Two weeks ago, tiny Wheelock College in Boston hosted a 3-day conference entitled “The Black Panther Party in Historical Perspective.” It had all the veneer of a scholarly gathering.
It was anything but.
Forty new papers on the Panthers were submitted, most of them from faculty types in Black Studies departments and other academic redoubts of old Panthers and radicals from the Sixties. Despite several panels devoted to Panther violence or to exploring their “image” as “thugs,” much of the conference was the same old myth-making that pitted heroic Panthers against pig cops when all the Panthers were really interested in was “serving the people” with their must bruited social programs.
It was the same propaganda that old-line Panther veterans—abetted by glam pix in newspapers of good-looking armed blacks with towering afros and guns—had been promulgating from the Party’s hay-days beginning in the late 1960s. Despite one organizer’s promise that “We’re not out to celebrate the Panthers,” even where the conference backed away from hagiography, the participants seemed so focused on minutia and inconsequentials of smaller Panther chapters in podunck cities, the presentations were irrelevant. And most papers—as well as the audience and panelists---nonetheless were focused on resurrecting the Panthers, this time with academic laurels.
As a putative academic-only shindig that demanded papers replete with footnotes and academic newspeak, it could have used an infusion of the reporting I’m more familiar with that offers a very different picture of the Black Panthers. The organizers could have used my own extended journalism on the subject, beginning in 1978, that of Hugh Pearson, an African-American formerly with Pacific News Service, who wrote Shadow of the Panther, the Oakland Tribune’s investigations into Panther finances by Lance Williams and his African American reporting partner, Pearl Stewart; or even David Horowitz, to name a few.
Sadly, all of us were absent at Wheelock. Despite all our collective fact-finding over three decades, the same old Panther iconography is trotted out regularly in the media, and remains standard fodder for academic study, even, most likely, favored over the Civil Rights movements or any of the struggles and warfare on the African continent.
The Panthers rose under their charismatic leader, Huey Newton who died in 1989 after being slain by a drug dealer outside a known crack house. From their fabled beginnings when Newton and his pals strapped on guns and toted law books to drive around on weekends in “gray Roach” shadowing Oakland police on their patrols through the ghetto, the Panthers flourished to become a major criminal enterprise run by Newton. (Even before the Panthers were founded in 1967, Huey later bragged in his autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, of hanging out in hospital parking lots to pull off strong-arm robberies. He’d also been convicted of assault for stabbing a man in the head with a steak knife at a party, serving time in county jail. Huey was never exactly innocent.)
While Newton and the Party ran the Panther paper filled with long impossibly tedious tracts by Huey emulating his favorite Marxist, Kim Il Sung, Mao, or Marx himself; at night the Party was operating out of Huey’s favorite haunt, The Lamp Post bar and restaurant in Oakland (Newton actually had a piece of the bar, a deal he extracted from a distant cousin). Inside, the Panthers under Newton ruled their world absolutely, punishing rank and file females for even minor “infractions” by turning them out as prostitutes. The Newton-led extortion racket against Oakland’s bars, night clubs, pimps and dope dealers would turn nasty whenever anyone reneged paying off protection money to the Panther collectors.
When the owner of the Fox-Oakland Theater refused in 1973 to accept Newton’s demands to hire Panthers of Newton’s choosing, or to pay extortion money, there were two devastating arson fires at the theater in succession.
Wilbert La Tour, the owner of the Brass Rail, a Berkeley after hours joint, turned up dead in the trunk of his car at the San Francisco airport. His doorman had earlier been shot, as had a patron who’d gotten into an argument with the Panthers. Again, La Tour, had refused to pay off to the Panthers.
The list of murders attributed to the Panthers and to Huey Newton is shocking and cannot be dismissed as the many keepers of the Panther flame attempt to do as simply “Huey’s crack cocaine problem.” The list includes Jimmy Carr, George Jackson’s former prison mate, Fred Bennet, a Panther who was killed after dating Bobby Seale’s then wife, Artie; Betty Van Patter, the Panthers’ white bookkeeper was murdered, after being summoned for a sudden meeting to the Lamp Post, never to be seen alive again. Her body was found floating in the Bay. It was known she’d raised questions to the acting Chairman of the party, Elaine Brown, about shady bookkeeping practices she refused to perform, and Brown had been complaining to others that Van Patter’s big mouth might harm Brown’s run for an Oakland City Council seat.
