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Voting Rights Official Calls Dismissal of Black Panther Case a 'Travesty of Justice'

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Members of the New Black Panther Party are seen outside a Philadelphia polling station in 2008. (YouTube)

The Justice Department is ignoring civil rights cases that involve white victims and wrongly abandoned a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party last year, a top department official testified Friday. He called the department's conduct a "travesty of justice." 

Christopher Coates, former voting chief for the department's Civil Rights Division, spoke under oath Friday morning before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in a long-awaited appearance that had been stonewalled by the Justice Department for nearly a year. 

Coates discussed in depth the DOJ's decision to dismiss intimidation charges against New Black Panther members who were videotaped outside a Philadelphia polling place in 2008 dressed in military-style uniforms -- one was brandishing a nightstick -- and allegedly hurling racial slurs. 

The case has drifted in and out of the limelight over the past year as the commission has struggled to investigate it. Former Justice official J. Christian Adams fueled the controversy when he testified in July and accused his former employer of showing "hostility" toward cases that involved white victims and black defendants. 

Nearly three months later, Coates backed up Adams' claims. In lengthy and detailed testimony, he said the department cultivates a "hostile atmosphere" against "race-neutral enforcement" of the Voting Rights Act. 

He said civil rights attorneys stick to cases that involve minority victims, and he said the Black Panther case was dismissed following "pressure" by the NAACP and "anger" at the case within the Justice Department itself. 

"That anger was the result of their deep-seated opposition to the equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act against racial minorities and for the protection of white voters who have been discriminated against," he said. 

He said a 2005 case against a black official in Mississippi over voter intimidation claims had stirred a backlash in the department and from civil rights groups -- and that the New Black Panther case was no different. 

The Department of Justice dismissed the testimony, calling the investigation "thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric." 

"The department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved," department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said. "We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation."

The Bush Justice Department first brought the case against three members of the Black Panther group, accusing them in a civil complaint of violating the Voting Rights Act. The Obama administration initially pursued the case and at one point won a default judgment, but the administration last year moved to dismiss the charges after getting one of the New Black Panther members to agree not to carry a "deadly weapon" near a polling place until 2012. 

Coates rejected as weak the department's rationale for abandoning the case, saying the department let one of the Black Panther members off the hook because a local police officer had determined he was a Democratic Party poll watcher. Coates called it "extraordinarily strange" for the department to rely on this and urged the commission to consider what the legal backlash would have been if the Panthers had been members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

"To understand the rationale of these articulated reasons for gutting this case ... one only has to state the facts in the racial reverse," he said. Coates said that with the United States becoming increasingly diverse, it is "absolutely essential" that the law be enforced equally. 

"As important as the mandate in the Voting Rights Act is to protect minority voters, white voters also have an interest in being able to go to the polls without having race-haters such as Black Panther King Samir Shabazz, whose public rhetoric includes such statements as 'kill cracker babies' ... standing at the entrance of the polling place with a billy club in his hand hurling racial slurs at voters," he said.

"Given this outrageous conduct, it was a travesty of justice for the Department of Justice not to allow attorneys in the voting section to obtain nationwide injunctive relief against" the defendants, he said. 

Since last year, Coates has been transferred to the U.S. attorney's office in South Carolina. He said Friday that the Justice Department told him not to testify before the commission after he was first subpoenaed in December 2009; in testifying Friday, he claimed protection from retaliation under "whistleblower" laws. 

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., also wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder warning the Justice Department not to punish Coates in any way for testifying.