A new breed of Panther | Politics & Prejudices | Detroit
Sitting outside a run-down barbershop on Detroit’s West Side, Malik Shabazz is in his usual Sunday spot, serving up home-cooked barbecue and laying groundwork for the revolution he envisions.
Even when wearing sweats and kicking back in a lawn chair, calling out to the folk in cars that slow when passing by, Shabazz radiates charisma. He’s tall, maybe 6 feet 5 inches, and good-looking, with a voice so smooth and resonant you might mistake him for an R&B singer, or maybe a politician.
The boxes of ribs and other soul food he sells for $6 to $10 a pop helps support Shabazz and his New Black Panther Nation/New Marcus Garvey Movement, the black separatist group he’s built over the past decade. Shabazz is a bona fide activist working to build a stronger African-American community by registering voters, staging protests, visiting homeless shelters and talking to schoolkids about the need for a good education.
In a way, though, this community-building is akin to road construction. Certainly, Shabazz has an eye on improving the here and now, but this activism is also a means of getting to what he sees as the final destination. His is a grandiose vision involving what the self-described revolutionary calls “complete, total, cosmic change.”
What he wants, ultimately, are separate societies, segregated on the basis of skin color. Whites here, blacks there, brown-skinned, red-skinned and yellow-skinned people there, there and there, each in control of their own pieces of real estate.
To achieve that, he says, the white capitalist power structures of the West must be eliminated. And if this vision is ever realized, it won’t be through peaceful means. Forget about the nonviolent civil disobedience of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.
“I love Dr. King,” Shabazz says, “but I’m not going to get beat up to share a toilet with anyone.”
The changes Shabazz wants, he says, will only come through armed insurrection. “Huey Newton said power flows through the barrel of a gun,” Shabazz says, invoking the name of one of the original Black Panthers. “We plan to make changes the same way George Washington did, the same way any oppressed people get power.”
He refuses to discuss or even acknowledge any specific plans for revolution, nor will he disclose what kind of weaponry his group has, though he does admit that they’re often armed and can shift from “Martin Luther King mode” to “Malcolm X mode” at any time.
He can also shift his rhetoric just as quickly. Over the course of several interviews with Metro Times, and being pressed repeatedly on his insistent advocacy of armed insurrection, he suddenly adopts a different tone. But even at its most expansive, Shabazz’s claims of benevolence are conditional: “We’re not against armed revolt, however, we’re going to overthrow the system with love. We’re teaching black-on-black love. We’re going to subdue the world with the Bible, the Quran, the Egyptian Book of the Dead. We’re as nonviolent as we’re allowed to be.”
Whatever form it takes, now is not the time to ignite the revolution he anticipates.
“First,” he says, “you have to defeat the Negro, or that other n-word, in your mind.”
Mental chains have to be unshackled before societal and political bounds can be completely broken.
“Then we can deal with the United Snakes of a Murderer,” he says.
Shabazz’s radicalism first took root at Detroit’s Shrine of the Black Madonna, and the United Negro Improvement Association founded by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s, and then deepened when he joined the upper echelons of the New Black Panther Party (NBPP), a group designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its openly anti-Semitic views.
In 2001, Shabazz left the party — not because of the scorn its leaders heaped on what Shabazz prefers to call “Zionists” — but rather because of internal disputes.
New Black Panther Party chapters in Orlando, Fla., Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, went with Shabazz in the split. It was at that point that Shabazz added the Panther name to his existing Marcus Garvey movement, officially melding the Panthers’ militarism with Garvey’s separatist ideology.
Shabazz won’t give membership numbers, but the group is small enough to be under most people’s radar. Even the Southern Poverty Law Center, which identifies Shabazz’s current organization as a hate group, bases its condemnation more on past links than recent activities.
What makes the 42-year-old Shabazz more than a fringe figure is, at least in part, his ability to obtain the blessings of mainstream politicians. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick calls him “one of the most dedicated public servants I know,” and counts Shabazz among his supporters. Mike Duggan, current head of the Detroit Medical Center, utilized Shabazz first when he held the post of Wayne County deputy executive, and later as the county prosecutor, enlisting the activist in a campaign to close down drug houses. In 2000, Duggan, who refused to be interviewed for this article, told The Detroit News that Shabazz “seems to be the kind of man I can work with.”
