New Black Panthers are united and defiant
The group seeks empowerment, but that doesn't include helping the police.
By Robert Moran
Inquirer Staff Writer
The area around the 3100 block of North Sheridan Street in North Philadelphia is menacing. Seventh and Clearfield Streets is around the corner, or as the graffiti declare it: "7th and Killfield." In April, a 33-year-old man died after being shot 15 times on Sheridan.
Then a group dressed in black uniforms and berets showed up at a rowhouse in early June and declared it the headquarters of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
Resurrecting memories of the original Black Panthers of the 1960s and '70s, the New Black Panthers call for black unity and empowerment.
They also take a hostile stance against the police. In June, three members were arrested after a confrontation with officers. Police say one party member was wearing a bulletproof vest. A handgun was confiscated from their rowhouse.
On Friday, the New Black Panthers spoke publicly outside their headquarters and decried what they called police harassment and brutality against their members and against the black community.
"We're not here for warfare," Minister King Samir Shabazz, chairman of the party's Philadelphia chapter, insisted. "We're not starting any trouble with the police. We're here to defend our people."
But shortly after the announcement, gunfire erupted. Someone came up along Clearfield and started shooting, causing residents to scatter. No one was injured and there were no arrests.
Some neighbors believe the bullets came from local drug dealers sending a message to the New Black Panthers.
"I think they was trying to intimidate them," said Yvette Atwood, 35, who fled into her house next door to the headquarters after she heard the first shot.
In a phone interview yesterday, Shabazz dismissed suggestions that the shooting had anything to do with his group. "It was typical everyday stuff in the 'hood," he said.
Despite the episode, Atwood, who counsels pregnant teens in school, said she welcomed the New Black Panthers and believed they would have a positive impact on black youth.
Others are undecided.
"The Black Panthers carry a heavy name," said Clark Propel, 25, who lives next to the headquarters opposite Atwood. "You just can't be sitting here saying, 'We're the Black Panthers.' "
Propel said the New Black Panthers need to be taking visible action in the community, which he has yet to see.
Shabazz said the headquarters offers educational programs and free HIV testing. He listed various efforts that are being planned, including a breakfast and an after-school program for children.
The New Black Panthers are also planning to open a school, he said, so black children don't have to be taught by "the cracker named Paul Vallas," the head of the Philadelphia School District.
"That's why they out there killing themselves," Shabazz said of black youth and the city's educational system. "They don't see the greatness in themselves."
Last weekend, the Philadelphia chapter hosted a national summit that attracted members from around the country. Cars with license plates from Texas and South Carolina were parked on Sheridan Street.
About 40 people, most wearing black uniforms and conducting military marching formations, gathered at the house on Friday.
Shabazz declined to say how many members the Philadelphia chapter has.
"No good general would reveal his troop strength," he said.
Minister Divine Allah, the party's national youth minister, stood with Shabazz on Friday and supplied more of the inflammatory rhetoric for which the party has gained notoriety.
He called President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "devils" and African Americans who work with them "boot-licking Negroes."
In response to the Anti-Defamation League's contention that the New Black Panthers are a hate group, he replied:
"I'm honored, and the devil is not supposed to love God. Anti-Defamation League, and all the other so-called Jews just like them, and other white folks, the devil is not supposed to like God. The devil never liked the work of God. And that's all we have to say about that. We don't have to get so far into that. To hell with them."
The New Black Panther Party was founded in Dallas in 1989 and maintains chapters across the country. It gained prominence when Khalid Abdul Muhammad joined during the 1990s. Muhammad was a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, but fell out of favor after a 1993 speech in New Jersey in which he referred to Jews as "bloodsuckers" and called for genocide against whites.
After assuming the leadership of the New Black Panther Party, he led a 1998 rally in Harlem that turned into a riot with police. Muhammad died in 2001 of a brain aneurysm.
Since then, the party has sporadically gained headlines, most recently during the Aug. 8 primary defeat of U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D., Ga.), in which the New Black Panthers provided security for the controversial politician and threatened reporters.
Meanwhile, some members of the original Black Panther Party formed in the 1960s have denounced the New Black Panthers, who they call a "questionable band of self-appointed leaders."
Until recently, the New Black Panthers have kept a low profile in Philadelphia. Shabazz has appeared at a few protests with MOVE leader Pam Africa. He also has joined Men United for a Better Philadelphia to speak with young black males on the street about the city's crime problem.
Shabazz said his group is working to reduce black-on-black violence in the city. But that doesn't include helping the police. Members on Friday held up signs that endorsed the "stop snitching" movement that encourages people not to cooperate with police in criminal investigations.
Capt. William Fisher, head of the police Civil Affairs Unit, which handles protest groups, said he wasn't alarmed by the New Black Panthers because they haven't yet attracted a big following in Philadelphia.
However, he cautioned, "if they have guns, that can turn into a dangerous situation."
Visit the New Black Panthers' Web site via http://go.philly.com/blackpanther1
Read the ADL's report on the group at http://go.philly.com/blackpanther2Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or [email protected].