It was really a lot like a Marx Brothers movie--except that these guys had guns.
"Get him out of here, man, before I put a cap in his ass," said Rollie Dean Brazier, defense minister of the New Black Panther Party.
Brazier--formerly known as Rolan de Brazier and more recently known as Najee Ntume--was standing in front of the Rosa Parks Mall, formerly called the West Cliff Mall, in Oak Cliff.
It was 6:40 p.m. last Wednesday, and I had just gotten out of my car, and it was clear that Brazier--holding a serious-looking shotgun and strutting a chestful of extra ammo--had not come to shop. He and his fellow New Black Panthers, dressed in trademark black military garb, had come here to pour some more gasoline on the racial skirmishing they'd helped start seven months ago over at the Dallas school board.
Since that time, the New Black Panthers had managed to go from being backup singers to John Wiley Price and his Warriors--leaders of the protests at Townview magnet school--to being the star attraction in the current push to unseat new Dallas school-board president Bill Keever. The New Panthers had stolen the spotlight on May 23 when Keever, presiding over his very first meeting, had decided to set a new tone for his administration by insisting that the New Panthers, who like to stand at public meetings for obvious reasons, sit down. They, of course, refused. Keever called in the cops. In the ensuing melee, three Panthers were wrestled to the ground and arrested.
Which, naturally, drove the New Panthers' media currency way, way up--especially after the Panthers threatened to show up at the next school-board meeting on June 11 with more than 100 shotgun-toting men in tow. The board canceled its meeting.
It was 48 hours later; the city was shaking in its boots and the national media were circling like buzzards in the hopes that things turned ugly. The New Black Panthers--clearly giddy at all this newfound attention--had scheduled this mall "rally" to keep the pot boiling.
In about an hour, the Panthers would hold a press conference inside the mall to announce that the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam's security force, would formally join them in their war on Keever. The Fruit was led by former Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad, a strident black nationalist from New York with a national reputation for saying incredibly disparaging things about white people, especially Jews and gays.
And Brazier and his fellow Panthers were waiting outside the mall for Muhammad--who had done a road show with the New Panthers in arson-plagued Greenville--to arrive so they could formally escort him inside the aged, shabby-looking building, where the Nation of Islam keeps its local headquarters.
Until then, defense minister Brazier would have to settle for threatening an unknown, unemployed black resident of West Dallas named William Hopkins. Hopkins had been watching the whole school-board saga unfold on his TV, and he had decided to come to the Panthers' rally to offer his perspective on the events at hand.
"I've been sitting in the house in West Dallas--just a poor black guy, didn't have a job or nothin'. I just came out," Hopkins told me. "I just told them, 'Let's try to talk this over. Let's put the guns down.'"
Lest you think Hopkins is some kind of diplomatic hero, he'd also come to the mall to get some advice from the New Black Panthers on a problem he'd been having with DISD. Hopkins' son had been robbed and knifed by a fellow Kimball High School student--and even though the incident had occurred off campus, and even though the Hopkins family didn't initially report the incident to the police, and even though Hopkins had been conspicuously absent, according to the school principal, from his son's life in the past--Hopkins had made repeated, unannounced visits to the school last semester to loudly demand that school officials take action against the offending "Mexican kid." On his last visit four months ago, Hopkins was arrested the minute he walked in the door.
Hopkins had brought to the Panthers rally a file full of well-worn documents related to his case. But none of the Panthers wanted to hear it--least of all Brazier, who must have been having a bad gun day.
"Get rid of him, man, before I tear him a new asshole," Brazier said angrily. "I'm not in the mood. I don't want to hear it."
He also didn't want to be asked about it.
"No--no matter what you say," Brazier barked at me as I walked up to the group with my little reporter pad. "This is a private conversation." I took one step closer. "No! See your way out--right back over to where you came from."
As I turned away, the mall's Muslim security guard, Brother Hakim Muhammad--a bald-headed guy in a tight beige suit, a white shirt, and a tiny bow tie--yanked Hopkins aside. "I heard all the way inside the building that they want to shoot you for what you said," Muhammad told him. "Anything that happens to you, it's on me. And I don't have an insurance policy. Hey, it's the wrong place. And the wrong time."
"I'm willing to die for the blacks," said Hopkins, a dramatic fellow dressed in an outfit reminiscent of silk lounging pajamas--big billowing shirt, heavy gold necklace, funny blue shoes.
"If you're going to kill some white people, that's different," Muhammad told him.
"If the New Black Panthers have to kill me to talk..."
"Don't do it on my time," Muhammad responded angrily. "Do it on your time."
"...This is a public place," Hopkins said.