Shabazz is also able to gather the attention of mainstream media. For the past decade, he’s often been the go-to guy when reporters from Detroit’s two major daily papers were looking for a catchy quote on race issues. He’s also been adept at staging the sort of political theater that generates coverage.
Raucous protests during meetings of Detroit Public Schools reform board drew much attention. The board filed suit in 2002, trying to have Shabazz and other activists barred from the meetings, saying they were so disruptive they made holding meetings impossible.
In 2004, Shabazz and his group marched outside Detroit City Clerk Jackie Currie’s house to draw attention to what he felt might be voter disenfranchisement in the 2004 elections.
There’s an important contradiction inherent in the name Shabazz chose for his organization. By calling it the New Black Panther Nation/New Marcus Garvey Movement, he’s weaving together two separate philosophical threads, says Stephen Ward, of the University of Michigan’s Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.
One of those threads stretches as far back as the 1850s. Even before the abolition of slavery, the idea of black nationalism — based on a sense of unity, pride and collective destiny — began to take shape.
“Sometimes this is expressed in literal terms,” Ward says. “At other times, it’s more symbolic, linked to a collective ethos, a shared identity and experience.”
In the early part of the 20th century, Marcus Garvey became a leading proponent of the separatist movement. Born in Jamaica in 1887, he founded the United Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s, and championed the cause of creating an African nation for black Americans.
The original Black Panther Party, on the other hand, wasn’t primarily a separatist group, although there were separatist elements in its official 10-Point Plan.
“They considered themselves a developing socialist organization,” Ward says. “They were willing to work with white progressives and white radicals. They had a sense that they were a part of the broader Third World revolutionary community.”
Taking the Panther name, with its connotations of a more inclusive ideology, and combining it with Garveyite separatism, reflects the “collapsing” of black political thought, Ward says. “By collapsing, I mean obscuring the distinction. The Black Panther Party as much as the UNIA are products of responding to their time periods.” By adopting elements of both, Shabazz is “tapping into the image both Marcus Garvey and the Black Panthers have of being strong, uncompromising symbols of black power.”
But juggling contradictions is nothing new for Malik Shabazz.
Shabazz grew up in Detroit’s North End, an area centering around Oakland Street north of East Grand Boulevard.
His grandfather, the late David Holmes, was a Michigan legislator during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. His stepfather was a Detroit police officer. But their influence didn’t stop Shabazz from falling into gang life and the culture of drugs and violence that comes with it.
Avarice and a quest for somewhere to belong motivated him, Shabazz says, but it’s more complicated than that. While running the streets, Shabazz also served as an altar boy at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Asked about the contradiction between his religious life and his criminal activities, Shabazz brings up the black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois and the phenomenon of double consciousness he described as being part of the black American experience. That duality, DuBois explained, is the result of conflicting impulses: the desire to create your own identity while at the same time being judged through the lens of the dominant white society.
After being expelled from St. Hedwig’s and Northwestern high schools for his gangster ways, Shabazz attempted to leave that life behind, and seriously considered becoming a priest.
That didn’t last long.
“I liked women. That changed my mind about that,” he says.
The priesthood forgotten and back on the streets, he started doing whatever drug came his way — pot, acid, cocaine and more were all consumed in the quest to get high. He wasn’t the only one in the family with a penchant for drug use. His mom was hooked on crack — an addiction that led to tragedy when she killed her husband. Convicted of murder, she’s still in prison.
Shabazz had been close to his stepfather, and the cop’s death at the hands of Shabazz’s mother had a devastating effect. It scared Shabazz and woke him up, sending him in search of a new direction in life. He found it in two Detroit places: first at Aknartoon’s restaurant and then at the Shrine of the Black Madonna, a pan-African Orthodox church founded in the city.
