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.”
Visibly annoyed, Muhammad turned his back on Pearson and Fields and shouted to a group of Panthers milling about an old Chevy Suburban. “Brother Robert! Brother Robert! Will you come here a second with one of the assault weapons?” Muhammad wanted to demonstrate that the guns were loaded.
Brother David, leader of a Dallas Panthers unit, responded instead. “Could you . . . release a shell from this shotgun?” asked Muhammad, indicating with hand signals thathe did not want the weapon test-fired. Pearson adjusted the bone-handled Colt .45 on his gunbelt and seemed to stiffen as an anxious Brother David aimedthe rifle toward the ground, released the safety pin, and ejected a bullet.
“He needs to point it to the right,” Pearson instructed.
“Point it straight up!” Fields muttered, gesturing nervously. “Jesus!” he added, motioning toward the marksman and urging him to point the weapon “in the air”–high above the spectators’ heads.
Pearson, gritting his teeth, complained that Brother David had placed everyone in a potentially dangerous situation. Had the gun accidentally discharged, the exploding bullet would have whizzed off like shrapnel “and everybody on this side [indicating where the reporter was standing next to him and Fields] woulda gotten shot.”
Brother David’s alleged mishandling of the gun reinforced the cops’ fears about the potential deadliness of sophisticated assault weapons in the hands of trigger-happy militants. “When we get over there, if need be, I wanna be able to . . . speak with you, just like now,” Fields pleaded with Muhammad.
“If the need arises,” Pearson chimed in. “You gotta have someone to talk to.” Muhammad’s grimmace morphed into an ugly grin. Was it because of the cops’ condescending demeanor or their demeaning implication that he should run to them if theKlan proved too much for the Panthers and Muslims?Fields hastened to explain that he was only trying to give Muhammad a “heads up” on suspicious Klan activity since Muhammad had informed authorities that the white supremacists were “talking about taking up arms” to confront them.
“I wanna let you know . . . ‘Hey, these guys gettin’ ready to do this,’ ” Fields continued.
“Within reason, I’ll wait,” Muhammad said, but in the same breath he added that “in life-threatening situations” he would not defer to authorities “over no long period of time.”
The Klan rally had gotten under way, and Muhammad, eager to put on a show of raw black power, tacitly agreed to work with Pearson and Fields since, as he put it,the Panthers and Muslims would not be dealing directly with Jasper police chief Harlan Alexander and sheriff Billy Rowles, who “have need and reason to save face for election purposes [and] put out that report that the guns were empty.”(Alexander could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the sheriff said, “We were told the guns were not loaded.”) But as he left, Muhammad warned Pearson and Fields that the Panthers and Muslims would not be expressing outrage on cue from them. “Again,” Muhammad reiterated, “we expect you to carry out your duties as you feel is necessary and I hope that you understand that we feel that [we] have to do what we will do.”
Although a potentially lethal scenario had been laid out for him by black intermediaries, Khallid Abdul Muhammad had no intention of “obeying cracker laws” in Jasper. Upon his signal, the Panthers and Muslims jumped in their vehicles and sped to the vicinity of the Klan rally.
At a rendezvous point, where everyone could hear the rhetoric of Imperial Wizard Darrell Flinn of the Knights of the White Kamellia booming over loudspeakers, the militants got out of their vehicles and ran through a plan of action that neither Pearson, Fields, nor the throng of reporters and TV crews were privy to. By then, a crowd of about 50 blacks had joined their ranks.
Muhammad and Aaron Michaels ordered hand-picked members of the cadre to remain behind with their guns while, they, Malik Shabazz, and Quannel X scouted for loopholes in the tight security net. Suddenly, Muhammad and the crowd began charging down the street, chanting, “Black power!” and overrunning security checkpoints. The demonstrators mounted the grassy knoll of the courthouse square, coming within a few yards of the enemy, who were bedecked in their traditional coned hoods and robes.