"You're creating a nuisance, brother," Muhammad said.
"...Call the motherfucking police," Hopkins said as Hakim Muhammad walked away. "I'm going to jail right now. I am going to jail."
Hopkins, seeing that a newspaper reporter was still hanging onto his every word, turned to me and threw out his arms magnanimously. "I'm willing to die right here for the coloreds," Hopkins said, referring back to Brazier's threat to "put a cap" in his behind. "He told me he's going to shoot me in my ass."
But before anybody could shoot him in the ass, the night's main attraction, Khalid Muhammad, glided up to the front door in a very nice black sedan. The mall security guard, Hakim Muhammad, snapped to attention; a rear car door flew open, and a swarm of dark-suited, bow-tied Muslims emerged, all walking briskly toward the mall's interior as they surrounded Khalid--an astonishingly good-looking man with a regal carriage and a hell of a colorful jacket.
The mall's front door flew open, and Khalid and his protectors burst through like a Secret Service detail on a deadly mission--"Somebody on the left! Somebody on the right!" shouted a Panther as they blew through. It began to dawn on me that I hadn't seen nothin' yet.
While Dallas expends time and energy and political capital trying to figure out ways to appease five punks with two guns--the number of New Black Panthers at the big rally last Wednesday--serious issues of race afflict the country.
The burning of black churches across the South is a real issue--an horrendous act that will only be stopped when everyone focuses on apprehending the hateful, lunatic people who are doing it. In contrast, the suitability of Bill Keever as president of the Dallas school board is, at best, interesting dinner conversation and--if Keever continues behaving as clownishly as he has these past few weeks--certain to remedy itself in short order.
Incredibly, though, these two stories have become intertwined, mostly because the New Black Panthers with their impossible-to-ignore shotguns and assault rifles have run hither and yon screaming equally loudly about both.
Which is why a crisis-sized news crew from CBS News attended last Wednesday's Panthers rally at the Rosa Parks Mall. Two women in the CBS crew--one from 48 Hours--joined me in line to be searched for weapons.
As everyone entered the room, men and women were separated by sex and patted down behind a screen by people who were definitely not law-enforcement officers. Seeing as how this was a mall--and the only people who seemed to have an obvious weapons fetish were the hosts--I had to ask why in the world this was necessary, and who in the world was doing it.
"The African-American people who are having this," a short, wiry woman who was obviously in charge of the patting replied. "You are in our house. If you don't like it, then you can leave."
Whose house? The mall owner's? The Black Panthers'? The Fruit of Islam's? And who was she? What was her name, and who did she work for?
"I am who I am," the woman told me. "I'm a citizen. And if you don't like it--and you don't think it's right--then you need to leave. And as you go out the door, I'll give you my name."
So I was searched. And my bag was searched. When it was over, and I was walking toward the tables where the press conference was going to be held, one of the CBS women quietly said to me, "You know, I thought that was a little strange, too."
Yeah. Just a little. But it was just a preview of what else was in store for us.
The event was to consist of questions and answers between the media and four people who were seated at a head table in front of 50 folding chairs. Those four people, flanked by their security guard, included Khalid Muhammad; a robed Fruit of Islam member named Ashra Kwesi; New Black Panthers president Aaron Michaels; and Thomas Muhammad, a protege of DISD board member Kathlyn Gilliam and a columnist for the Minority Opportunity News.
Michaels spoke first, setting the tone for the evening by making a general, sweeping denunciation of "the media, the FBI, the ATF, and...the Klan." A KRLD radio reporter asked him for a comment on the original Black Panthers' denunciation of his group earlier that day, including that the original Panthers were considering suing Michaels and his friends for using their name.
"I am who I am 24 hours a day," Michaels responded, employing the crypto-speak that appeared to be popular among this group. "I have nothing to say--no comment about my brothers and sisters anywhere."
Then Khalid Muhammad got some nebulous question posed to him. It was so nebulous that I didn't much focus on the answer until Muhammad, smiling broadly all the way through his remarks, said, apropos of nothing--"I almost said Jew York City. But I won't say that. It might make someone upset. I almost said Jew-nited States of America. But I won't say that. It might make someone upset."
At this point, I looked around the room in order to size up this so-called "rally" that had been prominently mentioned in a front-page story in The Dallas Morning News. There were five New Black Panthers. There were 11 Muslims--about half from the mall and half from the Fruit of Islam. Easily outnumbering them were members of the media--22 people to be exact--recording every stupid word for posterity. There were TV reporters, radio reporters, newspaper reporters, newspaper photographers, TV cameramen, TV producers, and a reporter for the Associated Press. The Morning News alone had two reporters and two photographers on the scene.
