When New Black Panther Party members turned up in Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests that followed the Michael Brown shooting last year, the FBI issued an alert. When the group was accused of voter intimidation at Philadelphia polling places during the 2009 election, Fox News breathlessly covered the allegations no fewer than 95 times.
This month, when two men linked to a plot to blow up St Louis's Gateway Arch and kill a pair of top law enforcement officials were named on a federal indictment, several outlets made sure to include in their headlines that the 20-somethings were "New Black Panther Party members."
In some ways, this interest is understandable. After all, there's a consensus that the New Black Panther Party is a hate group that spews anti-white and especially anti-Semitic rhetoric. But from one perspective, which you'll read about much less often, top among its offenses is the way it has hijacked the name of a legitimate organization — the original Black Panther Party — and scrambled its message, taking all of the justified anger and none of the disciplined, constructive work to improve life in America for black people.
Here are the answers to all of your questions about how that happened.
1) What is the New Black Panther Party all about?
The first thing to understand is that there's a huge difference between how the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) describes itself and how nonmembers understand it.
The group portrays itself as a modern-day expression of the black power movement and a force standing up for the rights of African Americans. Indeed, members do tend to show up when black people are wronged, and they're mostly known for their armed demonstrations against alleged racial injustice — especially police brutality.
"If there's a Klan rally or someone doing something [racially] egregious, they're the first to respond," said Jakobi Williams, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Indiana University and author of From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago.
But the idea that the NBPP is modern version of the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and '70s, which was a militant but primarily service-focused organization, is summarily dismissed by everyone from civil rights groups to scholars like Williams to former Black Panther Party members. Instead, there's a broad consensus that its extreme anti-white views and anti-Semitic rhetoric (more on that later) make it a hate group.
The group has a "ten-point platform." Its main theme is a push to eliminate the effects of institutionalized racism on African Americans and includes demands for the end of police brutality, exemption from taxation, the right to decent housing, and "education that exposes the truly devilish and decadent nature of American society." While probably not administrable, it's not explicitly violent or hateful.
But the platform doesn't capture the sort of rhetoric that has earned the NBPP the "hate group" label. The Anti-Defamation League puts it like this: "The group's demonstrations, conferences, and other events often blend inflammatory bigotry with calls for violence, tarnishing its efforts to promote black pride and consciousness."
Founded in 1989 in Dallas, the NBPP now operates mostly in cities on the East Coast. Its former leader (one of the guys who made headlines when he showed up in Ferguson), Malik Shabazz, stepped down and was replaced by former chief of staff Hashim Nzinga in 2013.
The Southern Poverty Law Center includes NBPP in a list of 43 hate groups on its "Extremist Files" page. The SPLC's profile of the organization provides a good summary of the type of conduct members are best known for: shouting at police officers while protesting. Making loud calls for violence that go unheeded. Showing up in small groups wearing bulletproof vests and carrying knives and guns they don't actually use.
Despite the publicity, the NBPP has neither the following nor the power to be particularly influential. It's unclear exactly how many members the group has, but probably not many. According to a National Geographic documentary, Inside the New Black Panthers, NBPP claimed in 2009 to have a few thousand, but the Anti-Defamation League's estimates are much lower.
2) Why is it considered a hate group?
"They are a hate group," Williams said. "There's no way around it."
But people familiar with the way groups that advocated for the rights of African-Americans have historically been mischaracterized might be skeptical of that label.
After all, the original Black Panther Party — which did not promote bigotry and in fact formed a cross-racial "Rainbow Coalition" advocating for economic equality for people of all colors — was labeled a "black nationalist hate group" around the time J. Edgar Hoover's was using the FBI's COINTELPRO to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize" it and other civil rights groups. (Black Panthers were in good company: Hoover also targeted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and, notably, Martin Luther King, Jr. )
"Most of the negative popular lore we know about the [original Black Panthers] was propaganda put out by COINTELPRO," said Williams.
But the characterization of the NBPP is a whole different story. The Anti-Defamation League, the SPLC, and the US Commission on Civil Rights all agree that it's an actual hate group.
Why? Its leaders espouse really offensive and downright scary views that really couldn't be categorized as anything but hate.
There are plentiful examples of leaders over the past couple of decades saying things like: "Kill every goddamn Zionist in Israel! Goddamn little babies, goddamn old ladies! Blow up Zionist supermarkets!" and "I hate white people. All of them. Every last iota of a cracker, I hate it ... You want freedom? You going to have to kill some crackers! You going to have to kill some of their babies!"
Statements like these are frequent enough that it's clear they represent core beliefs of the group rather than offhand remarks by individual members.
3) So it really has nothing to do with the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 1970s?
Really. Nothing at all (aside from the stolen name).
The original Black Panther Party — the Huey P. Newton-led group that (legally) armed citizens and ran more than 60 "community survival programs" like Free Breakfast for Children — does not exist any more.
The last of its 49 chapters across the US disbanded in the mid-1970s, caving under the pressure of state-sponsored negative propaganda, violence, and even assassinations, said Williams. (He's not exaggerating: Chicago police shot the city's Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton). The national headquarters in Oakland held on until 1982 but then closed its doors.
