Get local news delivered straight to your phone
For Sharon Roach, the crusade began with a rally on Thursday, Sept. 28, at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple on U Street NW. She walked into the large auditorium crammed with more than 1,000 people, threaded her way to one of the back rows, and took an open seat. It was about 6:30 p.m., and the place was crowded, hot, and thrilling, like some urban tent revival. People fanned themselves with folded pieces of paper titled “Exposing and Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Washington, D.C.” The event, sponsored and heavily promoted by the nascent D.C. branch of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, had been billed in fliers and posters around the city as an “Emergency Black Unity Town Hall Meeting” on “the State of Black D.C.”
Things got off to an inauspicious start, according to journalists who were there. The meeting started late, and the first few speakers rambled almost incoherently. One man recited a meandering poem; another prayed for the audience for what seemed like 15 minutes. The long evening would eventually stretch to more than three hours, and by the time the New Black Panthers passed a hat for contributions, more than half their audience had evaporated.
Roach, though, stayed for the whole thing. An office worker from nearby Shaw, she sat in the rear of the room, listening quietly, absorbing everything. And she found herself thoroughly mesmerized by the evening’s main attraction: Malik Zulu Shabazz, the charismatic 34-year-old leader of the New Black Panthers, D.C. Division.
“As packed as it is…make way for your brother and sister tonight,” Shabazz thundered from the podium. “We were stacked and packed like sardines on the slave ships coming over here. So you can sit next to your brother and sister tonight. We have endured much worse.”
Tall, handsome, and a gifted speaker, Shabazz declared that “the city is right now under an outright taking, and what you once knew as Chocolate City, and what you once hoped for as a chocolate state, is now in serious jeopardy. Serious jeopardy.
“Most of our leadership is in the hip pocket of our enemy,” Shabazz continued. “We are losing ground in Chocolate City economically, landwise, politically, socially….We are not paranoid. We have seen white people in U Street corridor. We have seen white people running around everywhere….Can’t we have something for ourselves?”
At this point came Roach’s favorite part of the evening. Shabazz began singling out Mayor Anthony A. Williams for particular ridicule, and now an assistant propped an easel with a pad of paper next to the New Black Panther leader. Shabazz theatrically declared it time to “grade” Williams’ performance and issue “the white man in black skin” a report card. He polled the audience on seven subjects, asking them to raise their hands for the grade they thought the mayor deserved.
Shabazz declared himself open to all possible grades (“Do I see any hands for an A?”) and dutifully scribbled the answers down. By the end of the exercise, the pad read:
Stopping White Flight Return
D.C. Schools (F)
Black Youth support (F)
The audience had failed the mayor in all the “subjects.” But in two additional categories, which Shabazz wrote on another sheet—”Accountability to Whites” and “Carrying Out the White Elite Agenda”—the audience gave him A’s.
Riveted by all she heard, Roach, a woman in her mid-30s, enlisted in the Panthers that night. “What really touched me was the report card on the mayor,” she explained later. “That really motivated me to join.” Roach said she had not been involved in any political organizations before. “I went to the meeting, and they were saying things that I never heard leaders say before. They confronted issues straight on. They didn’t sugarcoat them.”
Not hardly. The New Black Panther Party for Self Defense scarcely shies from extremist black-separatist rhetoric. The D.C. chapter started only last summer and is guided by the simple goal of reasserting black dominance in the city. In Shabazz, the group has a leader who is a practicing attorney, a two-time council candidate, a former Howard University law student, an aspiring rap artist (sample lyrics: “Stand up black man, march on black man….Just be a man”), and a self-proclaimed disciple of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Shabazz is occasionally referred to as the D.C. Panthers’ minister of justice. Some critics consider him an outspoken racist and anti-Semite. Shabazz’s ultimate dream, he says, is a black utopia in which black people don’t interact with other races.
The September rally was a coming-out party of sorts for the Panthers’ new chapter, but since then, the group has attracted wider attention. That’s because, in late November, the Panthers led a noisy boycott and protest of a Korean-owned grocery store in Northeast, which grabbed some choice media coverage. The store ended up being vandalized and firebombed in the middle of the night, and although no one claims to know who was responsible for the crime, the incident sent a jolt of fear through the District’s Korean-American business community.
