The fear of black violence is just as potent today as it was 45 years ago Saturday, when police raided the apartment of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton, killing him and two others. Back then, the setting was Chicago; today, it’s St. Louis, where two men with tentative connections to the New Black Panther Party were indicted in mid-November on federal gun charges.
Somewhere along the line, Brandon Orlando Baldwin and Olajuwon Ali Davis were also implicated in a plot to bomb the Gateway Arch, and another to assassinate St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson. Scary stuff, if it were true.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case. In their federal indictment, Baldwin and Davis were charged only with attempting to illegally obtain a firearm—in this case two pistols from a sporting goods store in the St. Louis suburb of Hazelwood. An indictment for the alleged bomb plot may still come, but for now the two men are being held in jail only for the gun crime, a relatively minor one compared to the charges of domestic terrorism that have been reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and elsewhere.
“There’s no reason why they couldn’t do it [indict them] two years from now,” said Ben Trachtenberg, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri, of a possible indictment for the larger charges. “It’s easy to get frustrated when things are not going fast enough for the taste of newspaper reporters.”
A little speculation would be fine, if it were happening off-the-record between journalists and law-enforcement officials. But for Baldwin and Davis, those conversations have been made public, printed by the Post-Dispatch and Reuters, and broadcast by CBS News as actual crimes for which the two men have been charged. Right-wing websites took this preliminary information and turned the two men into would-be domestic terrorists—the same way a few guys in berets and leather vests were transformed into voting intimidators during the 2008 election.
At a time when the national conversation has been consumed by police use of lethal force and its effects on predominantly black men, Baldwin and Davis, the New Black Panthers, and their frightening affront to law and order, have made for a convenient excuse for some who would like to discount the efforts of mostly peaceful protesters across the country.
“I can’t speak to what happened to the Black Panther Party,” said Fred Hampton Jr., whose father, along with Mark Clark, was murdered by Chicago Police on Dec. 5, 1969. “It just died away. It suffered an intense military defeat.”
The platform from Hampton Jr.’s youth has morphed into the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (NBPP), but old party members and legacies like Hampton Jr. insist the group is not affiliated in any way other than name with the original Black Panthers.
The NBPP, from all appearances, is a fragmented organization most often associated with the leadership of Malik Zulu Shabazz, who announced he was stepping down as chairman last year. That didn’t stop him from taking control of marchers wearing NBPP gear in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown. And the decentralized nature of the group also didn’t stop Ali Davis from naming himself chairman of the St. Louis chapter of the NBPP in an “affidavit of fact” posted to Washington University’s website. While decrying the violence and looting that took place in the early days of protests in Ferguson, Davis blasts the authorities in bizarre terms.
The city of Ferguson, Davis writes, is charged with the murder of “Aboriginal Indigenous American Michael Brown Jr.” Brown, according to Davis, is just “…one of many of our people who have been targeted and assassinated by European colonial powers acting under the guise of corporate names including but not limited to: City of Ferguson, City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, City of Jennings, Delwood, Florissant, etc.”
It’s a fascinating document, especially for someone who has since been accused by anonymous law-enforcement officials as wanting to blow up an icon of manifest destiny in the Gateway Arch, and kill two of the state’s most recognizable public officials in McCulloch and Jackson.
The Post-Dispatch cites those sources, presumably FBI agents, as saying Davis and Baldwin inquired about purchasing the fixings for pipe bombs in an undercover sting. For conservative websites, the nugget that the two men were waiting for a girlfriend’s EBT card to be replenished before negotiating to buy more explosive material has provided easy fodder for rants against the welfare state. And for conspiracy theorists, the lack of charges for the bomb plot are indicative of the Department of Justice’s unwillingness to indict Black Panthers for their various attempts to destroy our republic. But is any of it true? For Baldwin and Davis, the answer is no. Legally, at least.
“Sometimes, this stuff is hard to prove,” said Trachtenberg of the alleged sting, followed by the alleged plot that has resulted in a possible indictment coming down sometime in the future.
As for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. Louis, a woman there directed questions to the Justice Department after saying, “I know you’re probably reading a Post-Dispatch story, but I don’t know where they’re getting that from.”
Mark Raimondi, the Justice spokesman referred to by both U.S. Attorney’s Office and the local branch of the FBI, didn’t respond to a request for comment. So, we’re left with the information contained in Baldwin and Davis’s indictment. It’s not even clear how they unlawfully tried to buy two pistols from a Cabela’s in Hazelwood. Everything else is pure speculation and the promulgation of fear.
None of which is surprising to Hampton Jr., who, despite his lack of affiliation with the New Black Panther Party, shares a similar mindset with Davis.
“When they refused to indict Darren Wilson, when they refused to indict the cop in New York who killed Eric Garner—this is the norm in our community,” Hampton Jr. said. “We’re the OVs, the original victims of terrorism.”
Davis, whose name has now been associated with an act of domestic terrorism that not only never happened, but may never have been in the works, doesn’t appear to be an officially sanctioned representative of the New Black Panthers. And his lone-wolf status may never be more apparent than at the bottom of his legal notice to Ferguson Mayor James Knowles. Davis signed the document himself, and included space for 21 witnesses to the decree.
Every one of them is blank.