When the NBPP started up in 1989, founder Aaron Michaels latched onto the Black Panther Party name without permission, simply tacking a "New" onto the beginning . Understandably, this ruffled some feathers. There's even been legal action about it: In 1997, two original Black Panthers won an injunction against Michaels disallowing him from using the name or logo. It was never enforced.
The lack of permission to use the name wasn't the only problem. From their day-to-day activities to their outlooks on race relations, the two groups really couldn't be more different, Williams said.
"The Panthers spent eight hours a day in classrooms, reading theories and studying speeches, trying to figure out how to solve problems in the ghetto by creating programs, selling papers, creating free clinics, and starting freedom schools. They didn't have time to hate white people," he said. "They realized like MLK did that it wasn't a black problem, it was a poor people problem. But the New Black Panther Party? You couldn't even wave a white sheet of paper in front of them. They hate white people that much."
4) What do original Black Panther Party members have to say?
Mostly, they're pissed off that the NBPP is using their name and even more frustrated that the NBPP's activities have further tarnished the reputation of the already misunderstood organization they belonged to.
"Most of the senior party members that I've talked to are disappointed and upset by upset with the way this New Black Panther Party has used the Black Panther Party name because it reinforces stereotypes, misconceptions, and falsehoods about the Party that are not true," Williams said.
The Huey P. Newton Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Black Panther Party and counts many former Black Panthers as members, is sometimes looked to for statements on the NBPP. It issued a press release in August denouncing the group, saying in part, "They denigrate the Party's name by promoting concepts absolutely counter to the revolutionary principles on which the Party was founded ... The Party operated on love for black people, not hatred of white people."
In a 2010 interview with CNN, Bobby Seale, one of the co-founding members of the original Black Panther Party, called the NBPP's rhetoric "xenophobic" and "absurd."
5) Did they try to kill George Zimmerman?
Not exactly. However, one the NBPP's major headlines in recent years surrounded the March 2012 news that Mikhail Muhammad, a group leader in Florida, had offered a $10,000 award for the capture of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin.
Of course, calling for the "capture" of someone isn't exactly the same thing as calling for his death. But the call got scarier when an Orlando Sentinel reporter asked Mikhail if he was inciting violence, and he replied, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," which was taken to mean that it would be appropriate to kill Zimmerman. Statements like this have to be taken seriously.
6) What about intimidating voters?
NBPP members were accused of voter intimidation in Philadelphia during the November 2008 election. They reportedly stood in front of a polling place in military-style garb, claiming to be protecting black voters from voter suppression, while antagonizing white voters with racial slurs. (An eyewitness claimed that one member said, "Cracker, you are about to be ruled by a black man.")
In January 2009 the Department of Justice — under President George Bush — filed civil charges of voter intimidation against the NBPP and members Samir Shabazz, Jerry Jackson, and Malik Zulu Shabazz. The Department won its case by default in April 2009 when the NBPP members didn't show up in court. But officials under the Obama Administration decided to drop most of the charges, reasoning that there was no evidence that votes were suppressed or that the Party itself was culpable. The next year, in May 2010, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez defended that decision.
"The New Black Panther party was vindicated in the voter suppression case. They didn't violate any laws. That's one positive you can give them credit for," said Williams.
7) What were New Black Panther Party members doing in Ferguson?
Near the start of the August protests in Ferguson, an FBI alert went out: Chawn Kweli, Chief of Staff of the New Black Panther Party, was in town.
Kweli had recently posted a somewhat ominous message to Facebook: "This is the hour all the greats promised. If you die, die like a warrior. I'll see you on the ground."
But during a tense week of confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials, NBPP members didn't actually cause trouble.
"Local media reports earlier this week warned that the New Black Panthers were coming to town and could incite violence against police officers. Last night, Daily RFT observed something very different," the Riverfront Times reported. Kweli told the paper, "We're taking charge of the streets, making sure that the traffic is flowing, and making sure that there's peace here."
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that former president of the NBPP, Malik Shabazz, patrolled the scene of the protest, and on at least one night used a megaphone to encourage young people to go home and to ask for calm and respectful demonstrations.
8) Why do I always hear about the New Black Panther Party on Fox News?
Because they cover the party a lot. In 2010 Media Matters reported that Fox had "hyped the phony Black Panthers scandal" about voter intimidation 95 types, dedicating more than 8 hours of airtime to it.
Even the SPLC, which clearly considers NBPP a hate group, thinks the network's coverage of it is overblown. In a 2010 blog post titled "A long, hot, black nationalist summer at Fox News," the SPLC accused Fox of "again hyperventilating over a racially charged non-story" after Glenn Beck claimed White House Environmental Advisor Van Jones was a member of the group. (Not true.) The SPLC called it "transparent race-baiting."
More recently, much attention was paid by conservative blogs to a report that a man accused of an axe attack on NYPD officers was "sympathetic" to NBPP's cause (but not a member.)
It's impossible to say with authority what any news outlet's motivation is for its approach to reporting on the NBPP. But if stirring up racial anxiety is a thing that you're into, few subjects provide more fodder than this group.