The group also participated in Farrakhan’s Million Family March in October, and Shabazz is the spokesperson for a Day of Outrage march on Jan. 20 to protest the presidential inauguration of George W. Bush.
As for Roach, she hardly conforms to the image of a radical black freedom fighter. She’s soft-spoken, has twinkling eyes, and is a single mother of four. Almost 6 feet tall with straight, bobbed black hair and bangs, she has the confidence of a real estate agent and the easygoing manner of your best friend’s mom.
Yet Roach holds some convictions that sound very similar to the Panthers’ rhetoric, particularly on the topic of Asian-Americans working in the black community. “They’re taking our money,” she observes. “Koreans pass their businesses from one to another. They live in luxury off of our black dollars until they’re ready to retire, and then they pass their business on to the next generation. That’s why black people in the District aren’t given any opportunities to open businesses.”
Roach moved to D.C. from Alabama only two years ago and won’t say where she’s employed or what she does, other than that it is “office-related.” She’s a religious woman and a trained Baptist minister, although she’s not currently active in that role. Her newfound commitment to the Panthers is a full-time project in itself, consuming up to 30 hours a week, she says.
“I’ve had to sacrifice time with my children,” Roach says. “But it’s worth it. It’s for them and their future. I believe it’s been in God’s plan for this to happen. We needed someone to take a stand and take the lead for our community. Our people have been lying back for too long. They’ve been asleep. We’ve got to wake our people to what’s going on in our community. I honestly believe that’s why we’re here.”
Is Roach right? Are blacks being elbowed out of Chocolate City? Are they unwittingly complying with some kind of master plan to displace them? The numbers do show a racial shift in the District. Blacks are still the majority of the population of 572,059, but that majority has been declining. Current census estimates indicate that the numbers of whites, Latinos, and Asians in Washington are on the rise, while the number of black people is declining. Blacks now account for about 61 percent of D.C.’s residents, down from a 71 percent peak in 1970.
Because of the increase in the number of white residents, two things have occurred: The racial complexion of neighborhoods has changed, and the racial complexion of the city’s power structure has changed. Prodded by a strong local economy and a renewed desire among whites to live in the city, communities that had been predominately occupied by blacks have been becoming more racially mixed. Neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Shaw, the U Street corridor, and Capitol Hill are in flux, with more middle-income white residents moving in.
Some black Washingtonians find the expanding white population distressing—a phenomenon that’s been dubbed, for lack of a more precise term, “gentrification.” It is sometimes called the Plan: the idea being that whites are conspiring to marginalize D.C.’s black population. Gentrification, in its purest sense, is a function of economics, not race: Poorer neighborhoods become attractive to wealthier home buyers, whose purchases, in turn, dramatically increase property values and drive more poor residents out. But because local real estate prices have spiked at the same time that the number of white faces in the city has been increasing, some see the two as linked. And so the term “gentrification” has evolved into a shorthand phrase to describe white migration into the District.
Yet the decrease in the black population is as much a function of black flight out of the city as it is a function of white migration into the District. National fair-housing laws in the ’70s pried open the suburbs and city outskirts like a crowbar. Black residents, like whites before them, suddenly fled the city for the distant, quiet streets of bedroom communities. In fact, so many African-Americans moved to rural Prince George’s County that the county became heavily developed, majority-black, and mostly middle-class by the ’80s.
The Panthers, for their part, interpret black flight and white gentrification as a conspiracy played on unsuspecting blacks by sinister whites. According to this theory, blacks were first brainwashed into abandoning their properties in the District for the white picket fences and green yards of the suburbs. Then, with the District’s properties all but forsaken and nearly worthless, the white man came back and began buying everything up, completing the takeover.
As far-fetched as this may sound to some, at least it’s a theory, some explanation for what’s happening to the city’s shrinking black base. And it may be enough to have a theory, even an implausible one, to build a following, says Ronald Walters, the director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. “So many things happen to oppressed people that they can’t explain,” Walters says. “There are those who want to hear someone give an explanation, no matter how outrageous it may be.”
