BOWIE – A militant black power organization offered a $3,000 reward Wednesday for information on recent hate crimes in Bowie, saying it does not believe the two teens arrested in the case are the only culprits.
In a sometimes-heated exchange with city officials, a handful of members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense expressed concern that organized white supremacist organizations were behind the recent incidents.
“A reasonable man would acknowledge that he has a problem, in order to correct it,” said Malik Zulu Shabazz, spokesman for the Panthers.
But City Manager David Deutsch said that there is no evidence to support such a charge and accused the group of being needlessly divisive.
“If you want to play a positive role, that’s fine,” Deutsch said. “But we would hope that you wouldn’t come here and try to play a negative, divisive role. Because I don’t think that’s very helpful for anybody.”
The group of about a dozen Panthers, many in military fatigues, called a news conference at the Bowie Municipal Gym, where racial threats and “KKK” were found spray-painted on an outside brick wall on the morning of March 17. It was the latest in a string of reported hate crimes over the last several years in the city.
Last Thursday, an anonymous caller gave police the name, age and Internet screen name of a suspect. Police went online to talk with the boy, who volunteered that he was responsible for the Bowie gym graffiti and boasted of the reward being offered, said Prince George’s County Police spokesman Maj. Thomas Connolly.
Police arrested and questioned the boy, who named an accomplice. Connolly said the boys, ages 14 and 15, eventually gave full confessions.
“We don’t believe there is anyone else involved,” Connolly said.
But Shabazz said his group “has evidence to the contrary.” He acknowledged the arrests, but said white supremacist organizations might be behind the crime and further investigation is required.
In addition to offering the reward, the group announced the start of a campaign to protect African-Americans in Bowie, including intelligence-gathering activities and the formation of self-defense units and patrols.
Shabazz said the Washington chapter of the Panthers was formed two years ago, and that the group has members in Prince George’s County and Bowie. When asked by city officials who in the group was from Bowie, however, Shabazz would only say that some were residents, without identifying them.
The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the New Black Panther Party as a hate group because of its “anti-white” and “anti-Semitic” views, according to the center’s Mark Potok. The party began in Milwaukee in 1990, and may have as many as 35 chapters across the eastern portion of the country, according to the center.
Kathy Thornton of the county Human Relations Commission did not attend the Panthers’ rally, saying the commission does not support or encourage “hate groups.”
Some Bowie residents were clearly upset by the Panthers’ presence in their town, which is 30 percent black and 60 percent white, according to census figures released last week.
Carl Bickle, a local pastor and 27-year resident, said the Panther rally “is not what we need in Bowie or Prince George’s County.”
“Of course there’s racism in Bowie,” said Bickle, who is white, “but there’s a lot of good will, too.”
Bowie resident Rex Schroyer, who is also white, challenged Shabazz about the reward, asking if it would only pay for information about hate crimes against blacks.
“Our hate crime fund is for black victims,” Shabazz responded. “There is a limited amount of money and focus, and that’s our focus, our job.”
Other residents were more ambivalent about the Panthers’ visit.
“The jury’s still out for me,” said James Rowe, a six-year Bowie resident who is black. He said the group did bring attention to the issue of racism in Bowie and will help to create a dialogue about the issue.
“However it gets done is good,” he said.
But Deutsch said the Panthers’ action is only good if it is not divisive.
“I appreciate your advice,” Deutsch told Shabazz, in a meeting at city hall. “We have no problem with you coming to town. We have no problem with you shining a light on the issue. But the community has already acted and reacted and will continue to act positively.”