As voter-intimidation exercises go, it wasn’t much. In 2008, a lone white voter reported he had encountered two black men dressed all in black, one carrying a nightstick, at his Philadelphia polling place in a predominantly black neighborhood. The armed man was escorted away by police, and no one reported the incident to the local district attorney. But the incident was caught on camera, making it great fodder for cable news because political campaigns were actively scouting for voter-intimidation cases they could use against opponents. Still, it seemed like the sort of incident that happens at dozens of polling places every Election Day, then quietly recedes.
Twenty-one months later, though, right-wing bloggers can't get enough of the story, and it's starting to make it into the mainstream press. Even Sarah Palin has joined the act, tweeting: "Watch FOX's Megyn Kelly on Black Panther voter intimidation case; she knows the case; she's speaking truth; her revelations leave Left steaming."
So how did the incident become a replay of the ACORN scandal? There's some resemblance between the two: an organization with unacceptable practices and a vague connection to the Obama administration (through voter registration drives in the ACORN case and Justice Department litigation in the Panther case) becomes a tool for critics of the White House to attack it as corrupt and illegitimate. But as in the ACORN case, the scandal is minimal (much of the ACORN hit has been discredited)—and the allegations against Obama flimsy.
Let's start with the cast of characters. The two reportedly imposing men at the Philadelphia polling station were members of a fringe group that calls itself the New Black Panther Party—much to the chagrin of the "old" Black Panther Party, which strenuously rejects the NBPP. Its leaders go by peculiar pseudo-African names (like chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz), and it is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League. Its ideology tends to skew toward the black supremacist and anti-Semitic.
The group typically gets attention every few years when it successfully manages to bait the national media with some nutty stand. In 2006, for example, the NBPP announced it was going to Durham, N.C., to investigate the Duke lacrosse case. Fox News, in particular, loves it: after the Duke charges were dropped in 2007, Bill O'Reilly had Shabazz on the program, where he called syndicated conservative columnist Michelle Malkin a "whore."
Several months after the 2008 Election Day incident (and 13 days before President Obama was sworn in) the Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit against the NBPP under the Voting Rights Act, alleging voter intimidation. In May 2009, Justice—now led by Attorney General Eric Holder, Obama's appointee—successfully obtained an injunction against King Samir Shabazz, the man who carried the nightstick, then dropped the suit, Fox News reported. A spokeswoman at Justice says a career attorney made the call, which was then affirmed by an appointee, because "the facts and the law did not support pursuing claims against the other defendants in the case. A federal judge determined that the relief requested by the Department was appropriate."
That's where things get messy. Starting last summer, some conservative media outlets—notably The Washington Times—began digging into the case, suggesting that because a top Obama appointee had signed off on the decision to drop charges, a move allegedly opposed by career lawyers, it provided proof that Holder's Justice Department was a bastion of political favoritism (and, by implication, racism, given that both Holder and Obama are black).
Although that story didn't go mainstream, it did cause the Commission on Civil Rights, an independent body, to take up the case. As Dave Weigel reported, there was more to that decision than met the eye: after eight years of George W. Bush appointments, the commission tilted definitively right. In addition, the star witness in the case against the NBPP, Bartle Bull, wasn't exactly impartial. The white former Robert F. Kennedy aide, who called the incident "the most blatant form of voter intimidation I have encountered in my political campaigns in many states, even going back to the work I did in Mississippi in the 1960s," had been an outspoken critic of Obama for some time.
The commission has met several times to examine the case, but things really blew open on July 6, when Bush Justice official J. Christian Adams, who is white, suggested that Justice's voting division avoided bringing cases where defendants were black and plaintiffs were white. Adams's testimony is questionable; there are doubts about whether he was actually present for the incidents he described, and he's refused to offer details on key questions. Critics see other credibility problems for Adams: he was, for instance, hired when Bush's Justice Department was systematically weakening the civil-rights division by forcing out career lawyers and replacing them with attorneys who had strong conservative credentials but little in the way of civil-rights experience.
This week's resolution by the NAACP blasting "racism" in the Tea Party has further fanned the flame. At its 101st annual convention in St. Louis, the nation's oldest civil-rights organization condemned the party's "continued tolerance for bigotry." Tea Party leaders heatedly rejected the criticism, and Palin dismissed it as "a diversionary tactic." To some commentators on the right, the NAACP action is rank hypocrisy, given that the group hasn't condemned the racism they see festering over at Justice.
With some help from Fox News's Kelly, the New Black Panthers story is now gaining steam. While there's little doubt that the NBPP is a fringe group, critics of the decision to drop the suit have a tough case to make. The problem is that although it may look like voter intimidation, there aren't actually any voters who filed an official complaint claiming to have been intimidated. As Adam Serwer writes, a polling station in a predominantly black neighborhood isn't the best place to go if you're trying to scare white voters off: "I imagine that the New Black Panthers thought they were protecting black voters from some phantom white-supremacist conspiracy (their public statements say as much)." And Weigel, who's followed the case, has suggested there's not much to it either—plus, "there's no evidence the NBPP's clownish Philadelphia stunt suppressed any votes, or that they'll try such a stunt again."
Of course, even if the case against the NBPP is thin as onion paper, it's still a problem if the Justice Department is systematically screening its cases by race. So is there evidence of that beyond Adams's testimony? The department denies the charge. Spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler says in part: "The Department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved."
Cord Jefferson of the The Root, a black-issues Web site, says the case is spurious, but that Justice must explain itself further. But Abigail Thernstrom, a white conservative member of the Commission on Civil Rights, complains that it's all light and no heat:
Get a grip, folks. The New Black Panther Party is a lunatic fringe group that is clearly into racial theater of minor importance ... This case is a one-off. There are plenty of grounds on which to sharply criticize the attorney general—his handling of terrorism questions, just for starters—but this particular overblown attack threatens to undermine the credibility of his conservative critics.
Thernstrom may be right, but she misses the point. Like the ACORN case, it's not about a real investigation; it's about staging an effective piece of political theater that hurts the Obama administration.