"This is not a protest; it's the opposite of a protest," insists Rachel Svinkelstin, president of Hillel Jewish University Center and Carnegie Mellon University's Tartans for Israel. She is organizing a "Declaration of Unity" on Thu., Feb. 17, to celebrate "equality and positive relationships." But it will take place in the hour before New Black Panther Party leader Malik Zulu Shabazz is scheduled to speak at CMU. Shabazz has been labeled "controversial," "anti-Semitic" and "racist" in a variety of media for his views on the Palestine-Israel conflict and black Americans in general. (Perhaps Shabazz's references in The New Black Panther to George W. Bush as a "key operative of this Satanic race that has terrorized our people and the planet ever since they emerged from the caves and hills of Europe 4,000 years ago" have also not helped his image.)
"We want to [hold the event] before Shabazz's lecture because we fear that after his lecture things will be worse," says Svinkelstin.
"There's always an effort to discredit any kind of black national leader," retorts Kierra Wright (also known as Asale Halisi), the CMU senior who's responsible for bringing Shabazz. "I encourage all of them to come to the event," she says of the quasi-protesters. "There will be an open forum so there will be no need to wonder what he talks about. They'll be able to hear for themselves."
Wright is a chemical and biomedical engineering major from East Orange, New Jersey. She joined the New Black Panther Party in August, impressed with their level of activism in her home state. She joined CMU's Black History Month committee hoping to bring in Shabazz.
School officials and some student groups, including the black graduate student organization, balked at putting up any money for Shabazz, whose group is especially controversial among original Black Panthers. The Web site blackpanther.org, run by the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation and many of the original 1960s members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, features an open letter: "There is No New Black Panther Party."
CMU history professor Joseph Trotter, who directs the school's Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy, directed department money to SPIRIT, a minority student group, to fund the Shabazz appearance.
Svinkelstin says she's afraid Shabazz won't be bringing "healthy dialogue" but rather tension and fear. She and Hillel were instrumental in protests against writer Ali Abunimah, who spoke on Middle Eastern affairs at CMU on Feb. 3, and also in the rescheduling of speaker Norman Finkelstein, said to be a Holocaust revisionist for his views on reparations for Jewish slave labor expressed in The Holocaust Industry and elsewhere.
Wright says she invited Shabazz because she was tired of the "watered-down, unstimulating, uninteresting" speakers at CMU.
"When [Panthers co-founder] Bobby Seale came to Pitt last year, people were so excited and said, 'Why don't we do things like that?'" says Wright. "Then we do this and nobody wants to really get involved."
During his Pitt appearance last February, Seale told the local press that the New Panthers were "cheap, backward, myopic, close-minded and idiots" and should be sued for using the name.
"You can't really appease all the people, whether you're talking about Shabazz or Michael Moore," says Wright.
"There are plenty of other blacks who would have been more beneficial in promoting Black History Month," says Svinkelstin, "someone involved in NAACP, someone from the labor movement. I think we have an African-American city council member who I hear is pretty great."