Shabazz and his New Black Panther Party eagerly articulate such an explanation—and offer a clear-cut plan of action. In the space of just a few months, Shabazz has managed to expand his membership swiftly and organize his followers fluently. The appearance of the New Black Panthers in D.C. doesn’t surprise Walters, who says there is a vacuum of this type of leadership right now. “A lot of militant organizations in the black community have fallen by the wayside,” he says. “And a lot of people want to see a group take a militant stance.”
Another factor contributing to the attraction of the Panthers for some black D.C. residents is the recent change in the city’s power structure, which Shabazz construes as a transfer of power from blacks to whites. This change grew pronounced with the 1998 District government elections. For the first time in the city’s history, more whites than blacks were elected to the 13-member D.C. Council. Also, Williams was voted into office. Although black, the new mayor almost immediately found himself on bad terms with many of the city’s black leaders, who had grown used to former Mayor Marion S. Barry’s robust pro-black rhetoric. Williams was more conciliatory toward the white community, and when he came into office, he appointed whites to several key administration positions. Williams’ African-American bona fides were constantly questioned. An early episode in which Williams reluctantly accepted the resignation of one of these administrators for using the word “niggardly” only contributed to this perception. “Is he black enough?” became his opponents’ most devastating refrain, bluntly referring to both the mayor’s light skin and his purported lack of allegiance to his fellow African-Americans.
Shabazz extends his conspiracy theory to both the mayor and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is also black. He says they are loyal only to whites and white businesses, and are largely responsible for the demise of Chocolate City. He charges that they have forged their own kind of affirmative-action program, whose purpose has been to suffuse the city with more whites in the name of stabilizing its economic base and achieving D.C. statehood. “The get is on to bring in more whites,” Shabazz tells me. “If Washington, D.C., was 70 percent white, it would be made a state overnight.” Shabazz interprets the $5,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers, the recent Board of Education overhaul, and the city’s move to privatize or shut down D.C. General Hospital, the city’s only public hospital, as measures designed to make the city more enticing to whites and to hurt blacks.
As he recruits for the New Black Panthers, Shabazz is plugging in to certain frustrations. The tensions between blacks and whites wrought by gentrification and neighborhood change are often palpable, and the skirmish last year over parking space in Shaw was a keen example. Residents of the neighborhood filed a civil complaint against the Metropolitan Baptist Church for using a D.C. Public Schools-owned field adjacent to Garrison Elementary School as a parking lot on Sunday, rendering the field unusable as a ballfield. The church, in the 1200 block of R Street NW, caters to mostly African-American parishioners from suburban Maryland, and its members had been parking their cars on the lot for nearly a generation. The church’s opponents in the field controversy were led by whites.
It looked to a lot of people as if the area’s new white residents were trying to muscle out the church, a 125-year-old Washington institution with 600 congregants. The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., Metropolitan’s pastor, was quick to identify the conflict in terms of race. As the dispute heated up in the courts, he unexpectedly called an end to the fighting. He told his members to stop parking on the field and announced that Metropolitan no longer had a home in the neighborhood. He soon announced plans to relocate the church.
From his pulpit, Hicks said: “I refuse to let racism make me a racist. I refuse to let those who hate me cause me to hate them,” according to the Washington Post. A few months later, at a forum with the mayor last spring, Hicks issued Williams a warning: “Unless we do something to lessen the conflict between whites and blacks…who are not learning to live with each other, we are doomed for some severe conflict within our own community,” according to the Post.
If the mayor heard the message, so did Shabazz. A few months later, he started organizing the New Black Panthers in Washington. And when he’s asked to describe what motivates his movement, Shabazz always brings up the Shaw parking battle as an example of the perils facing D.C.’s black community.
As for the mayor’s take on the Panthers, his spokesperson, Peggy Armstrong, says the group is too new to assess. “They haven’t been on the radar screen long enough to comment one way or another,” she says. “We don’t know if they are a significant force yet.”
“The black population is rapidly decreasing in Washington, D.C.!” Roach’s voice resonates from a white megaphone. It is six weeks since she became a Panther, and she’s an old hand at this now, pacing in a black beret and black quasi-military outfit in front of an abandoned, trash-filled lot at the corner of 8th and H Streets NE. “Chocolate City is on the verge of complete elimination!”
