I’ve been to numerous hearings held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — but never before to one where there were armed security guards.
But then, it has been decades since the commission held a hearing about the threats and intimidation carried out by an organization that the Anti-Defamation League categorizes as a hate group — in this case, the New Black Panther Party.
On Friday, April 23, the commission finally held its long-delayed hearing on the Justice Department’s now-infamous dismissal of almost all the cases it had already won by default against three members of the NBPP and the party itself for voter intimidation in Philadelphia in the November 2008 election.
In fact, there was good reason for the security. A number of Panthers, including two of the defendants in the lawsuit the DOJ dropped (Jerry Jackson and King Samir Shabazz), marched into the hearing room in their black, fascist-style paramilitary uniforms. The very fact that the NBPP showed up in force refutes the claim made by the DOJ’s leadership that the case was dismissed because there was no evidence of coordination between the national organization and the Philadelphia chapter. Furthermore, the Panthers were handing out a press release from Malik Zulu Shabazz, the national chairman of the NBPP.
That same DOJ leadership apparently doesn’t believe the NBPP was engaging in intimidation when it sent thugs uniformed like Mussolini’s blackshirts, one with a billy club, to stand in front of the entrance to a polling place. In fact, there is nothing the New Black Panthers have ever said or done to suggest that they don’t believe what they did was intimidating to people they hate. They preach intimidation and worse.
Such intimidation continued at the hearing. In the middle of it, King Samir Shabazz, the Panther who swung the billy club on Election Day, got up, moved to the side of the hearing room slightly in front of the witnesses, and photographed the three men seated at the witness table testifying against him. These were the three men who had attempted to protect prospective voters in Philadelphia on Election Day. One later testified that he did notice his picture being taken by Shabazz. It’s hard to see any reason for taking their photographs in such a way other than to try to intimidate them. Or does an advocate of genocide just want to add pictures to his scrapbook?
The hearing started with brief opening statements from the commissioners. Then all the depositions and other evidence gathered by the commission were entered into the record. That formality revealed that when the depositions of the two Panthers who had stood in front of the polling were taken, they both refused to testify, asserting their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Now, you cannot assert Fifth Amendment protections merely to stop testimony in a civil action or a commission investigation. Thus, if the two men were lawfully invoking their Fifth Amendment right, that means that they were conceding that their actions not only violated the Voting Rights Act — which is a civil matter — but might also subject them to criminal prosecution.
Chairman Shabazz, who lives in Washington, D.C., never even appeared for his deposition when subpoenaed. The commission has asked the Department of Justice to enforce the subpoena, but so far, that doesn’t seem to be a department priority. What a surprise!
Meanwhile, the opening statements of the commissioners revealed a lot about how interested they were in protecting voting rights. The Democratic commissioners, especially Michael Yaki, a former Pelosi staffer, tried to minimize what happened in Philadelphia; he even said at one point that there may have been no more than a couple of people who were turned away. Yaki was unable to produce any evidence that would support that assertion.
Yaki’s Democratic colleague Arlan Melendez claimed the investigation was a waste of time and resources. According to him, everyone should just take the DOJ’s word that the case was meritless. Most of the other commissioners pointed out that the commission has a special mandate to protect voting rights and that not only was the Justice Department’s dismissal of this case inexplicable, but its refusal to provide information, documents, or witnesses violated the law in general and specifically its responsibility not to engage in selective enforcement.
After the opening statements and the reading of evidence into the record, the hearing continued with three videos: the atwo camera-phone videos shot at the polling place (now on YouTube), and clips from a National Geographic documentary about the NBPP that includes interviews with Chairman Shabazz and with the billy-club-wielding King Samir Shabazz. Mr. Billy Club talks about how much he hates and wants to kill white people, including white babies, and the documentary includes a very ugly scene (among many) in which he confronts an interracial couple in a Philadelphia neighborhood.
The first three live witnesses were Mike Mauro, Chris Hill, and Bartle Bull. Mauro is a lawyer from Connecticut who had gone to Philadelphia as a volunteer. Hill is a former infantry soldier who lives only nine blocks from the polling place. They were part of a roving team that responded on Election Day to a desperate call for help from a black poll watcher. The poll watcher told Hill that the Panthers had called him a “race traitor” and threatened him, saying “there would be hell to pay if he came out.” Hill said the man was visibly scared and had clearly been intimidated. Hill added that the poll watcher was afraid to testify before the commission or in the original voter-intimidation case because “he lives in that neighborhood.”
Hill was called a “white devil” and a “cracker,” and was told he would be ruled by the black man the next day, and he would have to get used to “living under his boot.” Hill saw several voters, including two elderly women, stop abruptly as they were walking up to the polling place when they saw the two Panthers standing right in front of the door. The voters turned around and left; they said they would “come back later” to vote.
