Black Panther Party

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The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a black separatist and hard leftist group, founded in Oakland, California before spreading across the country and becoming a major force in New Left politcs. It was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, who met at Merritt College. The legacy of the Party is mixed, attracting both veneration and antagonism from contemporary and modern thinkers. At one point, J. Edgar Hoover launched the COINTELPRO (COunter-INTELligence and PROpaganda) operation to sabotage the Party while simultaneously major leaders were killed under suspicious circumstances (to put it mildly). The history of the Panthers is both a story of what happened after the death of leaders in the civil rights movement, like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, left a vacuum, and of a mutually-reinforcing cycle of paranoia between the more radical elements of the left and the federal government. The precedent of COINTELPRO was reflected in the Nixon Administration's private version, the White House Plumbers, who were involved in dirty tricks against political opponents leading up to the Watergate burglary.

The Good[edit]

When they were founded, the original leaders of the Panthers needed funds, so they began to buy in bulk cheap copies of The Little Red Book by Mao. At that time, Maoism was the du jour Communist line of thinking for politically-active students in Berkeley, so selling a book that cost fifty cents for two dollars to rich college students was, to say the least, a highly successful fundraising effort. Bobby Seale, in an interview some 20 odd years later, shown in the movie Berkeley in the '60s, recounted that episode with a great deal of humor. With this funding, the Panthers began to create a model of economic organization for still-segregated communities of color.

Like other parties, this program was formulated into a platform, called the 10-Point Program, which stated:[1][2]:

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black Community.
    We believe that black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
    We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the white American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our black Community.
    We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of black people. We will accept the payment as currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50 million black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
    We believe that if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
    We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
  6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.
    We believe that black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like black people, are being victimized by the white racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
  7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.
    We believe we can end police brutality in our black community by organizing black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all black people should arm themselves for self defense.
  8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
    We believe that all black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
  9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
    We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the black community from which the black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of the "average reasoning man" of the black community.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.
    When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariable the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

The Panthers also campaigned to fight a growing heroin problem in the black community with a mix of political and medical messages that emphasized dope only helped the white man put black men in jail and disenfranchised them. Odd thing about that, though - shakedowns of drug dealers allegedly became a source of funds for the Panthers and violent incidents allegedly related to shakedowns came to light as the 1970s wore on, as related below.

Also of note, while espousing a program of self-help for the black community which could be viewed as a moderate form of black nationalism, the Black Panther Party rejected the extreme separatist and anti-white views of some other groups such as the Nation of Islam, and welcomed the support of and alliances with the white left.

In the 1973 Oakland Mayoral election, Bobby Seale came in second and forced a runoff. Elaine Brown had an even stronger showing in her City Council race of 1975 and was campaign chair for Lionel Wilson, the first black Mayor of Oakland, in 1977. The Panthers had established themselves as a political force to be reckoned with in Oakland. There's an asterisk on the Panthers' role in Wilson's election, though; it was part of a horse-trading deal that exchanged their support for Wilson for Wilson's help in dropping charges against of the chief of the Panthers' security detail. That was admitted years later by the same guy who got the get-out-of-jail-free card. Within a year of the Wilson election, however, the Panthers' fall from grace in Oakland politics was precipitous.

The Bad[edit]

This is where things get just plain spooky.

