Equal Protection

On November 4, 2008, uniformed Black Panther members stood in pace at the entrance of a polling place in Philadelphia with night sticks. One can click here and decide for yourself whether the individuals were attempting to intimidate voters. If such an incident had occurred 10 year ago, it is unlikely that with conflicting testimony as to what really happened could be definitely sorted out. In this age, eye-witness testimony is more persuasive gi given the video evidence.

The Bush Administration response to the incident was not as aggressive as it could have been, pursuing civil as opposed to criminal sanctions against the individuals involved. Nonetheless, the Department of Justice won a default judgment against the individuals, a judgment that the Obama Department of Justice gave up when it inexplicably dropped the case.

In response to the Obama Administration decision, Christian Adams in the Department of Justice Civil RIght Division resigned. He later testified before the US Civil Rights Commission that the case was dismissed because of a disinterest in pursuing Civil Rights cases directed against minorities. Adams’ accusation while damning, was difficult to prove. He could be dismissed as a disgruntled, politically-motivated holdover from the Bush Administration. Some argued that there was no proof that voters were actually intimidated by the Black Panther thugs despite the actions. Nonetheless, the civil case had already been won, and the Department of Justice refused to accept victory.

The issue has been resurrected with the testimony of the Christopher Coates, the former head of the Voting Rights Section of the Department of Justice, before the US Department of Civil RIghts Commission. He had been directed by the Justice Department not to not comply with the subpoena, but complied nonetheless.

Coates justified his decision to testify:

“I did not lightly decide to comply with your subpoena in contradiction to the DOJ’s directives not to testify,… If incorrect representations are going to successfully thwart inquiry into the systemic problems regarding race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by the Civil Rights Division, problems that were manifested….in the New Black Panther Party case that end is not going to be furthered or accomplished by my sitting idly or silently by at the direction of my supervisors while incorrect information is provided…. I do not believe that I am professionally, ethically, legally, or morally bound to allow such a result to occur.’’

Coates largely corroborated Adams’ testimony. The Holder Justice Department had decided not to pursue cases against minority defendants “until we reached the day when the socio-economic status of blacks in Mississippi was the same as the socio-economic status of whites living there.’’

It is impossible to paint Coates as a political partisan bent of causing problems for the Obama Administration. He was originally appointed by President Clinton, worked for voting rights for the American Civil Liberties Union, and received awards for his efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If he is concerned about selective, race-based civil rights enforcement, he brings with that concern a cache of credibility

Even more important that any particular economic or social policy, the election of President Barack Obama represented a seminal event, The US could be said to have overcome is original sin of slavery and racial discrimination. It is not that bigotry would cease to exist or disparate conditions equalized, but Obama’s election and his inuaguration with nearly 70% approval, proved that the United States had crossed an important threshold in race relations.

The case in Philadelphia is a small one. No election outcome depended on what happened there, but it is still potentially damning. If the Justice Department proves not to be committed to equal protection of the law, it is denying a fundamental promise of America. Presuming President Obama is committed to an America undivided be race, he should determine who in his Justice Department refuses to believe in equal protection of the law and dismiss them. His legacy may be threatened.

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