At Aknartoon’s, a soul food place popular among the black nationalist crowd at the time, Shabazz for the first time saw videotapes of Malcolm X — whose Muslim name he later adopted. Malcolm’s militant approach to America’s racial issues made sense, Shabazz says. In one of the tapes, Malcolm referred to the Rev. Albert Cleage, also known by his Swahili name, Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman. Shabazz asked around and learned that Cleage lived in Detroit, preaching at the Shrine of the Black Madonna.
“He told the truth, with no brainwashing, no Negro-ness or the other n-word,” Shabazz says. “My soul was dying for the truth, but I didn’t know where to get it.”
At the Shrine, he found the spiritual nourishment he’d been searching for. “I felt like my soul was fulfilled,” Shabazz says.
He joined the Shrine that year, and decided to stop using drugs. Rejecting rehab, it took Shabazz several years to wean himself off crack and pot. Along the way, he became exposed to the Universal Contact Center Church, a pan-African, separatist church in which he was later ordained.
Shabazz started hearing about Marcus Garvey after he joined the Shrine, and joined the United Negro Improvement Association, a group that, among other things, considers itself a provisional government in this country until African-Americans can be repatriated to Africa.
Before long, though, he became disenchanted with a group he saw as being more focused on rhetoric than action. “They want to talk about Marcus Garvey and what he did, but not about what we can do,” Shabazz says.
When he started pushing a more aggressive brand of action, Shabazz says, he was banished. Undaunted, he started the New Marcus Garvey Movement in 1992.
It was around that time he took the name Malik Shabazz. He won’t talk about his birth name, saying he models himself after Malcolm X in that respect.
“That name belongs to the man who did all that,” Shabazz says, referring to his past as a drug user and gang member. “That man is dead.”
On the march
After Shabazz left the UNIA, things started to pick up. As the leader of his own group, he was able to do the kind of hands-on community activism he desired. The group began by marching on convenience stores they said were selling spoiled food. According to articles in the Michigan Citizen, his efforts led to the closing of as many as 10 stores by 1998.
One storeowner sued the group, alleging extortion. He claimed Shabazz’s marches kept him from doing business, and that a memo purporting to seek “understanding” was actually a shakedown seeking money for black schools and communities. That suit was dismissed.
In 1994, drug houses became another target. If police didn’t do their job, then the New Marcus Garvey Movement would, making life difficult for dealers by marching on the homes they worked from, drawing attention to the crimes being committed there. It’s a risky tactic, and Shabazz admits to being scared. But he didn’t let that fear stop him.
The first two houses targeted for action were on a member’s street. In the summer of 1994, the group marched on the two houses every day for two weeks. Both closed, but one eventually reopened. Shabazz was at a loss as to what to do next. Then it came to him: “The spirit told me that the way to close this house down was to march on Christmas Eve at midnight.”
On Christmas Eve, during a heavy snowfall, that’s what the group did. “The drug dealer came out, dressed like a pimp with his hos,” Shabazz says. “He looked at us, and you could see his jaw hit the ground. The next day was moving day.”
The same year Shabazz founded the New Marcus Garvey Movement, he also met Khallid Muhammad. Muhammad, who died in 2001, was a former member of the Nation of Islam who became leader of the New Black Panther Party.
“He was the blackest man ever,” Shabazz says of Muhammad. “He was Malcolm X times 20. He wanted me to roll with him in 1992 but I was afraid of him. I wanted to live, was why. He had a mission. But if you’re Malcolm, you get killed. I was a bad motherfucker in 1992, but he was the shit, and I was afraid.”
In 1993, Muhammad made an infamous speech at Kean College in New Jersey. The harangue was so anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-white and anti-gay that it got him kicked out of the Nation of Islam and censured by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Shabazz says Muhammad opened his eyes.
That eye-opening included what came to be Shabazz’s view of what he calls Zionists — a term that emerged late in the 19th century to describe Jews who sought a return to their traditional homeland in the Middle East.
“Zionism is not to be confused with Judaism,” Shabazz says. “My problem is not with Jews.”
Jewish leaders don’t see it that way.
“When people say ‘anti-Zionist,’ they’re trying to get an anti-Jewish message out,” says Oren Segal, of the Anti-Defamation League. “If you listen to their words, it’s clear what they’re talking about.”
