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Black Panthers Say Their Name Has Been Stolen

Aging radicals take on an anti-Semitic group that calls itself the 'New Black Panther Party.'

November 12, 2002|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Much has changed in the 36 years since the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded here and rose to national prominence.

The Oakland traffic cop who came to the front door on a recent afternoon just wanted to shake the hand of Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, who recently moved back to his hometown. Forget about the parking ticket he held in one hand. This was all "Yes, sir!" and "Glad to meet you, Mr. Seale."

"We're senior citizens now," shrugged Seale, a little embarrassed by his new, respected, elder persona.

But just because the Panthers are graying, said the 65-year-old Seale, who is recovering from heart bypass surgery, doesn't mean they should watch helplessly as their reputation is threatened by "racist" usurpers calling themselves the "New Black Panther Party."

Seale and other founders of the original, Oakland-born Black Panther Party are seeking to protect their legacy in courts and the U.S. patent office. At stake is a small-scale, politically tinged business operation that includes a Black Panther clothing line, "legacy tours" of Oakland police battlegrounds, college speaking engagements and a rap group created by the offspring of former militants.

"By using the Panther logo, which is our brand name," complained former Panther chief-of-staff David Hilliard, "this other group is getting instant validation for its racial hatred and anti-Semitism."

Founded in Dallas in 1989, the New Black Panther Party gained notoriety through the anti-Semitic rhetoric of its former national chairman, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a spokesman for the Nation of Islam who joined the New Black Panther group in 1994. Muhammad died last year.

The upstart group made headlines again after Sept. 11, 2001, when its new chairman, Washington, D.C., attorney Malik Zulu Shabazz, described the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center as payback for America's "past sins and current sins against the people of the Earth."

Shabazz, 35, accused by the Anti-Defamation League of "virulent anti-Semitism," became a regular on Fox News and other TV outlets after the attacks.

This notoriety rankles the original Panthers, who say Shabazz is polluting and distorting the historic Panther cause.

"There is a generation of young people," said Hilliard, who conducts $20 guided bus tours of Panther landmarks in Oakland, including the site of the first Panther-pioneered free breakfast program, "who confuse us with these guys on television who promote racial hatred and anti-Semitism and vigilantism."

The original Panthers, Hilliard said, practiced coalition politics, forming political alliances with the Peace & Freedom Party, the gay liberation movement, Brown Berets and the United Farm Workers, to name a few.

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Criticized Mandela

In contrast, New Panther leader Shabazz opposes interracial political coalitions and was fiercely critical of Nelson Mandela for working with white politicians in South Africa.

"This dishonors and denigrates our history," said Hilliard, who heads the Huey P. Newton Foundation, named for the Panther co-founder who was slain in 1989. "It also impacts our support base as a business, because our politics are green, not black. The cat was black, not our politics."

Seale, who still sports a beret but now wears a wool sport coat instead of his trademark leather jacket, said the post-Sept. 11 posturing by Shabazz and others has cut into his public speaking business.

"This year I've only got two engagements," said Seale, who commands $5,000 an appearance on the college lecture tour. In recent years, the former Panther leader and Chicago 7 defendant said, he had averaged 10 to 12 lectures a year.

"When this group started to show up on Fox News and calling into C-SPAN supporting Al Qaeda, supporting the Taliban, supporting Islam, supporting the Palestinian suicide bombings," said Seale, "it slowed my business down. I've lost $20,000 to $25,000 in basic income that I would normally get in the fall."

To fight back, Seale and Hilliard, along with former Panther leader Elaine Brown and Fredrika Newton, Huey's widow, hired Oakland attorney Andrew M. Gold to represent them in a copyright, trademark and brand-name infringement action against the New Black Panther Party.

Public comments by New Black Panther Party leaders have vacillated between attempts to mend fences with the original Panthers and dismissals of Seale and others as tired has-beens who are apologists for Israel.

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Changes Ahead

There is some indication that the pressure from Seale and other original Panthers is having results.

New Black Panther leader Shabazz said in a telephone interview last week that the party plans a national meeting in February when it expects "to seriously consider changing the organization or its name." The party Web site, which previously featured photographs of Huey P. Newton, has been taken off the Internet for "repairs."

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