The New Black Panther Party catapulted itself to national attention during the November 2008 presidential election when two of its members, one brandishing a nightstick, were captured on videotape intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place.
But the original Black Panther Party, which famously advocated black power and preached self-defense through confrontation in the 1960s and 1970s, is not happy with the new upstart. It has condemned the New Black Panther Party and its tactics, saying the NBPP "stole" the party's name for its "own misguided purposes."
The Huey P. Newton Foundation Inc., created in 1993 and co-founded by Fredrika Newton, Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton's widow, said in a statement that the original party was "never a group of angry young militants full of fury toward the white establishment ... but operated on love for black people, not hatred of white people.
"As guardian of the true history of the Black Panther Party, the foundation, which includes former leading members of the party, denounces this group's exploitation of the party's name and history," the statement said. "Failing to find its own legitimacy in the black community, this band would graft the party's name upon itself, which we condemn.
"There is no New Black Panther Party," the statement said, describing the NBPP as "a small band of African Americans calling themselves the New Black Panthers." It said the NBPP has "no legitimate claim on the party's name" and that it "only pretends to walk in the footsteps of the party's true heroes."
The denouncement by the foundation, which now operates community-based literacy, voter outreach and health-related programs, is not the only challenge facing the NBPP.
Some lawmakers are asking why a civil complaint brought by the Justice Department against the organization for its actions at the Philadelphia polling place was later dismissed against the party and two of its members, despite what they have described as compelling evidence that would-be voters were intimidated.
They have demanded access to the career lawyers who brought the complaint and to the political appointees who eventually ordered its dismissal. They also have called on the department to refile the civil charges.
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates allegations of misconduct involving department lawyers, said in August that it had begun an official inquiry into the complaint's dismissal, but Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, have questioned the sincerity of that probe.
In a letter last week to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., they asked whether the Justice Department was using the OPR investigation as a "means to continue stonewalling Congress in this matter."
"After three months of investigating, the Office of Professional Responsibility has yet to provide Congress with a clear explanation for why the Civil Rights Division dismissed the complaint," they said. "Congress and the American people must have confidence that the department's Voting Rights Act enforcement is free of improper political motives.
"It is important for Congress, in furtherance of its oversight obligations, to receive answers before the end of this year -- before we enter a political season so that voters can be assured that voter intimidation will not be tolerated," they said.
Both lawmakers challenged the department's explanations for the dismissal; Mr. Wolf described them as "incomplete and faulty" and Mr. Smith said they were "vague justifications."
Also, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is conducting a separate investigation into the complaint's dismissal and has reminded the Justice Department that as an independent agency answerable to Congress and the president, it has the power to issue subpoenas to top department officials, including Mr. Holder.
The commission, in a letter to Mr. Holder, said its obligation under the law is to ensure that civil rights laws are enforced and, to that end, it has the authority to subpoena witnesses and documents.
Commission Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds said the department has offered only "weak justifications" for the dismissal, adding that he feared the legal precedent set by the case might encourage "other hate groups" to act similarly. He was given the authority in October to issue subpoenas to a broad range of witnesses, including those at Justice.
"If you swap out the New Black Panther Party in this case for neo-Nazi groups or the Ku Klux Klan, you likely would have had a different outcome," said Mr. Reynolds. "A single law, a single rule should be applied across the board."
Commissioner Todd Gaziano has outlined a witness list in a request for a "major study project" by the commission that would include an extensive investigation by its staff -- with subpoenas and public hearings in both Washington and Philadelphia.
Mr. Gaziano said the commission wants to know whether the decision to drop the complaint constituted a departure from prior enforcement policy and whether it ultimately would lead to more voter intimidation.
"The dismissal of the lawsuit has the potential to significantly change the understanding some officials have regarding the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, for good or for bad," he said.
The NBPP did not return numerous e-mails from The Washington Times seeking answers to questions concerning the case. The voice message machine at its group's D.C. headquarters has been full for several weeks.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said that "as a general policy" the department does not comment on ongoing OPR matters. But she has steadfastly maintained that the department has an "ongoing obligation" to be sure the claims it makes are supported by the facts and the law.
Ms. Schmaler noted that after a "thorough review" of the civil complaint, top career lawyers in the Civil Rights Division determined that the "facts and the law did not support pursuing the claims against three of the defendants" in the NBPP case.
She also said the department is "committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting anyone exercising his or her right to vote."
With 35 chapters in 15 states and the District of Columbia, the NBPP has been described by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as radical black nationalists and the largest organized anti-Semitic black militant group in America, and by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks racist, neo-Nazi and anti-government organizations, as a "black racist" hate group.
A civil complaint brought Jan. 7 against the party and three of its members accused the NBPP and its members of violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act by scaring would-be voters with a nightstick, racial taunts, insults and military-style uniforms.
