As the Trayvon Martin case crawls closer to justice with the announcement that the 17-year-old's shooter, George Zimmerman, was charged with second degree murder, one can't deny the impulse to survey the long and dogged road we took to get to this point.
First there was the fleeting notion that the country would come together over this tragedy. Then things quickly got ugly, as we all duked it out over what this murder was really about. Was it race or the race card? The power of the gun lobby or the right to stand your ground? The bullet-inviting nature of cotton hoodies or—err, that one has no counter point because it was just stupid...
To me, it's about race. But I'm black. So you can take that however you want. The way I see it, things are rising to a tipping point with these kinds of killings. Which is why it makes perfect sense that a group like the New Black Panther Party, who was founded way back in 1989, seems to have emerged out of nowhere right now. Given the seemingly innumerable and never-ending slew of unarmed shootings of black men long before, and even SINCE Trayvon, the NBPP's recent prominence is an outgrowth of the feeling many blacks have that they are under attack in this country with no protection from the system.
Since the Martin shooting, there has been a lot of stuff written about the New Black Panthers, who are agonizingly uncool in comparison to the original. It's kind of crazy that they've gotten so much credit considering they have a website that looks like this, and they are not even allowed around Trayvon's family. People first took notice of the party when members put a $10,000 bounty up for the citizen's arrest of George Zimmerman at the end of March. The contentious group made news again a few days ago on April 9th when the Chief of Staff of the Tampa NBPP, Michelle Williams, helped support critics' accusations of racism by getting caught on tape talking about fighting a race war:
"I just want to say to all the listeners on this phone call, that if you are having any doubt about getting suited, booted and armed up for this race war that we’re in that has never ended, let me tell you something… the thing that’s about to happen to these honkies, these crackers, these pigs, these pink people, these motherfucking purple people… it has been long overdue."
Ultimately, Michelle ended up on TV crying her heart out in remorse for her statements:
That incident was yet another blow to what little legitimacy the New Black Panthers have garnered. Their mission and claim to the Panther name has been called into question by everyone from a guy at the Washinton Post, to Anderson Cooper and even the Huey P. Newton Foundation. A family member of George Zimmerman has even petitioned Attorney General Eric Holder for the arrest of the Panthers for hate crimes against Zimmerman.
I got on the phone with Michelle an hour or so before the charge on Zimmerman was officially announced to talk about whether the case is on the right track and if she felt that her and the NBPP were actually helping or hurting Trayvon's case by just existing and talking to journalists:
VICE: What do you think about George getting charged?
Michelle Williams: Although I'm very angry about some of the laws in Florida, I’m hopeful that the judicial system won’t fail the parents of Trayvon Martin. I stand in solidarity with Miss Fulton—Trayvon’s mother Sybrina—to say that we just want him to rest. Let's let this play out in court so that Zimmerman can be tried before a judge and jury of his peers.
Do you think you and your organization have led the way for this charge to be filed?
No. The New Black Panther Party takes no credit for anything. But we do stand alongside the outcry that came from around the nation—from every parent, man, woman, child, pastor, priest, and reverend that had a hand in bringing us to where we are this evening.
In a perfect world, how should George Zimmerman go out? Should they dump him in a tank full or put him in front of a firing squad?
Again, I want to see him tried before a judge and jury of his peers. If the judge and jury say he’s in prison for the rest of his life, then he’s in prison for the rest of his life. If they say that he should be given the death sentence, well, Florida supports the death sentence and so do I.
Do you think this is all political theater and in the end Zimmerman will walk?
I really do see that happening. I don’t know how much you follow Florida news, but a couple years ago, Jennifer Porter, a young white female, was driving her car and ran over four black kids and killed two. She didn't do one day in jail, she got three years of probation. Three years of probation for killing two kids!
When this whole Trayvon Martin case started to unfold, the first thing I heard everyone in Tampa start screaming was “This is not going to be any different than when Jennifer Porter ran over those four black kids and killed two of them.” I know I made a statement in the media that was very damning, but you know what I did? I have gotten the attention of the local whites here in Tampa—they’re in shock right now because they’re just like, “Miss Williams, for you to say that, I know you’re angry. How can we help you fix this?”
You don't think it was polarizing?
It’s sad that our words had to be so harsh.
I can understand how emotional you were. We all are. But were you being real? I kind of took you guys for armchair revolutionaries. I mean if it came to rioting or fighting, would the New Black Panther Movement really be in the streets?
I’ve gotten phone calls from the police department, from the Tampa Chief of Police herself, and I assured her that no violence will be sparked by the New Black Panther Party.
So the New Black Panther Party will not engage in any property destruction or violence as a form of protest?
Do you think the New Black Panther Party is even relevant anymore? Where do you see yourselves in the struggle?
The one thing I can say comfortably is that the New Black Panther Party are not cowards. We’re saying what has been told to us in private meetings, behind closed doors, from black leaders that are afraid to speak, because they’re worried about their political position, they’re worried about their political jobs, they’re worried about their regular jobs, they’re worried about their family members. We’re worried about all of that also, but we were not cowards. We took a stand on what we thought. We said, “Hey look! This is wrong."
Things could have been toned down. But the media will never play you what lead me to make those controversial statements. They don't play the part where the white caller that preceded us called us a bunch of niggers and coons. I just couldn't take it anymore, Wilbert. I just let go.
That's understandable. I haven't heard the full tape. What do you think about the open letter from the Huey P. Newton Foundation, which calls you guys reactionaries and says that you denigrate the Black Panther Name by having hatred for whites, instead of being guided by your love for blacks. Pretty harsh stuff.
I can honestly say that I respect the comments against the party. Everyone has a right to speak and I'm not going to bash them. My question is, were there any former founding members that were invited to take part in the New Black Panther Party? These are things I'm still looking into myself...
Yeah, the letter says the new party really has nothing to do with the old one... A lot of those guys and girls are actually dead. Tell me, exactly how long have you been in the NBPP?
I've only been in the party for a year. So, I'm kind of a rookie. Whether or not I will remain a part of the party, that is still questionable. I think that they have something relevant that they want to do, but I want to see them implement a plan. I want to know more about what they are going to do about homelessness, the educational system, and the housing projects.
So you don't even know if you will be a party member in the future?
No I don't.
You have a pretty high position to be doubting the party. And you got it pretty quick, too. Is that a function of there being no one that wants to join the party, or are you just really good at what you do?
I went through a whole entire interview process. They dug into my background, and everything. They looked at the work I've done not just here in Tampa, Florida but abroad. So, I've certainly paid my dues.
What can help make the NBPP better at addressing the issues of blacks?
The party will be better with an agenda. If we can implement our direct action plan on how we want the black man, woman, and child to move forward and get out of the pits that blacks have placed themselves in, this would be one hell of a movement.
But seriously, you guys really do hate white people don't you? You can tell me.
No. I can speak for my chapter in saying that we are committed to servicing my community as a whole. If there is an injustice that happens to anyone here, regardless of their race, color, or creed we'll stand up. That's why so many white Americans in Tampa were shocked by my words the other day. What's important is that the people of Florida are talking about racism now. We know that racism is never going to end, but in Tampa we are really trying to address it.
Do you think that you've lost the **credibility**** to address racism in a way that can make any sort of real impact? Can you change anyone's mind at this point?** I know I can and if my comrades in the Black Panther Party have the same agenda, we will address these issues together. If they don't have an agenda and can't say, "We will stand with you Michelle WIlliams and fight this war on racism," then I'm done.
**Hey, you've got to stand your ground. Thanks for talking to me. **
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