The criminality was endemic to the party headed by Newton, who used to say if he hadn’t been running the Panthers he would have been a bank robber. Newton always admired one older brother for his pimp and gangster ways, even as he also emulated another brother, the college professor. (His 1980 Ph.D. thesis for UC -anta Cruz’ so-called History of Consciousness department was actually written by his Hollywood writer friend, Donald Freed after the late Examiner journalist, Jim Wood turned down the ghosting job.)
Newton’s cocaine-fueled rampages finally got the better of him and he fled the country in the summer of 1974 after shooting a 17 year old prostitute, viciously pistol whipping a black tailor who had come to his penthouse to make him a suit, and beating two women in an Oakland bar for “sassing” him, and threatening to kill plain clothes cops in another joint.
Newton was no less Draconian to his own rank-and-file. While there were serious and dedicated Panthers in Oakland and in certain chapters elsewhere around the country who worked themselves to the bone on Panther breakfast programs or at the Panthers school, for example, Newton operated a parallel organization devoted to crime. He formed two “fire teams” of hand-picked thugs, known as “The Squad,” who were his muscle and favorite nighttime marauders. They killed, beat and extorted for Newton. And Newton basked in their thuggish company.
Even when there seemed to be legitimate operations in the Panther programs, Newton was intent on greed. Early on, Panthers were everywhere collecting for sickle-cell anemia, but Newton later admitted it was just a con. Reporters Williams and Stewart investigated and documented more sophisticated Panther schemes to insure a spigot of money to the Panthers, siphoned off by Newton, Brown and the tough Squad members “to keep them sweet,” as it was explained to me back in 1978.
The Panthers set up fraudulent dummy corporations with the help of their white corrupt lawyers. Government and foundation grant money for social programs went to the thugs and supported outlandish life styles of the upper echelons. The Panthers eventually got nailed for some of the fraud and were riddled with court cases as a result of the Tribune’s investigation, but no one could fathom all the money and where it went. (And while the Tribune investigation was in full swing, the car belonging to Pearl Stewart, the African American Trib reporter was bombed in her apartment building’s parking garage!)
The money poured in—from criminal rackets, grants, and even legit book advances although Huey always was ghosted. Panther leaders lived high on the hog while the rank and file lived crammed in dormitories with no money, working 20 hours a day like any latter day cultists who are sleep-deprived, impoverished and totally ruled by higher-ups in an exacting hierarchy. (Miscreant Panthers in the Party’s early days were made to stand for hours in “mud-holes” filled with cold water. Later they were beaten bloody. Many simply fled to avoid Newton’s henchmen’s beatings, or in the case of Elaine Brown, as she wrote in her autobiography A Taste of Power, the bull whippings she presided over.)
Huey had his penthouse apartment overlooking Lake Merritt and downed Courvoisier while he received white dignitaries and movie stars. (He would brag to the Squad about certain film actresses he slept with). Elaine Brown drove a red Mercedes convertible and lived in a fine apartment in the Oakland Hills that was cleaned by Panther women underlings.
The white left and the Bay Area media were enamored with these attractive looking leather-clad youngsters and never probed the glossy, sassy veneer. (Recently the New York Times reviewed a Panther photo retrospective of the Party in its most glamorous leather accoutrements with nary a hint of the Party’s criminal underpinnings.) Indeed, because of the FBI’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s goon-stepping over-reach to thwart effective black civil rights groups and leaders at the time, many bought the Panthers’ line that they were just one more group being persecuted.
But as Eldridge Cleaver admitted to me in a 1980 piece I wrote for California Magazine, it wasn’t the police who’d ambushed the Panthers in 1968, four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed; it was Panthers led by Cleaver—Newton was in prison*--who were intent on killing cops. The group, which included David Hilliard (he whines in his autobiography that he went along with the ambush only reluctantly) shot up a patrol car, injuring two officers, one of them seriously. It was 12 years later that Cleaver admitted his guilt to me. (And both he and Kathleen frankly admitted that the split lip I saw on Kathleen had been administered by her husband, Eldridge as "discipline." At the time, Kathleen actually told me she’d deserved it.)
If the Wheelock College history conference wants to know the real legacy of the Panthers—notwithstanding the organizers’ complaints that the media focused on the cocaine and the violence of the Panthers unfairly-- they should pore over the cold statistics showing the huge spike in drive-by-shooting deaths and gang warfare that took place in Oakland in the decade following Newton’s and the Panthers’ demise.
