered. Including an injunction against NBPP members being near polling stations. That all went down. And then the same DoJ who prosecuted the case went back and requested a dismissal of the case. Either there was a case or there wasn’t. Additionally there is clearly something fishy if the DoJ is telling lawyers not to answer Subpoenas about the case. Unless that is an out and out lie by Adams.

  2. The fact that a default judgment was entered did not absolve the DoJ of their obligation to present sufficient evidence to show that a violation of the law had occurred. The default judgment merely meant that the Defendant’s lost the right to present their own evidence.

    In this case, evidence would have meant finding voters who were actually intimidated by these guys. That, apparently, was the problem all along — there’s no evidence that this was anything other than NBPP street theater.

    Like I said, if Shabazz had really wanted to intimidate white voters, he was in the wrong district.

  3. Franklin says:

    Even from the first moment I saw this video, I wasn’t much impressed with the supposed claims of intimidation. I mean, yeah, they’re black guys in uniforms. I see crazier getups just walking around town, though. Plus, they weren’t actually doing anything (I don’t remember the billy clubs, though, which is a bit marginal – even though conservatives usually love for everybody to have weapons).

  4. wr says:

    Franklin: Conservatives usually love for everybody who is white to have weapons.

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    Prosecutions are meant to deter as well as punish. Dropping the civil judgment sends a message that this behavior will be tolerated by the DOJ. I ask is that a good thing? Was it appropriate for for this to happen? Should we tolerate any group who sends men to a polling place with clubs? It may be less than some make it but I believe in the broken windows theory and see this as setting the norm far below what it should be for election behavior.

  6. jwest says:

    Do you think Abigail would be just as forgiving if the actors and situation were reversed in an attempt to intimidate black voters?

  7. sam says:

    “Dropping the civil judgment sends a message that this behavior will be tolerated by the DOJ”

    You mean that the DOJ will tolerate street theater? The horror.

  8. Would love a correction of the spelling of my first name (Abigail, not Abagail), but my main point in writing is just to thank you for the piece. Really like the site — read it frequently. So, again, many thanks.

    And, btw, in answer to jwest, I don’t have racial double standards. I would be no more forgiving if whites attempted voter intimidation — of which we do not have evidence in this case. I’m an evidence-girl. Those who want to explore my views on voting rights might look at “Voting Rights — and Wrongs.” It’s out in pb and on Amazon.

  9. Ms. Thernstrom.

    My apologies on the mis-spelling, its been corrected !

  10. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Hey Sam, when Shabazz was calling for the killing of crackers and cracker babies. Was that street theater? If you are white, why don’t you go hang out at areas infested with New Black Panthers? Failure to do so means you are a coward. There are people who did not vote because of the intimidation at that polling place. Read the testimony of the attorney involved. J. Christian Adams who inspite of his long service with DOJ was suddenly overcome with rightwing zeal. Why bother? Some of the people here are beyond hope. The only way to purge this system is to purge this system. There is a noticable lack of intellectual honesty here. I hate to say this, but those of you who think this was no so much. I hope you become a victim of this sort of street theater.

  11. steve says:

    If the DOJ is not prosecuting blacks, as alleged by Adams, it will show up in their statistics. Why dont those who are writing about this cite real evidence of a racial bias against prosecuting blacks?


  12. when Shabazz was calling for the killing of crackers and cracker babies. Was that street theater?

    Actually, it was. And in case you werent aware, that tape — which Fox News and Hannity and Limbaugh have been replaying repeatedly — was NOT connected with the polling place incident.

    There are people who did not vote because of the intimidation at that polling place.

    How do you know this ? Name the people who lived in this overwhelmingly (95%) Democratic district who were prevented from voting for Barack Obama by these two idiots.

  13. Wayne says:

    I sure you wouldn’t have any concern over a Justice department not prosecuting cross burning in a black persons yard. No proof of harm being done. Not prosecuting it because the victims were blacks and assailants were white wouldn’t matter. Or is there perhaps a bit of double standard going on.

    The DOJ whistle blower testified under oath. If he lied ,prove it and prosecute him. If not his testimony should be taken very seriously.

    Shouldn’t testimony by someone under oath be taken more seriously than those who refuse to testify under oath?

    I don’t have a problem with someone having a gun or a belly club in proper format. Having them in front of a polling place is by far not the proper format and should be tolerated.

    Having a writer say “nothing to see here move along” does not make it so.

  14. sam says:

    Wonder how Zels, and Plunk, and Wayne can get around the world at all what with constantly looking for the ghost of Nat Turner under their beds.

  15. Steve Plunk says:


    I’m not looking for anything but observing what took place and how it should be handled. It is unbelievable the DOJ would tolerate this sort of thing from any person or group. I have heard excuses why they requested the civil judgment dropped but no one can excuse the behavior of these men. Their goal was to intimidate and whether or not theatrics was involved does not relieve them of responsibility.

    Rather then impugn motives deal with the issue.

  16. Steve,

    Behavior aside, we have yet to hear from an actual voter who says that he or she was intimidated from voting.

    The behavior is stupid and their rhetoric is offensive, but that doesn’t mean it was against Federal Law (whether they violated Penna. State Law in any way is something I’d be interested in knowing, but beyond the purview of the Dept of Justice)

  17. tom p says:

    Ooooohhhh, a black man told me how to vote… I am so scared….

    ZR: if these 2 had shown up at my polling place back when I lived in the city, I would have laughed in their face. If they showed up at my polling place where I live now, I never would have seen them.

    Get a sense of proportion man:

    A black man with a billy club telling you how to vote (besides laughably funny): Bad.

    A multibillion-dollar corporation on TV (or union) with unlimited money telling you how to vote….

    Free speech.

    Please people, please… think about it…. or at least think.

  18. mpw280 says:

    If I show up at a polling place dressed in military garb, carrying a club am I going to be treated the same, not if I am white. Enough said. If these asshats threaten me at a polling place can I shoot them on sight as their leader has espoused the idea of killing white and their children, I think so. So do you want to argue that fact, they threaten people and it is ok because they are black, if I take offense and erase the threat isn’t that ok as well, even if I am white? mpw

  19. Juneau: says:

    It’s going to be hilarious reading what the liberals have to say here when they realize in November that nobody’s buying the “we believe in equality” song and dance anymore – the song is winding down and folks are beginning to pick up their coats and getting ready to go home.

    American doesn’t like the tune you’re playing anymore; it only has one note and it’s grating on their nerves. Barack Obama and his arm-pit orchestra. What rank hypocrisy.

  20. Mike says:

    Juneau, unfortunately, the Republican Party is a party of racism, murder, theft, and treason. You are working to destroy America. Yes, you are a traitor.

  21. Juneau: says:

    Yes, you are a traitor.

    Only to your cause…