The ADL, Segal says, is interested in the Nation because of Shabazz’s former ties to the New Black Panther Party, which Segal describes as being “probably the biggest black anti-Semitic group in the country.”
Likewise, Heidi Beirich, spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, says she’s wary of any group linked to the man Shabazz calls his mentor, saying that in his speeches Khallid Muhammad “sounded like a neo-Nazi leader speaking.”
However he defines himself, Shabazz makes one of his views very clear: Jewish-owned businesses are everywhere in the black community, profiting from African-Americans, and they need to leave. In that regard, though, his views are not limited to Jews. The way he sees it, whites, Arabs, Chaldeans also all need to shutter the businesses they operate in black neighborhoods.
Who’s a Panther?
In 1993, Muhammad was shot by a former Nation of Islam member. While recuperating, he was approached by the founders of the New Black Panther Party.
Founded in 1989, the group tried to link itself to the ’60s radicals out of admiration for what they’d done. The respect wasn’t mutual.
Members of the original Black Panther Party in Dallas obtained a court-issued injunction in 1997, prohibiting the New Black Panther Party from using the Black Panther name or logo. That order has largely been ignored. Original Black Panthers in Atlanta and New York have also talked about suing the new group.
“Our Black Panther Party historical name gets hijacked by various groups,” Panther founder Bobby Seale wrote in an e-mail to Metro Times. Although not familiar with the Detroit group, Seale, who these days splits his time between the lecture circuit and his barbecue sauce business, says he’s unimpressed in general with groups attempting to capitalize on the Panther name. “It seems that none of them so far has any knowledge of our original true ideology-in-motion approach, our synergetic ‘all power to all the people’ practice, and our programmatic grassroots organizing approach.”
Ahmad Rahman, an assistant professor of African-American history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, became involved with the Black Panther Party in 1970 after moving to Detroit from Chicago.
The original Panthers, Rahman says, were never racists, and worked with other groups trying to bring about economic equality. Nor were the original Panthers separatists, though some separatists were involved with the party.
In 2001, Rahman had a chance to see Shabazz and other members of the New Black Panther Party in action at a Washington, D.C., protest staged during the inauguration of George W. Bush.
“There were hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from all over the country,” Rahman says. “And along comes this contingent of the New Black Panther Party. They face the crowd and the leader just goes into this tirade against Jews. It was so inappropriate.”
One problem, Rahman says, is that the new breed of Panthers are an anachronism “performing romantic ghetto theater” and “posturing in the 1960s’ black militant poses.”
“But it doesn’t have the same kind of effect now,” Rahman says. “Symbols taken out of their social and historical context lose their meaning and become symbols of something else.”
Shabazz isn’t worried about whether the original Panthers approve of him using their name. “They haven’t done anything with the name Panther in 30 years,” he says. “So don’t blame us. The old story is the revolutionaries went downtown to blow up city hall, and they came out with good jobs. I respect what Bobby Seale did in the ’60s and ’70s, but you can’t use any goddamned barbecue sauce to fight George Bush.”
Joining the Party
Shabazz joined the New Black Panther Party in 1999, and was named the group’s national field marshal. The affiliation didn’t last for long.
Shabazz won’t go into details, but differences of opinion about Muhammad’s death, he says, had something to do with the split: The Party is satisfied that Muhammad died of natural causes and the Nation thinks he was assassinated. There were tensions between the two groups for a time, but that has passed, says Shabazz, who describes relations between the two factions as “peaceful.”
The brand of modern black separatism preached by both groups, Ward says, has a lot to do with what their members perceive as failure to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement.
“I think it’s one of my critiques of this kind of organization that they’ve overlooked the vast changes that have taken place in society. Some would say nothing has changed for black people, that we’re still enslaved mentally. There’s an emotional appeal in that.”
But modern times, Ward says, require new ideas.
“It seems like these organizations are trying to re-create organizations that don’t reflect contemporary realities and challenges.”
View from the hood
When you ask members about their activities with the Nation, they don’t mention opposition to Zionism or armed revolution. Mostly, they’re concerned about drugs, gangs, and the safety of their neighborhoods.