It’s a brisk Saturday afternoon in November, and the sky is gum-ball blue. Behind Roach, the rest of the District’s New Black Panthers are holding themselves at attention, ready to fan out along the H Street corridor, a venerable but run-down stretch of businesses that cater to the largely African-American neighborhood. The group of 18 makes a formidable appearance, standing arm’s length apart. Knots of onlookers at the bus stop and the other adjacent street corners watch the Panthers and Roach, who has begun reciting the party’s “Seven Steps to Saving Our Black City.”
“We need to support black businesses,” Roach announces, ticking off the measures. “We need to stop throwing trash in the streets! We need to respect the elderly! Don’t sell your homes to nonblacks! Stop all black-on-black crime and violence! Black men respect our women and raise our youth! Know your legal rights and stay out of the slave-master’s jail!”
Shabazz, meanwhile, faces the line of Panthers and issues them orders for today’s outreach and fundraising effort. Today, Shabazz is wearing a black double-breasted suit with shadow stripes, a black shirt, black tie, and a large gray fedora. For the next few hours, some people along H Street will mistake the Panthers for the Guardian Angels—which clearly bugs Shabazz. The misperception may come from the berets and the fact that the Panthers are handing out “WARNING!” fliers as they ask strangers for donations. They drop the money into black plastic buckets. Where is this money going? The Panthers say it’s to help build a headquarters and to support a food and clothing drive they are planning.
Once she runs through the flier’s seven points, Roach begins ad-libbing: “Throughout the community, they’re trying to replace black people with rich white people. Come and hear the truth to save our black community. We need to have faith and save our community. There’s too much violence in our community. They would like for us to kill one another, for us to get rid of each other. In five to 10 years, this street will not be as it is today. Black brothers and sisters will not walk around freely as they do today….”
Dexter Johnson, a 35-year-old black man in a brown leather bomber jacket and eyeglasses, listens to Roach with evident interest. “I think it’s good,” he says. “Before, Georgetown was black. Whites came in and bought up the homes. Now, older blacks are saying, ‘I shouldn’t have sold.’ We need organizations like this to bring our community together. Whites, Chinese, Orientals are together. We aren’t, because we’ve been divided since slavery. It’s happening. You look around and you see whites.”
Support City Paper!
A few minutes later, the Panthers are crossing the street, with Shabazz chanting, “Black Power!” and the group echoing it right back to him. They stop at a stuccoed shopping center on H Street where Joy, a member who declines to give her last name, leads two others on an expedition for donations. She is carrying a bucket and a stack of fliers.
Joy is a stick-thin woman with long dreadlocks cascading down from under her beret. She has a purposeful walk, and she swings her hips with the sort of exaggeration you might expect from an aspiring runway model. She, like many Panthers, is nice to me. She bothers to point out when the laces of my shoes are untied and asks if I’m cold, or just how I’m doing.
Then, she saunters into Freddy’s Subs & Fries, which is, despite its name, a fried-chicken joint, and she glides past the line of customers, who are all black, toward the counter, behind which an Asian man is taking orders.
“Hello, my queen, how are you? Hello, my brother, how are you?” she says to the black patrons with a smile as she makes her way forward. The man behind the counter looks past Joy, gazing directly at the customer at the front of the line.
“Yes?” he says to the customer.
“Would you like to give a donation?” Joy interjects.
The counter man continues looking past her.
“Would you like to give a donation?” she repeats. “All you have in here is black people. American black people. Would you like to give something?”
He continues ignoring her.
“No?” she asks.
Finally, he says: “My manager outside.”
The people in line start laughing and talking among themselves. One woman says, “He knows what she’s saying.”
“Mr. Korean, sir. Do you want these people to pay for their food?” Joy prods. To no one in particular she says: “He understands what I’m saying. All you have in here is black people. He understands pretty well. I’m not going to beg him.”
Then, with the bucket hanging from her arm, she walks out of the store and up to Shabazz. “Brother Shabazz,” Joy says, “all they have is black people in the store, and he wouldn’t give any money.”
