Bartle Bull couldn’t believe his eyes. The former civil rights lawyer had been arrested in the South during the 1960s. He once forced local officials in Mississippi to remove nooses that were hanging from tree branches outside polling places.
But until Election Day 2008 in Philadelphia he had never seen a man brandishing a weapon blocking the entrance to a polling place. He now can’t understand why the Obama Justice Department has dropped its case against the New Black Panther Party, the hate group the thugs he saw in front of the polling place belonged to.
Bull, who was once Robert Kennedy’s New York presidential campaign manager and is a former publisher of the left-wing Village Voice, has moderated his politics, going so far as to join Democrats for McCain last year. It was in that capacity that he traveled to Philadelphia on Election Day. When he visited a polling place at 12th and Fairmount he found two men dressed in black combat boots, black berets, and black uniforms blocking the door. One was brandishing a large police-style nightstick.
McCain volunteers called the police and media, which filmed the whole incident. The police ordered the armed man to leave, but did not take away his weapon. But one of his colleagues didn’t go quietly. Minister King Samir Shabazz, head of the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia, yelled at onlookers: “You are about to be ruled by the black man, Cracker!”
In March, Bull got a call from Christian Adams, an attorney with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, who asked him to provide an affi- davit about the incident to support a Justice civil rights lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party and three of its supporters. Bull said he would, provided that Justice followed through on the lawsuit to the very end.
The lawsuit was filed, but none of the defendants answered it. That allowed a federal court in Philadelphia to render a default judgment against the defendants.
But Bull was astonished that the government then filed a notice of voluntary dismissal. Charges against the New Black Panther Party and two of the defendants were dropped completely. Shabazz was enjoined from carrying a weapon to a polling place until 2012.
A Justice spokesman issued a statement saying that the department made its decision “based on a careful assessment of the facts and the law.” He refused to provide any other explanation or comment. Bull says that a Justice attorney told him, “The decision to drop the case against the other defen- dants came as a surprise to all of us working on it.” The attorney worried that this abject failure to enforce the Voting Rights Act would “embolden” others to intimidate voters in the future. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have labeled the New Black Panther Party a hate group, and many original Black Panthers have denounced it, yet somehow the new administration couldn’t bring itself to accept a victory that it was being handed on a legal silver platter.
So why did the Obama Justice Department punt? Bull has no specific knowledge but notes that the original Justice complaint had aimed at enjoining all 28 of the New Black Panther Party’s chapters around the country from certain activities. He believes the decision was politically motivated: “They’re protecting the environment of what the party might do. And it’s going to give them a lot more authority in the next election.” He notes that signals may now have been sent that “intimidation at the polls against poll watchers challenging the fraudulent voters registered by ACORN is a possibility.”
With Justice refusing to provide any further explanation, suspicions are bound to linger. One of the defendants, Jerry Jackson, is an elected member of Philadelphia’s 14th Ward Democratic Committee and was a credentialed poll watcher for the Democratic Party last Election Day. The Obama Justice Department dropped all charges against him.
Hans von Spakovsky, a former official in Justice’s Civil Rights Division under President Bush, told me he was shocked by Justice’s turnaround in the Philadelphia case: “Imagine if the defendants had been white and been intimidating voters and Justice had dropped the case. There would have been a political earthquake.” In the wake of Justice’s action, how ever, there has been little outcry or media notice. Bull plans to keep the issue alive. “When he took office, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that America was a nation of ‘cowards’ when it comes to race and that he was going to make civil rights cases a top priority,” he told me. “But who are today’s ‘cowards’ on race? This kind of double standard is not what Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy fought for.”