“Bring ‘n da Glocks! Bring ‘n da noiz!” chanted a teenager who said he was a Jasper High School student. If the Panthers gave him a shotgun, he said, he would “run right up in there an’ put more holes through ’em devils’ hoods.” When a black man, who was not with Muhammad’s group, shouted at the Klan, “Go home! Go home! Your time is up. Get outta here!” Klan leaders stopped speaking and began to blast rock music.
The high school student countered with “Somebody’s Gotta Die,” a gangsta rap by the Notorious B.I.G: ” ‘[R]e-tal-iation for this one won’t be min-i-mal,’ ” he intoned, reciting the appropriate bellicose lyrics in the slain rapper’s hit song. ” ‘Somebody’s gotta die. . . . If I go, you gotta go. Let da gunshots flow.’ ”
Meanwhile, Muhammad kept challenging the riot-gear-clad cops, shoving and pushing as they pushed back, trying to break through their ranks to get his hands on the “nigga hataz.”
“Make way for the hangin’ judge!” a black youth shouted. Shabazz snatched a bullhorn from a Panther protester and proclaimed: “Black power!” As the crowd responded, a black woman demanded, “Take ya hood off!” Said a white man: “Cowards!”
Unable to break through, Muhammad finally spun around and told his followers, “Let’s go get the guns!” He returned to the rally in time to hear Police Chief Alexander shout an order to remove the Klan from the lawn. Before reluctantly agreeing to leave, the imperial wizard–who told reporters earlier that his group had been invited by several local residents–lobbed this parting shot: “African Americans break the law and have their way. If you don’t wake up, you’ll lose your lives.”
As the Klan departed from the courthouse lawn, Muhammad askedhis posse, “Are you with me? We can take the no-good bastards!” and the group began chasing after the retreating Klan with all the bedlam of a fox hunt. Believing the Klan were headed for two white buses parked behind the courthouse, Muhammad and the militants raced to the parking lot. There Muhammad came face-to-face with the burly police chief, Harlan Alexander.
The chief and other cops surrounded Muhammad, isolating him from the crowd, which was attempting to block some Klan members from getting into their cars. “Get your hands off me, man!” Muhammad told Alexander, who had grabbed Muhammad’s shirt when he tried to break free.
Both men stared at each other. “Am I breaking the laws being here?” Muhammad finally asked, shattering the tense silence.
“You will be if you’re gonna cause problems,” the chief replied.
“Am I breaking the law now?” Muhammad demanded to know.
“Khallid, Sir, I’m asking you not to,” Alexander pleaded, his lips twitching, eyes reddening. The chief, law enforcement sources claimed afterward, was trying desperately to avoid bloodshed. But for the outnumbered Panthers and Muslims a shootout with authorities was a possibility if Muhammad had been arrested or injured.
“Don’t let ’em get into the cars like that!” Muhammad shouted, tiptoeing behind the human wall that imprisoned him. Then he looked around him, apparently realizing that his followers could die–not in the desired confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan but senselessly, at the hands of gung-ho redneck cops. He decided not tofuel the rage anymore.
“No deals cut on the side,” he announced to assure his followers he had not punked out. “Maybe we should let ’em out,” he reasoned. “Maybe we should let ’em out.”
That “strategic move,” as Muhammad would later describe the concession that liberated him from his captors, broke the standoff with Alexander.
As they headed back to their cars, Quannel X informedMuhammad of the arrest of a Panther who allegedly had knocked a white man off his motorbike. “He didn’t touch nobody so they shouldn’tarrest him,” Quannel said.
“The man fell off his bike,” Muhammad fretted, hinting at the defense he intended to advocate. (The Panther, it was reported later, had tried to impede the departure of a Klan member. He was charged with disorderly conduct and released.)
On the way back, Malik Shabazz led protesters in chanting, “Fuck the Klan!” Muhammad paced the street silently, occasionally smiling when reporters asked, “What have you accomplished here?” The man who said he had come to Jasper with “our God and our guns” knew that he had accomplished something bigger than many of his black critics are afraid to admit–he had stood up for their rights.
Research assiatance: W. Michelle Beckles