“I’ll show you how to do that,” Shabazz retorts, and he marches into Freddy’s, followed by Joy and two other members. Looking at the people in line, he says: “Hello, my brothers and sisters. This is the New Black Panther Party—”
“Oh,” a woman waiting interrupts, “you’re not collecting for a party? I thought all this was for a dancing party.”
“No,” Shabazz booms impatiently. Then he gathers the three other Panthers into a huddle. “Black Power!” they start chanting, “Black Power! Black Power! Black Power!”
After getting sufficiently motivated, Shabazz walks up to the counter. “How are you doing?” he says to the counter man. “We’re trying to clean up the neighborhood. Can we get some help? We’re here trying to feed 1,000 people.” At that, the man hands Shabazz some cash.
Almost immediately, Joy exclaims to me with triumph: “He gave him money! He gave it to him!”
The scene nearly repeats itself at New York Fashions, a clothing store next door to Freddy’s Subs, although the Asian woman inside defies Shabazz to the end.
“Would you like to give a small donation?” Shabazz asks the worker, who is wearing glasses and has short, curly, red-colored hair. “We really need you to give back to the community that supports you.”
“No one supports me,” she says, raising her voice. “I’m just trying to make a living, and you disrespect me.”
“I’m not trying to—” Shabazz replies.
“I have a certain budget—” the woman says.
“I’m not trying to show you disrespect,” Shabazz interrupts, “but I’m asking for a donation, just a donation—”
“That’s not what you say.”
“Look,” Shabazz says, “there are many of your kind here that are taking wagon-loads of money out of our community and giving nothing back.”
“I’m working here, and I’m trying to make a living,” the woman insists.
“Are you going to give us money or not?” Shabazz says. “I don’t have time to argue about this.”
The woman busies herself behind the counter without responding.
“Then we’ll be back and boycott this place. We’re going to grind that cash register to a halt. To a halt. Mark my words.”
“Now you’re not asking me,” she says. “You’re threatening me.”
“I’m asking you nicely,” Shabazz says finally. “Are you going to help me?”
“Thanks,” Shabazz says, walking out of the store. “We’ll be back to boycott you. We’ll be back to grind that cash register to a halt. We’ll be back to stop the bloodsuckers of our community.”
Outside, Shabazz instructs Chris Stewart, a short young man with unruly sideburns, to “put them on our list.”
“You’ve got to take note of everybody that robs and sucks the blood of your community and hold them accountable,” Stewart says as he jots “New York Fashions” into a notebook, which will be used later, I’m told, to guide the Panthers’ boycott of Korean-owned stores.
Weeks later, however, the store manager reports that the Panthers have never returned.
Malik Zulu Shabazz (born Paris Lewis) is tall, about 6-foot-2, charming, reflective, and even rather gentle. You may develop a different impression of Shabazz, of course, if you catch him when he’s calling
Korean-Americans “bloodsuckers” or white people “slave-masters.” But if you set aside the demagoguery, Shabazz comes across as a likable guy, with warm brown eyes and a generous laugh. He’s a great dresser.
My first encounter with Shabazz’s Panthers begins on a cool October evening at Howard University. The Panthers are sponsoring a panel discussion at the campus’s Founders Library. When I arrive at the library, though, I find two security officers standing guard at the entrance, turning people away. The group hadn’t secured the room for the event, I am told.
Apparently, given the Panthers’ already burgeoning reputation and Shabazz’s history as an inflammatory student at Howard, it isn’t going to be easy for the group to host get-togethers at the university. Standing outside the building in the dark, Brandi Brown, the 18-year-old Howard freshman and newly minted Panther member who organized the discussion, is obviously disappointed. The event was supposed to be a rather benign talk on male-female relations in the black community. “We’re going to have to reschedule it,” Brown says.
Every Sunday, the Panthers convene a routine public meeting in a small grocery store on H Street NE. It’s a gathering that the members publicize by word of mouth and on fliers. “Join the Black Power movement,” they implore people. A few days after the failed Howard event, I decide to check one of the meetings out.
I enter Ahmed’s Market at 2:30 p.m., the time the meeting is scheduled to begin. About a dozen people are milling about somewhere in between the potato chips stand and the metal juice maker. Most are wearing the Panthers’ standard outfit—black parachute pants, black shirt, and black headgear, more often than not a beret.