Almost incidentally, there were also spectators, but--considering the News plug, all the media coverage the New Panthers had received, and the New Panthers' big call-to-arms threat--there weren't many. Not quite 40 by my count, and for the most part, they were young people in their teens and '20s. Sprinkled among them were some middle-age folks; three in particular were nicely dressed and looked like yuppie professionals. Of all of them, the people who stood out most were two older women in the second row who cackled loudly and appreciatively at every nasty comment uttered by the head table.
And from the minute the "Jew" comments were uttered, there were plenty of nasty comments--some directed at any nonblack reporter who dared ask a question. (Black reporters were respectfully addressed as "brother" or "sister.")
"We will not allow a devil like you to ask a divisive question like that," Khalid Muhammad said to Lance Liguez, a radio reporter from WBAP whom Muhammad flippantly addressed as "Bob or Bill." Liguez had dared ask Muhammad to comment on reports that the people of Greenville hadn't much liked the recent Muhammad-Michaels militia visit.
Later on, AP reporter Melissa Williams committed an even greater faux pas by asking Aaron Michaels how many members were in the New Black Panthers organization. After sarcastically addressing her as "Suzy," Michaels replied: "The devil here wants to know how many of you do we have to contend with. Is it just a few niggers or is it a whole lot more we have to contend with?"
Bill Keever, though, caught the brunt of it--though he wasn't there to hear it. (This year it was Keever. Two years ago, it was Dallas City Councilman Paul Fielding: In a Dallas speech, Khalid Muhammad called Fielding a "hook-nosed, bagel-eating, lox-eating, Johnny-come-lately-perpetrating-a-fraud so-called Jew.")
Keever is a "Hitler dictator." He is a "devil." He had to go. He had to resign as president of the school board. And the New Panthers and the Fruit of Islam would see that it happened; that was their promise.
"We intend to turn up the temperature--the pressure, the heat--on Bill Keever's backside," Michaels said. "And we intend to make it so hot until he has to resign. If he thinks the pressure's on, he hasn't seen anything yet."
But, truthfully, Keever's not the problem. And Fielding wasn't the problem. It's clear that there's a much bigger problem to tackle here. "We must understand the nature of the white man," Muhammad said at one point. "The white man is the devil."
It struck me listening to this that if this were a couple of Klan members calling a meeting to talk about black people, the city leaders and media would be hounding them out of town instead of sitting in board rooms wringing their hands over how to deal with them. With that in mind--with all this hate spewing out all over the room and all these reporters looking on ever so blankly--I looked around at the people in the audience and tried to figure out why they were there.
About 20 additional young people had trickled into the room since the event had started, and so while Michaels and Muhammad droned on about devils, I approached a long line of youths in big basketball shoes and football jerseys, all of whom were solemnly watching the proceedings. Before I could ask the nearest one what he was doing there, the woman who had searched me upon my arrival rushed up to the young men and ordered them not to talk to me.
"Who are you?" I asked her.
"I'm a black woman who says you either stick to the rules, or you leave," the woman said.
What rules? I'm at a press conference--a so-called rally--and all I'm doing is talking to the people who have come to the press conference.
"That's you people's problem anyway--you think you can do whatever you want to do," the woman said. "And you can't. You either stick to the rules, or you leave."
What rules? "You stick to the message up front," she said, pointing to the head table with the four loudmouths. "You do what the other reporters are doing--stick to the message."
I went back to asking the row of young people questions. They were here, they politely informed me, to hear "The Doobies"--a rap group that was scheduled to begin performing, along with a whole host of other rap groups, as soon as these "speakers" were finished talking. As a matter of fact, these kids had paid $5 to get into the room--to hear music, not racist rantings from their elders.
According to one of the performers I talked to later, whoever had scheduled the New Black Panthers rally had booked the music in the hopes of attracting young people to the press conference. "I guess they were trying to target some people from the street level--some of your 'young black males on the street who don't have guidance' to attract them with the rap and get them to listen to what's going on," said Derric Taylor, a rap artist known as "Big Dank."
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Clearly, though, this information wasn't very good public relations for the Fruit of Islam or the mighty, gun-toting New Panthers; the members of both preferred the illusion that they could fill a room based on the strength and popularity of their message.
"Now my sister asked you to stop this," said a 7-foot Muslim who suddenly appeared between me and my young rap-loving interviewees. "You are harassing the people here. And I'm going to take you out. You got that in your little notebook?"
And with that, the large fist of a tall Muslim man who wouldn't give me his name went into the small of my back. And that fist--and that very tall man--pushed me all the way across the room and back out the front door.
Where I was more than ready to go.