The President and the Panthers
by ANDREW C. MCCARTHY
October 6, 2011
A couple of days ago, I pointed readers to Andrew Breitbart’s report about President Obama’s having appeared and marched with members of the New Black Panther Party in Selma in 2007. The report, and my alerting readers to it, caused some shrieking in predictable quarters on Left, as well as some negative criticism from people of good will. It was said to be taken out of context: The march in Selma was not an Obama/Panther event; it was a major event associated with the history of the civil rights movement, and it drew thousands of people, including notables like Hillary Clinton and Al Sharpton. Consequently, the Breitbart story and accompanying photos, micro-focused on Obama and Panther figures, were said to be misleading, as was the suggestion that they were “shocking” — a word Andrew used and I repeated in my post.
Let me make a couple of points in response. In retrospect, I think the word shocking was a bit on the hyperbolic side — but only a bit. As someone who spent much of his professional life in the Justice Department and cares deeply about it as an institution, I remain shocked and outraged over the Department’s handling of the New Black Panther Party case: specifically, because DOJ deep-sixed a case it had already won against bad guys who clearly violated the civil rights laws; and more significantly, because it is unconstitutional and profoundly offensive for the current Justice Department to adhere to a policy of intentional racial discrimination in the enforcement of civil rights statutes that are meant to protect all Americans. I should perhaps do a better job of separating how I feel about the Panthers case from my assessment of each new piece of information that in some way connects President Obama and his minions to Panther figures, but I can’t help finding it all repulsive.
I was not trying to hide the fact that other Democratic notables were at the Selma event. It was in Andrew’s report, which I linked to — and the whole point of my post was to encourage people to read Andrew’s report. I didn’t discuss Hillary Clinton and Al Sharpton for two reasons. First, unlike Barack Obama, they do not run an administration that allowed itself to be heavily lobbied by Panther apologists before dismissing a case that the government had already won — and won because, besides being in violation of the law, the Panthers contemptuously refused to answer court process. (In my time at DOJ, contempt of the judicial process was a reason to press forward with a case, not dismiss it.)
Second, I relied on the portion of Andrew’s report that indicated Obama’s interplay with the Panthers in Selma was of a different character than that of the other prominent Dems. As Andrew put it, “It is true that then-Senator Hillary Clinton and Al Sharpton were also in Selma at the same event. But the Panthers explicitly came to Selma to support Obama, as [J. Christian] Adams details in Injustice. They spoke with Obama at the podium …, and departed together with Obama for the main march itself, as shown by this grainier image” — a still , Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department culled from a YouTube video that Andrew posts with his report.
I did not rely on that passage in a vacuum. I have gotten to know Christian Adams a bit. He is the former Justice Department lawyer who exposed the NBPP scandal, and I’m familiar with what he has written about it. His book was just published this week. I’ve now had a chance to buy the book and read the section pertaining to the Selma rally.
Christian makes a strong case that the Panthers made an effort to demonstrate support for Obama in Selma. It is much more ambiguous whether Obama reciprocated. Clearly, he was not embarrassed to be in their company or by their indications of support. But, though Christian observes that Obama had reason to believe passive acceptance of the Panthers’ support would help him at time, Christian does not claim that Obama did anything affirmative to encourage them. As he puts it, “In the end, nobody knows what Obama thought about the Panthers’ demonstration of support for him, because the media never asked him about it.” The claim that Obama spoke with Panther leader Malik Shabazz that day appears to come from Shabazz himself — Christian points to no other evidence besides Shabazz’s telling a reporter that they spoke (and providing no details about the substance of the conversation). And while it appears the Panthers made efforts to stay close to Obama during the march, there’s no proof that Obama invited them to do that. He didn’t shoo them away, either — and, to me, that is a salient fact given how disgusting are the Panthers’ views. But it was a huge march, and it’s not like the Panthers were only marching with Obama.
In my mind, this episode is important for two reasons. First is the double-standard: no Republican or conservative politician would survive politically if he permitted himself to be in the company of a racist hate group; if these were photos of Sarah Palin or Chris Christie surrounded by Klansmen or neo-Nazis, the media would run them incessantly. There would be no rationalizing that they needed to be placed in context — and if the hate group had gone out of its way to endorse a Republican candidate, that would be big news; it wouldn’t be dismissed, as the media dismisses the NBPP’s endorsement of Obama, as something over which the poor candidate had no control.
Second, again, I do not think the Selma event can be compartmentalized and discounted as if the Obama Justice Department’s dismissal of the NBPP case had never happened. As Christian relates, Obama’s interplay with the Panthers in Selma might have been happenstance to which Obama was indifferent; it might have been happenstance that he exploited to what he believed at the time was his advantage; or it might have been a predetermined collaboration. We just don’t know, because Obama was not vetted like other candidates are vetted.
The result is ambiguity. When there is ambiguity, you have to look at everything else you know in order to try to interpret the event in question. When it comes to Selma, the everything else we know prominently includes the subsequent, strange dismissal of the NBPP case and the adoption of an enforcement policy in which DOJ refrains from using the civil rights laws to protect white victims from black transgressors.
Given that, I’m inclined to believe the Selma event is relevant in our assessment of Obama — not something that should be sloughed off. To those who say my post should have been more measured and should have added more context, I think the point is well taken. To those who say it’s a non-story, I respectfully disagree.