Voter Intimidation in Philadelphia

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama became the first black American to be elected President of the United States. Obama carried the election with nearly 53% of the vote. A large fraction of the remainder might have been disappointed from a political standpoint, but could not help feeling a sense of pride that to a large measure the racial bigotry that had been America’s original sin had been cleansed from our collective souls.

On the same day, New Black Panther Party member, King Samir Shabazz, stood in front of a Philadelphia poll brandishing a bludgeon and intimidating poll workers and voters. Christopher Hill, a poll watcher, was called a “cracker” by Shabazz. Bartle Bull claims it was the worst case of voter intimidation that he had ever witnessed. Bull’s claim carries significant weight since he served as a civil rights lawyer in the South in the 1960’s.

Though eyewitness claims are important, this incident might have devolved into a clash of testimonies had there not been video showing Shabazz in paramilitary gear strutting at the entrance of a Philadelphia polling place. Further, Shabazz made himself a less sympathetic character when claiming on another video at a different time that if “if you want freedom you’re going to have to kill some crackers, you’re going to have to kill some of their babies.”

The Chair of US Civil Rights Commission reported the facts of the case as:

“On November 4th, 2008, two members of the New Black Panther Party appeared at a polling station in Philadelphia. Video evidence and eyewitness testimony show that these two members standing athwart the entrance of the polling place dressed in paramilitary uniforms with black combat boots. One of them brandished a nightstick. They hurled racial epithets at whites and blacks alike, taunting poll watchers and poll observers, who were there to aid voters and, according to evidence adduced during our hearing last month, caused some voters who sought to cast their votes that day to turn and leave the polling place, rather than have to contend with them.”

Shabazz advocates a very radical ideology and no one claims that he represents any more than a tiny, tiny fraction of the population. Nonetheless, his intimidating actions in front of the polling area clearly deserved prosecution to maintain the integrity of the voting process. Under the Bush Administration, the prosecution began and a default judgment won that would have kept Shabazz away from polling places indefinitely. This was to be followed by further prosecutions of the New Black Panther Party for voting rights violations.

The Obama Administration had an easy decision to make. Simply maintain the prosecution and demonstrate that racial politics will not be tolerated on the part of anyone. Obama was supposed to represent a transition to a post-racial society. What better way to demonstrate that the Obama Department of Justice (DOJ) would not permit racial politics?

Unfortunately, the Obama Justice Department stood down the prosecution against the leaders of the New Black Panther Party and accepted a decreased the judgment against Shabazz prohibiting from polling places in Philadelphia only until 2012.  J. Christian Adams an attorney at the DOJ resigned after being instructed by apolitical appointee not to pursue the case. Christopher Coastes also stepped down as Chief of the Voting Rights Division, when his recommendation to pursue the case was denied.

The Civil Rights Commission is now investigating the entire case and the DOJ’s response to it. The Obama Administration is likely to be further embarrassed. All presidential administrations commit unforced errors and the decision to back off this prosecution is one such misstep. The disappointment is that this error undermines the hope that the Obama Administration could further racial reconciliation. There is no doubt that Obama himself seeks such reconciliation. He should insure that all his subordinates do as well.

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