Bonfire of the Panthers

    Once in a while a local story gets hyped to the point that it’s practically unrecognizable to anybody close to the actual events.

    Such is the case with the New Black Panthers appearance at a Philadelphia polling place at 12th and Fairmount during the 2008 presidential election.

    The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report late last week slamming the Obama Justice Department for reversing course on a voter intimidation case that the department’s Civil Rights Division brought against the pair o’ Panthers in the waning days of the Bush administration.

    The report essentially says the department employed a double standard: It cares about voter intimidation only when whites are the perps and minorities are the victims.

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    The report notes that Justice Department attorney Christopher Coates testified that the decision to back off the Panther case “was the result of anger on the part of acting political appointees and other attorneys arising from a ‘deep-seated opposition to the equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act against racial minorities and for the protection of white voters who had been discriminated against.'”

    I always thought the incident was a mountain-ized molehill, and wrote that in a column two days after the election.

    What happened? Two knuckleheads in black boots and berets showed up at an overwhelmingly minority and Democratic polling place and struck a macho pose out front. One of them held a billy club, though he’s described in many reports as “brandishing” it.

    Republican operatives showed up, taped a video interview in which one of the guys said he was “security,” and conservative radio and cable TV went nuts with it.

    The district attorney declined to take any action. The Committee of Seventy saw it as bad behavior, but not the national outrage it was cast as.

    I thought it was a story at the time, just not a federal case.

    Maybe I was wrong.

    You can read the report and many supporting exhibits of the Civil Rights Commission (which liberals note is dominated by Bush administration appointees) here.

    You can get a supportive conservative read of the issue by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin here, and a dissenting view from Civil Rights Commissioner Michael Yaki here.

    I wish I could link to a fine piece from the Washington Post last October which explored the debate and found that the case exposed sharp political divisions within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from the beginning.

    I’ll offer two points in defense of the decision to back off the civil case (though an injunction against one of the two Panthers did stand):

    First,  despite all the investigations conducted over the last two years, not a single voter has said he or she was intimidated by the boys in berets that day. In the widely-circulated video shot of the Panthers by a Penn student, people can be seen calmly entering the polling place behind the guys as they talk to the camera. They weren’t even close to the door.

    Reports that some voters left because of the commotion came from Republican poll watchers dispatched to the scene. Ditto for the report that a couple working inside the polls were afraid to come outside until the Panthers had gone. When the husband, Larry Counts, testified under oath before the commission, he said the events outside had no discernible impact on voting and that he “had no reason to be afraid.”

    I’m not saying the Republicans made stuff up, but if you’re going to bring legal action, you want something more solid. It seems to me a voter intimidation claim needs at least one intimidated voter.

    Second, note that the Civil Rights Commission report cited the Justice Department’s refusal to defend “white voters who had been discriminated against.”

    The 14th Ward, where this incident occurred is overwhelmingly African-American and Democratic. The notion that this was an attempt to intimidate white voters is just silly.

    It was a cheap way for two guys in berets to get on television, and that they did.

    At the City Hall press room years ago, there was a row of mail boxes for the reporters who worked there.

    Once when we were cleaning up we tossed out a bunch of old press releases bulging from the box of an eccentric free-lancer who’d disappeared for months.

    He showed up at some point and accused us of mail tampering, a federal crime. Maybe it was, technically. A postal inspector actually showed up and talked to us, and nothing more came of it.

    You exercise discretion in enforcing the law, and common sense tells me the Justice Department made the right call on the Battle of the Panthers.

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