Wanda Akilah Redmond met Shabazz through the Shrine of the Black Madonna when the two were involved in a 1998 campaign to recall then-Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. She and Shabazz became friends — and later a couple — Redmond says, because they wanted the same things for the community. “We coincide in terms of building a better world for black people.”
Redmond was the one who originated the Sunday afternoon cookouts, to raise funds for the group.
She says she mourns the end of the Nation’s involvement in a Wayne County program that seized properties used for drug trafficking. “It was working,” she says.
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office says the program is ongoing, but spokeswoman Maria Miller says the prosecutor’s office no longer has a direct working relationship with the Panthers.
Miller wouldn’t comment on Shabazz and his group, but says that in general the prosecutor’s office encourages everyone to be proactive about preventing and eliminating crime.
Shabazz says that’s his goal for the black community.
“We need to bring back block clubs,” he says. “We need to bring back the nosy neighbor. The nosy neighbor was a pain, but that nosy neighbor stopped Junebug from stealing your stereo.”
Shaakir Wahhab is one of the people the Nation has helped. Wahhab says his elderly father, a Detroiter, was killed last year after making a deposit at his bank. The police were at a dead end. Wahhab says he got a reward together, and contacted Shabazz to help him distribute fliers.
“We got about three blocks covered. In about a week and a half, I got a call from the police stating they had gotten two tips that led to an arrest,” Wahhab says.
Lonnie Spencer, a Detroiter whose nickname in the Nation is “Boss,” says he’s been a member of the group for eight years. “I was a part of a community coalition, but was attracted to being out there foot-soldiering, the idea of doing something other than being at meetings,” Spencer says.
Marches are the group’s most visible undertaking. The most recent was on Feb. 20. Member Haqika Nialiah says her troubles with two neighborhood drug houses on Ferguson Street in the city’s far northwest corner began shortly after she moved in four years ago. The Nation marched in front of the houses last summer, and Nialiah says the drug dealers left, but different dealers moved in.
In early February, Nialiah was at her computer late one night when she says she heard a whooshing sound. Running to the door, she saw flames creeping up the side of the house.
Nialiah’s sure it was the drug dealers, retaliating for the marches and what she says are regular calls to the police. When the police arrived, an officer who didn’t know she was a longtime member of the Nation suggested she contact Shabazz.
The houses on Ferguson Street may not be what you imagine when you think of a neighborhood infected with drug dealers. The homes are modest, but most seem well-kept. Ferguson Street seems like it could be in any working-class neighborhood in any city.
On the day of the February march, not a lot of people show up. It’s the day of the year’s heaviest snowfall, which Shabazz feels contributes to the low turnout — about 20 people. He doesn’t fret: “The important people are here.”
Shabazz says marches always make him nervous, because drug dealers have tried to fight the Nation at past marches. “We kicked their ass,” he says.
The march starts smoothly, with lots of chanting and a police SUV parked nearby.
Then the neighbors come out.
A loud group across the street begins heckling Shabazz and his group, yelling that there was no drug dealing in the houses and telling the marchers to go home.
“I supported them the first time,” says Kenneth Walker, who lives across the street from Nialiah, of last summer’s marches. “But we don’t have dope houses on our block. That’s bullshit.”
Walker says that two elderly men live in one of the alleged drug houses, and a working grandmother lives in the other house. During the march two elderly men leave one of the targeted houses.
Ferguson Street resident Joanna McDonald says she doesn’t know whether the two houses are drug trafficking sites, but she’s glad the group is out there, marching.
“We need that in the community.”
Detroit Police Inspector Claudia Barden-Jackson, head of the city’s narcotics unit, says her team hasn’t been able to come to a conclusion about alleged drug activity at the two houses. There’s been surveillance and two search warrants, but the complaints have neither been confirmed nor refuted.
“This deal on Ferguson Street is bothering me, because I keep getting conflicting information,” Barden-Jackson says. “It depends on who you talk to.”
The same can be said of Shabazz himself.
Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. You can reach her at [email protected] or