The Panther fetish of the gun, worshipped by young, impressionable black males, maimed hundreds of black citizens in Oakland and other tough city ghettos more surely than any bully cops ever did. And a real probe of some of those horrifying murders that prosecutors couldn’t make stick either because of a mafia like code of silence or that so many witnesses over the years were terrified to testify would belie assertions of unfair media coverage.
Is it an exaggeration of violence to mention the torture killing of Panther Alex Rackley in New Haven, suspected of being a snitch, who had boiling water poured on all over his chest before he was murdered on orders from higher ups? Newton was safe; the convicted murderers of Rackley and Carr, for example, never squealed.
The progress Panthers claim a role in—such as the election of blacks to Oakland offices in a heretofore white-run city—more often are a reflection of top-down orders to do voter registration and get out the vote, efforts mirrored by Jim Jones and the People’s Temple in San Francisco’s local elections in the period before the Temple moved to Guyana’s jungles, than they are real organizing.
Nor did the Panthers’ political message and legacy really stop once and for all the police excesses of unlawful beatings and shootings that still go on. It did reinvent myths like gunslinger Billy the Kid, cardboard cowboy figures that with the violence besotted Panthers came dressed in black leather jackets and black berets, that have turned out to be as American as apple pie.
On June 16th, National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation,” did a segment publicizing the Panther conference—they called it “the legacy of the Black Panthers” with guests Kathleen Cleaver who’s now on the faculty of Emory University Law School” along with Yohuru Williams, a co-organizer of the Wheelock conference and a “Professor of History” at Delaware State University. Both guests spoke by phone.
The radio segment was short, allowing for only one caller, but emblematic of the whole problem with any discussions about the Black Panther Party, or as Williams enunciated each time—“The Black Panther Party for Self Defense!”
The first--and only--caller –“Dick,” from Burlington, North Carolina, began: “Well, my comment was my only experience with the Black Panthers was back in the’60s in Oakland, California.” Dick had been in the service then and explained that if he wanted to go anywhere, he had to take the bus. “And my experience wasn’t a good one at all because they [the Panthers] would get on the bus and intimidate everyone on the bus. They wouldn’t pay. As far as I could tell, they were a bunch of thugs. And I don’t see any reason to change my mind.”
Kathleen’s answer to this calumny was a new bardo of absurd denial by Panthers: “There were at that time,” she said, “a large number of people who were sent by the United States government and paid to be informants and infiltrators who behaved as thugs.”
Dick burst in, “Baloney!” [I believe on the radio he actually said, “bullsh-t” but the transcript reads as stated.]
Kathleen continues, “ and also people who were, in fact, thugs who pretended to be members of the Black Panther Party.”
“You wish that was true,” Dick said, “That’s baloney.”
She then asserted the “principals” of the Party—“Serve the people, take nothing, empower the people. So the behavior that you are discussing is not the behavior of the Black panthers but of people who you choose to believe [italics added] and because they were posing as Black Panthers.
Professor Williams backed her up: “There’s nothing to say that the people that you encountered on that bus that day,” he spoke directly to Dick, “were Panthers.”
The host of the show Neal Conan was no better. He asked Dick his response. Dick said, “Yeah, their memory is incorrect.” Conan piped in, “Well, Kathleen Cleaver was there. I mean…”
Dick was having none of it: “Well so was I!”
Kathleen jumped in again with her last outrageous argument: “But you weren’t in the party, and you don’t know the principles of the party, and you probably couldn’t give me the name of a single person who was a member of the Black Panther Party.”
“They didn’t give me their names,” Dick said drolly.
“Exactly,” Kathleen returned.
“They were intimidating me,” Dick said.
“Okay, Dick, thanks very much for the call,” Conan ended.
Conan did demur from Kathleen’s recitation of government agents, but timidly, “…there was violence, there were drugs involved later on..” he said. [Actually even in 1967, Huey was dealing marijuana and was on a drug-selling run on the very night of the shoot out that left a young rookie cop dead and Newton with a gun shot to his stomach, according to what the car’s other passenger, Gene McKinney told me years later]. There are some things that the party cannot be proud of.”
Instead of answering, Kathleen compared the Panthers to corrupt Congressmen, implying that the Panthers were no worse than anyone else in positions of power.
And so it goes with Panthers and their media or academic hosts….
*Newton was in prison for the shooting of an Oakland cop, a conviction that was later overturned on a technicality. A subsequent trial hung the jury after which the D.A. decided not to do a third trial, so Huey was a free man.
Kate Coleman has written extensively on the Black Panther Party since 1978. Her book, “The Secret Wars of Judi Bari” about the Earth First radical leader will be published this fall by Encounter Books.