There are a dozen or so plastic chairs running up the middle aisle of Ahmed’s to a microphone, and I begin to make my way to a seat. But before I can get there, I am approached by Stewart, who wants to know how in the world I found out about the event. I explain that I saw one of the fliers, and to prove it, I show him a copy. With that, almost as if I have just uttered the wrong password, he asks me to go wait outside on the sidewalk.
As I stand there on the practically deserted street, I can hear what is happening during the proceedings; the Panthers have deposited two speakers on the sidewalk, from which they blare the goings-on inside. Presumably, the idea behind the outdoor speakers is to lure passers-by into the store to see what all the hubbub is about, although I don’t think it’s working. There is no one else around.
“Black Power!” a female speaker yells into the microphone. “Black Power!” the attendees reply.
After 20 minutes of call-and-response, (“Black Power! Black Power! I am great! I am great!”), Shabazz emerges from the store. He is wearing a beret and a black suit. This is our first in-person encounter, and he strides into the sunlight gracefully, pointedly avoiding eye contact. He turns on his heel away from me and begins walking down the street. As he moves away, however, he begins quietly speaking to me, so, naturally and gamely, I follow. We stroll down the street together, and I explain why I’m there—to learn more about the Panthers. He listens and then tells me I have to leave.
“You can’t stay,” Shabazz says firmly. “The party does not allow Caucasians to witness their meetings.”
The nexus between Shabazz and the New Black Panthers lies with Khallid Abdul Muhammad, the notorious anti-Semite and black supremacist. Four years ago, Muhammad started the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense in New York. Muhammad was looking around for a political group with which to affiliate, and revivifying the Panthers—arguably the most prominent black militant organization during its heyday in the late ’60s and early ’70s—seemed a good enough idea.
The original Black Panther Party for Self Defense was started by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in October 1966. The party sought racial equity and advocated a 10-point program that included fighting for full employment and an end to police brutality. Members wore all-black outfits and often armed themselves with rifles. The underpinnings of the Black Panthers were Malcolm X’s teachings and the black-is-beautiful movement. Party members touted self-reliance and direct confrontation.
Unlike moderate civil rights groups, the Panthers advocated active self-defense in the face of police aggression; their philosophy was viewed, by some, as an antidote to the mainstream approach adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. The group grew significantly after Newton was arrested and convicted for the 1967 murder of a police officer. The Panthers ran “Free Huey” protests. In 1970, Newton’s conviction was overturned because of procedural errors during his trial. By then, the Panthers were a major political force, with chapters nationwide, coffers filled with cash, and a stash of weapons.
With racial conflicts, protests, and riots simmering across the country, the FBI largely blamed the Panthers. The police made attempts to infiltrate the group with undercover officers. In 1973, Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, Calif. He lost but received almost 40 percent of the vote. From 1974 to 1977, Elaine Brown ran the organization. Soon after, the Panthers all but folded as they endured external attacks, legal challenges, and internal divisions.
Muhammad hasn’t made much of the revivified party as of yet, although Shabazz says there are about 80 chapters in various cities nationwide. Muhammad has instead done a superior job of promoting himself. In 1993, he burst on the scene as the national spokesman for Farrakhan, giving an inflammatory speech at New Jersey’s Keane College. In his remarks, Muhammad labeled Jews the “bloodsuckers” of the black community, branded the pope a “no-good cracker,” and called on black South Africans to kill whites.
After months of public pressure, Farrakhan fired Muhammad. At the same time, however, Muhammad became a hero to extremists, a speak-truth-to-power kind of guy. None were more impressed than a 27-year-old Howard University Law School student and campus activist named Malik Zulu Shabazz.
Shabazz, as an undergraduate at Howard a few years earlier, had started Unity Nation, a Nation of Islam offshoot, and he was still the group’s president. Unity Nation was known for attracting high-profile speakers and antagonizing Asian-run businesses. In addition to bringing a solid roster of rhetoricians to campus, Shabazz led university buy-black campaigns, which he dubbed “Black Fridays.”
Shabazz wasted no time in inviting Muhammad to speak at the school. And as soon as the event was set for Feb. 23, 1994, a swarm of media attention followed, and the university was put on high alert. Muhammad drew a standing-room-only crowd, yet his speech turned out to be relatively tame. Shabazz, on the other hand, detonated a set of explosive messages.
