Justice Official Hits New Black Panther Party Voting-Rights Probe : It's All Politics Justice Department official Christopher Coates accused colleagues of unwillingness to crack down on charges of voter discrimination by blacks against whites, citing the New Black Panther Party case. The charges were denied by department officials.
NPR logo Justice Official Hits New Black Panther Party Voting-Rights Probe

Justice Official Hits New Black Panther Party Voting-Rights Probe

Christopher Coates
C-SPAN screenshot/C-SPAN

The New Black Panther Party case, made famous through a viral YouTube video, was back in the news Friday.

A Justice Department official, a critic of the agency's handling of the alleged Philadelphia, Pa. voter intimidation case that was one of the stranger incidents to emerge on Election Day 2008, appeared before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

The case involved the presence of two African-American men, dressed in berets and combat boots and apparently members of a fringe radical group called the New Black Panther Party, in front of a Philadelphia polling station.

One of the men carried what looked like a police baton. Their presence appeared to some, not unreasonably, to be a case of voter intimidation.

Christopher Coates accused Obama Administration officials of not enforcing the Voting Rights Act in instances where those committing voter intimidation and discrimination were black and the victims white.

Coates charged Justice Department officials with "gutting" the New Black Panther Party case by dropping accusations against some of the accused African Americans.

That was done out of retaliation for certain Justice officials pursuing charges of black discrimination against white voters in the first place, he said.

Those officials were angry that reverse discrimination charges were brought not only in the Pennsylvania case but in a Mississippi case prosecuted by the Bush Administration's Justice Department's Civil Rights division, the Ike Brown case, Coates said.

In the Brown case, Bush-era Justice Department officials prosecuted black local officials in Noxubee County, Miss., a majority black Mississippi jurisdiction, for discriminating against white voters.

Among other actions, black officials were said to have excluded whites from the local Democratic Party's decision-making.

Coates said:

"It is my opinion that the disposition of the Panther case was ordered because the people calling the shots in May 2009 were angry at the filing of the Brown case and angry at the filing in the Panther case.

"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."

After naming several of the department officials, including Loretta King who at the time was acting Civil Rights Division chief, and "liberal" groups with influence within the voting-rights section, Coates said:

... (They) believe, incorrectly but vehemently, that enforcement of the protections of the Voting Rights Act should not be extended to white voters but should be extended only to protecting, racial, ethnic and language minorities.

The final disposition of the Panther case ... was caused by this incorrect view of civil rights enforcement. And it was intended to send a message, in my opinion, to people inside and outside the Civil Rights division. That message is that the filing of voting cases, like the Ike Brown case and the New Black Panther Party case would not continue in the Obama Administration.

Not surprisingly, the Obama Administration rejected the charges. The Washington Post reported:

The Justice Department said in a statement that it had not authorized Coates's testimony and that Coates, who has worked in the U.S. attorney's office in South Carolina since January, is not "an appropriate witness to discuss the Civil Rights Division's current enforcement policies."

Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, called the civil rights commission probe a "so-called investigation" that is "is thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.''

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

And she added that the Obama administration has "changed" what internal watchdogs called a politicized atmosphere in the Civil Rights Division during the Bush administration.

"The politicization that occurred in the Civil Rights Division in the previous administration has been well documented by the [Justice Department] Inspector General, and it was a disgrace to the great history of the division.'' Schmaler said. "We have reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division.''