By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
By Carolyn Hughes
By Chuck Strouse
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Weinstein
By Tessa Stuart
JASPER, TEXAS A pitiless noonday sun beat down on the heavily armed New Black Panther Party cadre, scorching screwed-tight swarthy faces, bringing irascible tempers to a boil. A live report on CNN had claimed that the militants "were armed, but their bullets had been taken out of the weapons on instructions of Texas state troopers" before they were allowed to patrol the streets of Jasper after the June 13 funeral of James Byrd Jr.
The report, by correspondent Charles Zewe, had become the catalyst for a controversy that threatened to turn Panther leader Khallid Abdul Muhammad into a laughingstock in the African American community. Blacks hungry for a radical response to the lynching of Byrd felt that Muhammad had exploited their rage and duped them with a false display of bravado.
But on this volatile Saturday two weeks ago, the battle for black public opinion was only beginning.
As teams of FBI agents, state troopers,police, and sheriff's deputies scrambled for information on the cadre's next move, six Panthers took up positions in a dirt quarry across the street from the Aubrey E. Cole Law Enforcement Center, brandishing assault rifles and shotguns in a standoff with authorities.
Fearing that the group's vow to disrupt a Ku Klux Klan "White Pride Rally" on the lawn of the county courthouse nearby might escalate into gunfire, local authorities had selected Captain Earl Pearson of the Texas Rangers and Lieutenant John Fields of the Texas Department of Public Safetyfor the task of depriving the Dallas-based militants of their weapons.
For several hours,however, disarmament talks between the militants and Pearson and Fields--veteran African American lawmen--deadlocked on accusations by Muhammad that the FBI, sheriff, and police chief had engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the recently combined New Black Panther Party and New Black Muslim Movement.
Muhammad, supreme minister of the party and movement, harangued Pearson and Fields over the CNN report, which the Panthers and Muslims steadfastly denied. It was a public-relations nightmare for Muhammad, the controversial former Nation of Islam official who hopes to draw young blacks from more than 300 cities to his Million Youth March planned for September 5 in New York City.
Shunned by NOI leader Louis Farrakhan since his 1994 dismissal from the black Muslim sect for making a "racist" and "anti-Semitic" speech,Muhammad is currently locked in a dispute with the rival, Atlanta-based Million Youth Movement favored by Farrakhan. Organizers of that movement will gather in Atlanta from September 4 though 7. The groups clashed in April at that city'sannual Freaknik spring break festival as each tried to drum up support for their event among black students.
Concerned about Muhammad's growing influence among youth gangs and his desire to build a revolutionary army, Farrakhan publicly warned Muhammadthat "Allah will be quick in taking retribution" against him if he channels discontent into violence.
"While the Mayor and City Officials in Atlanta seem to be acceptable to the Million Youth Movement, this more than likely is not the case in New York," Farrakhan wrote in the June 2 issue of The Final Call, the NOI's newspaper. "Therefore, I would advise the organizers of the march in New York to make sure that you have dotted all the legal I's and crossed all the legal T's for you do not wish to give Mayor Guiliani and some of the racist New York City police an opportunity to exercise their hatred against our youth."
Supporters of Muhammad (the theocratic gangsta rapper on Ice Cube's Death Certificatealbum) say that Farrakhan, who issued the call for the original Million Man March in 1995, feels threatened by Muhammad's popularity among militant black youth. Why, they ask, would Farrakhan allow The Final Call to describe the Panther's foray into Jasper as an "ammunition-less rifle parade . . . escorted by local police"if Farrakhan himself weren't trying to embarrass Muhammad?
As he argued with Pearson and Fields, Muhammad felt that no amount of government propaganda or media disinformation could suppress the overwhelming significance of armed black men seeking revenge and justice in Jasper. Flanked by Aaron Michaels, minister of defense, Quannel X, minister of information, and Malik Z. Shabazz, the party and movementattorney, Muhammad invited a Voice reporter into the dirt quarry to "monitor and document" their face-off with the Texas lawmen.
"The shotguns are loaded today, they were loaded the last time we came, and as far as you know, they're loaded everywhere we go," declared Muhammad, hoping to exact a concession from the antsy negotiators.
"As far as I knew, they were," Fields responded cautiously.
"If they [the bullets]were taken outta the guns, the police officers did not take them out--I'll put it like that," Pearson interjected as the dialogue took on an edge of verbal jousting.
When Fields acknowledged that disarming the militants "was just a rumor that somebody" started, Pearson again interrupted: "Wait! Wait! Wait! Lemme clarify that. We did . . . not take the weapons from them to inspect them nortake the shells outta them. If the weapons were unloaded, they were unloaded by the Panthers prior to them getting here. . . . "
"As far as you know they were?" asked Muhammad.
"You told me they were," Pearson retorted, upping the ante in the psychological warfare. "You're a man of your word. I'll have to say that they were. But I didn't check them out so I can't say 100 per cent--one way or another--that they were."