Shabazz led the audience in an anti-Semitic refrain. News video of the speech shows that he proffered a series of questions, to which he had instructed the crowd to respond, “Jews.”
Shabazz: “Who is it that controls the media and Hollywood in America?”
Shabazz: “Who is it that has our entertainers in a vise grip and our athletes in their vise grip?”
Shabazz: “Who is it that has been spying on black leaders and spying on Martin Luther King and set up his death?”
Shabazz was roundly assailed for this performance, but just as it had done for his mentor, Muhammad, all the negative attention had a positive effect: Shabazz was suddenly noticed, and he became an established black demagogue. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen helped make Shabazz a man of lasting celebrity by deriding the rabble-rouser a few times in his space.
That same year, Barry was re-elected mayor. In the election, part of his public resurrection following his crack-cocaine bust, Barry ran as a reborn black father figure. Shabazz was drawn to his cause, and, as it happened, the young firebrand could be seen onstage behind the mayor the night of Barry’s victory speech in the primary.
In his Sept. 15, 1994, column, Cohen outed Shabazz. “Looming behind the former mayor as he declared his victory was a tall Howard University law student, Malik Zulu Shabazz,” Cohen wrote. “He is the head of a minuscule campus organization which twice this year mounted campus hate rallies.”
Running for political cover, Barry within days publicly slammed the law student in largely white Ward 3. “There is a young man hanging onto my camp, Malik Shabazz, I’ve been trying to get out of the way for a long time,” Barry said.
These were tough words for Shabazz to hear, he says now, while we’re sitting in the back of Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW (“Black owned and operated since 1958”) one Friday afternoon. Sure, the experience taught him something about the expedient nature of politicians. But more important, it revealed—in Shabazz’s mind at least—the extent to which whites in the city had come to control D.C.’s leaders. Now, Shabazz concluded, blacks seeking power had to court and win over the white constituency if they wanted to rule.
“After Richard Cohen attacked me,” Shabazz says, “Marion Barry went to Ward 3 and denounced me in five minutes. He denounced me to people who didn’t support him.” Barry, for his part, now refuses to comment on Shabazz or the New Black Panther Party.
Shabazz speaks dryly about the former mayor. “Marion absolutely fell victim to the conspiracy,” he says.
After his falling out with Barry, Shabazz ran for the D.C. Council in 1995 and 1998 as an independent. The Rev. Al Sharpton campaigned on his behalf. Still, he lost badly both times. Since 1998, he has been working as a lawyer, mostly on discrimination cases.
One of his clients has been Muhammad, who has been a source of controversy in New York as the organizer of three Million Youth Marches in Harlem. Shabazz has, among other things, acted as Muhammad’s spokesperson for the marches. And it was under Muhammad’s direction that Shabazz began organizing a chapter of the New Black Panthers in D.C. last year, just in time for Farrakhan’s Million Family March. During that rally on the National Mall, both Shabazz and Muhammad were prominent speakers.
Nine days after the Panthers visit the Asian store clerks on H Street, they’re at it again. In front of A-1 Grocery, a Korean-owned market near the Maryland border on Division Street NE, a demonstration involving Panther members and neighborhood residents is brewing.
A few days earlier, according to D.C. police, three African-American teenage girls cut school and entered A-1 Grocery. They milled about until one began walking out without paying the full amount for a 65-cent ice cream cone. A fracas between the owner and the girls ensued. The Panthers say the owner attacked the girls with a paddle and locks. The owner says the girls and some of their friends attacked him. Two of the girls went to the hospital to treat their injuries.
(Ultimately, the Metropolitan Police Department recommended that the U.S. attorney not prosecute the case, saying the videotape of the brawl was inconclusive.)
Shabazz heard about the incident from an advisory neighborhood commissioner, and today, Nov. 27, he has brought the Black Panthers to lead a demonstration against the store on the girls’ behalf. Television crews and newspaper reporters have followed.
Stewart, who is now being called the Panthers’ field marshal, has the megaphone, and he energizes the crowd, which is almost 50 strong and four rows deep. Several are holding signs that read, “Shut Em’ Down!”