Of course, we don’t know if they did. And Hill and Mauro were there for only a short time. There is no telling how many other voters had left without voting that morning before Hill and Mauro showed up at close to noon. This testimony was ignored by a Washington Post reporter at the hearing, who posted a story claiming that “there was no evidence that voters had been prevented from casting ballots in Philadelphia.”
Bartle Bull — a well-known Democratic lawyer (and former publisher of The Village Voice), who worked in the South during the height of the civil-rights campaign — saw the same thing happen. He had also gotten a call about the intimidation and drove to the polling place. One of the Panthers pointed his billy club at Bull and said, “Now you are going to find out what it is to be ruled by the black man, cracker.” This to a man who started off as a volunteer for Adlai Stevenson, who headed Robert Kennedy’s campaign in New York in 1968, and who, in 1971, worked to get civil-rights stalwart Charles Evers elected governor of Mississippi.
Bull saw several voters walk up the long driveway to the polling place, stop, turn around, and leave when they saw the Panthers standing there in their black uniforms and combat boots with one of them slapping a billy club in his hand. It was a pretty dramatic moment in the hearing room when Bull, Hill, and Mauro turned in their chairs, and Bull pointed to one of the Panthers sitting two seats down from me and identified him as the one who wielded the billy club that day and who also said on the National Geograpic documentary that he wanted to kill white people.
A former deputy associate attorney general, Greg Katsas, testified that this was a clear case of voter intimidation, and that there is really no explanation for the DOJ dismissal. Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), who, along with Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas), has been tireless in his efforts to get Justice to explain its actions in this case, also testified. He would have been a difficult man for someone like Commissioner Yaki to attack as a partisan or a racist: Wolf was the only member of the Virginia congressional delegation, Republican or Democrat, to vote for the renewal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 1981, even though he suffered withering criticism in his home state.
In fact, Yaki was almost pathetic in the way he groveled to Wolf, thanking him for the way he worked with Nancy Pelosi when Yaki was still on her staff. Wolf called the Justice Department’s obstruction of congressional oversight into this case “a shameful example of the types of partisan obstruction that undermine our nation’s civil-rights laws.” He also revealed that the DOJ had finally admitted this week that Attorney General Holder “was made aware — on multiple occasions — of the steps being taken to dismiss this case.”
Wolf was referring to the fact that after nine months of stalling, the Justice Department finally answered some of the commission’s queries and sent some of the documents requested, although it still refuses to let the chief of the Voting Section, Chris Coates, and another trial lawyer who worked on the case, Christian Adams, respond to commission subpoenas and testify. Compounding its offenses, when the Justice Department finally did, on the eve of the hearing, send the commission copies of the written statements of the witnesses who were going to testify, it had redacted the names of the witnesses and other information in the statements. There is no justifiable legal or other reason whatsoever for having redacted any portion of the witness statements.
The most amusing part of the hearing was watching Commissioner Yaki try to run interference for the Obama administration. Yaki was clearly unhappy to have the administration’s dirty linen dragged out into the public arena, and he did his best to try to cross up witnesses like Bull and Katsas when he was questioning them. Yaki obviously believes he’s a very smart lawyer, but Bull and Katsas both ran rings around him. Bull, who did an outstanding job of pointing out how outrageously the Panthers had acted in Philadelphia and how wrong the Justice Department was in dismissing this lawsuit. Imagine for a moment if members of a white supremacist group had shown up in paramilitary uniforms with swastikas at a polling place, and yet the Justice Department dropped a voter-intimidation lawsuit it had already won against the group. The hearing room at the commission would have been swarming with news crews, and C-SPAN would surely have covered the hearing live. However, none of that happened. C-SPAN wasn’t there, and neither was a single one of the national cable-news channels.
If a Republican member of the Civil Rights Commission had then claimed during the hearing that the entire case was much ado about nothing because only a couple of people had been turned away from voting, it would have been front-page news in the Washington Post and the New York Times. Editorials in every major newspaper would not only have demanded his resignation, but would also have condemned the Justice Department for its actions. So far, we haven’t seen that happen in this case.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division, has agreed to testify before the commission on May 14. He is the political appointee in charge of the division — but his testimony will be just another effort by the Justice Department to look as if it’s cooperating when it really isn’t. Perez wasn’t even at the division when the decision was made to drop this case, and his agreeing to testify is just a way of obscuring the fact that the DOJ continues to refuse to allow the trial team who worked on this case to testify. Why? Because the Obama administration knows that their testimony would destroy its claims that it has taken the partisanship out of the Civil Rights Division.
Hans A. von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice.
First appeared in National Review Online