Four months later, the career prosecutors who had pursued the case for months beginning during the Bush administration were told by Justice Department political appointees named by President Obama to drop the complaint against the party and two of its members.
The original complaint, signed by Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, said the NBPP endorsed and supported racially motived violence and described the party as "a black-supremacist organization ... explicitly hostile toward non-black and Jewish individuals in both rhetoric and practice."
Grace Chung Becker, a Bush administration political appointee who was the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights when the complaint was filed, said at the time that intimidation outside a polling place was "contrary to the democratic process."
Mr. Mukasey, now in private law practice in New York, declined to comment.
A Justice Department memo shows that the career lawyers decided as early as Dec. 22 to seek a complaint against the NBPP; its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz, a lawyer and D.C. resident; Minister King Samir Shabazz, head of the Philadelphia NBPP chapter who was accused of wielding the nightstick; and Jerry Jackson, a resident of Philadelphia and a NBPP member.
"The deployment of uniformed members of a well-known group with an extremely hostile racial agenda, combined with the brandishing of a weapon at the entrance to a polling place, constitutes a violation of Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits types of intimidation, threats and coercion," the memo said.
The memo was signed by Christopher Coates, who heads the Voting Section in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
The civil complaint said the deployment of armed and uniformed people at the entrance of a polling place was an "attempt to have an intimidating and threatening effect on certain voters." It said that unless stopped by a court order, those doing so would continue to violate the law by deploying "armed members at the entrance to polling locations in future elections, both in Philadelphia and throughout the United States."
But the career prosecutors were ordered by their superiors in April to reverse course, according to interviews and documents, although the court had already entered a default judgment against the NBPP and its members.
Court records show that as late as May 5, the Justice Department was still considering an order by U.S. District Court Judge Stewart Dalzell in Philadelphia to seek sanctions against the party and three of its members because of their failure to appear. But 10 days later, the department reversed itself and filed a notice of voluntary dismissal for the party, Mr. Zulu Shabazz and Mr. Jackson.
That same day, the department sought a default judgment against Mr. Samir Shabazz, ordering him not to display a "weapon within 100 feet of any open polling location on any election day in the city of Philadelphia" until Nov. 15, 2012.
Records show that Loretta King served as the acting assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division at the time the dismissals were sought. She ordered a delay in the case after discussing it with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, an Obama political appointee, according to the interviews.
Mrs. King, a career senior executive service official, had been named by Mr. Obama in January to temporarily fill the vacant political position of assistant attorney general while a permanent choice could be made. She and other career supervisors ultimately recommended dropping the case against two of the men and the party.
Mr. Perrelli, the department's No. 3 official, approved that plan, officials said. None of the supervisors involved in the dismissal has been available for comment.
In the complaint, the Justice Department described Mr. Zulu Shabazz as the "self-styled 'Attorney at War' " for the party, saying he exercised "organizational control" and "managed, directed and endorsed the behavior, actions and statements" of the two NBPP members at the Philadelphia polling site.
Taking over the organization in February 2001 after the death of Khalid Abdul Muhammad, Mr. Shabazz has led demonstrations across the country in what the ADL described as an effort to "blend inflammatory bigotry with calls for black empowerment and civil rights."
His militant approach, according to the ADL, has led to several confrontations with law enforcement officials, including an NBPP protest against police brutality in New York in December 2006 where he led chants of "Off the pigs who kill our kids" and "Fifty shots for 50 cops."
Closely affiliated with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Mr. Zulu Shabazz has described himself as a "freedom fighter" and the "revolutionary and visionary leader" of the NBPP. He has taken credit for making the NBPP "a great witness to the validity of the works of the original Black Panther Party."
Mr. Zulu Shabazz did not return e-mails to his Web site, and his office telephone has been disconnected. Mr. Samir Shabazz and Mr. Jackson also have been unavailable for comment.
Mr. Zulu Shabazz has been the central figure at numerous NBPP rallies across the nation, including in Jasper, Texas, when he led 50 armed NBPP members clad in military-style fatigues and black berets who sought to confront members of the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the June 1998 truck-dragging death of James Byrd Jr.
In its most recent intelligence report on hate groups, the SPLC said the NBPP is active in California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Mr. Zulu Shabazz has embraced a 10-point platform similar to one written by original Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton that called for equality in employment, housing and education, along with military exemptions, an end to police brutality, the release of blacks from federal, state and local jails, and freedom for blacks to decide their national destiny.
But the NBPP's manifesto makes several additions, including claims that whites have kept blacks "deaf, dumb and blind and used every dirty trick in the book to stand in the way of our freedom and independence," and had targeted blacks with "biological and chemical warfare." It also wants the establishment of a separate nation for blacks, known as New Africa, and calls for blacks to protect themselves from "racist police and the racist military by any means necessary."