As Stewart chants, the crowd echoes his every word. “Death to these bloodsuckers!” he hollers. “Shut ’em down!…No respect!…No business!…No respect!…No business!”
The media-savvy Shabazz does everything possible to make the most of the media interest. When the camera crews close in, Shabazz whispers to his lieutenants, who whip the crowd into a lather. When asked, Shabazz produces the teenagers for interviews.
As the cold afternoon fades into a frigid evening, the Panthers and the locals continue their demonstration. Panther members declare, “Death to the yellow slave-master!” and they shoo prospective A-1 customers away. All the while, the police orbit the area to make sure nothing gets out of hand, and the evening of protests along this blighted block—which is also home to two liquor stores and a Chinese takeout—ends on a high note for the Panthers. They have found a juicy issue to capitalize on, and they’re getting reels of attention.
Three days later, things do get out of hand. The protests and boycott have continued, though not at the same intensity. But sometime on the night of Nov. 30, a pipe bomb is detonated outside the store, which is also spray-painted with ethnic slurs and these words: “Burn them down, Shut them down, Black Power!”
Shabazz says the Panthers had nothing to do with the attack. But it doesn’t matter; his group’s agenda is discussed because of it. Radio talk shows and editorial pages begin weighing in on a citywide conflict between Asians and blacks. Water cooler conversation around the city homes in on the subject. Most important, the Panthers’ membership grows—to about 60 people, according to some of its leaders.
After a few days, Shabazz ends the protest and boycott when the girls and the store owner agree to try to settle the dispute on their own.
“He has a constituency,” says Sang Park, the attorney for the Korean American Grocers Association, who has been meeting with Shabazz to try to broker peace between his group and the black community. “People follow him. We realized this after the A-1 Grocery store matter.”
Tiffany Ford is a small, tired-looking 20-year-old, with thick-as-a-thumb eyeglasses and tight tapered jeans. She works at Giant, has a 1-year-old daughter, lives in Southeast, and can’t stand how blacks are faring these days. As we listen to Shabazz, on H Street NE, talk about her people’s problems, she hears things I don’t.
While Shabazz is expostulating on the demise of Chocolate City and the white takeover, here’s what Ford observes: “Everything they’re saying is the truth. We need to keep our community strong. Why are so many black people in jail? Why do women have babies that they don’t want to have? I don’t get it. It’s terrible the way things are going. I’m a young black woman, and I got a young black daughter. I’d do anything for my daughter. But I wouldn’t break the law. I work at Giant, and I work my butt off. It’s happening. Everything they are saying is right.”
Shabazz isn’t talking about out-of-wedlock births or the number of black people in jail. Yet Ford interprets it that way. It’s something Walters pointed out: People often hear what they want to. He also notes that I, as a white man, may not always understand the subtleties of black militant oratory.
I ask about a fundamental point Shabazz is clearly making: Does she agree with the idea that blacks should never sell their homes to whites?
“Well, I’m not a racist,” Ford says. “I don’t know about that. In some instances, people do try to take advantage of black people.” She pauses, and then adds: “But black people take advantage of black people, too. It’s a two-way street.”
Would she join the Panthers?
“No,” she says. “I don’t have the time.”
Shabazz uses muscular rhetoric in complex ways. His words are, at once, comforting and stirring. What’s more, like his mentors Farrakhan and Muhammad, he knows how to keep himself relevant to his audience.
“There’s a leadership transformation in the black community here,” says Donald Temple, an activist attorney associated with black causes who shared the podium with Shabazz at the September Black Panther rally. “The old guard’s getting older, and a new group is coming in. Shabazz, for good, bad, or ugly, represents a certain segment of the black-empowerment movement. He has a constituency, he’s active, and he’s committed. He is going to be raising issues that afflict the black community. And that is good.”
With the New Black Panthers, Shabazz has clearly found at least a few people willing to make the Panthers’ cause their life’s work.
“I can absolutely do more for black people as the leader of this organization than I could if I were an elected official,” Shabazz says. “I don’t know if the city is entirely ready for a talk about black power. But I’m much more effective this way. I do have influence over people in the city, believe me.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Chris Gunn.