First, the guns. Originally the Panthers decided to spend some of their seed money on a pile of shotguns and walk around Oakland at night with their firearms openly, as a California law made it legal to waltz into town packing a shotgun as if it were still the OK Corral (remember, Reagan, a wannabe cowboy, was Governor at the time). Black Panther rallies would feature members marching with firearms while singing songs like "The revolution has come / Off the pig / It's time to pick up the gun / Off the pig" and "No more brothers in jail / Pigs are gonna catch hell". It was basically a ploy to publicly tell the police who regularly beat up blacks for fun that they should either back off or be driven off in a body bag, something akin to the way gun nuts today behave, though less, err, Caucasian. The Panthers took this to its logical extreme in May 1967, by staging a protest against the impending passage of a gun control law supported by Reagan, intended to stop the Panthers from carrying guns openly, by marching into the California legislature carrying firearms. This was legal at the time but needless to say inflamed the situation and created an uproar; the law passed. To make matters worse, California at the time was at the start of a drug addiction wave after hippies, who had come to San Francisco in large numbers in the summer of 1967, had within a couple of years given way to miscreants pushing harder drugs like heroin and speed on the many homeless youth. The New Left and the hippie movement had cross-fertilized by the last years of the decade, producing such deformed offspring as the Yippies and the White Panther Party, openly advocating platforms like "dope, guns, and fucking in the streets". But the guns had served one important purpose, to provide a symbol of the Panthers as a vanguard for would-be revolutionaries. The Black Panthers, for their part, allowed the idolization of them as a "vanguard" to go to their heads and began demanding an "our way or the highway" line within other New Left groups like SDS, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the splinter Freedom and Peace Party.

Guns in action didn't work out quite so well for the Panthers as guns as stage props did. Huey Newton was jailed on charges stemming from the death of an Oakland Police officer in 1967 and Eldridge Cleaver faced charges from a 1968 shootout that also resulted in the death of Panther Bobby Hutton. In author Hugh Pearson's account, Shadow of the Panther, he claimed that Newton later admitted to him that he shot the officer. Cleaver went into exile in Algeria where he was later joined by LSD guru Timothy Leary after members of the Weather Underground engineered his escape from prison. By all accounts, the alliance of Cleaver and Leary in exile was a disaster as Cleaver kept Leary under tight control (some would say "virtual house arrest") out of fear the Algerian government - with a revolutionary socialist but socially conservative regime - would not look kindly on Leary's penchant for drug use and free love. Leary and then Cleaver would soon return to the U.S. with Cleaver professing a conversion first to born again Christianity and then to Mormonism. When the Panthers set out to recruit members, a natural constituency attracted to a group famous for its gun-toting image was members of street gangs, who carried their baggage into the Panther organization. The process went full circle in Los Angeles, where they recruited the Slauson street gang and ex-Panthers went on to become the core of the Crips after the L.A. chapter was dissolved in the early 1970s. More than a few Panthers died in gunfights between Panthers and cops, Panthers and old street rivals, and between Panthers and Panthers. And the Panthers' reputation for gun violence provided a ready-made pretext for gun violence against them by various levels of government.

Next, women. Being a political party founded by angry men raised with a patriarchal outlook always caused trouble in the years before feminism really took hold and changed people's attitudes about gender roles. This was as true of notionally progressive and left-wing parties as of conservative and right-wing ones; whether Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or the early gay rights movement, the simple fact is that the men were as rude, crude, and disrespectful of the ladies as their fathers had been. In especially poor populations, especially segregated minority ones, this oftentimes led to outright violence against women. Eldridge Cleaver had been a serial rapist and wrote of the rape of white women as "an insurrectionary act" in his 1968 book, Soul on Ice. The machismo within the Panthers and other New Left movements of the time contributed to the rise of the modern womens liberation movement, as women began to see themselves as an oppressed class even within groups that were fighting for the rights of other oppressed classes. At the 1969 SDS convention, two different Black Panther leaders gave bluntly sexist speeches in reaction to the newly emerging feminist focus, one of whom stated that "the strategic position [of women] in the movement is prone", leading to an uproar at an already fractious convention and exacerbating an already-imminent collapse of SDS.[3] The misogyny of the founding Panthers led to internal conflict as well. When Oakland Panthers were sent to the New York Chapter to shore up their leadership in the wake of the Panther 21 case in 1969, their behavior towards women led to armed confrontation (no report of shots fired). In 1969, Panther chapters started to pass resolutions denouncing sexism as counterrevolutionary. Women started to be featured in the public face of the Panthers to head off a rift between the Panthers and the nascent feminist movement and present a less threatening face towards white liberal donors. Elaine Brown became the leader of the Panthers in 1974, after Newton fled to Cuba when faced with murder and assault charges.

Third, J. Edgar Hoover. As if things weren't awful enough, the Chief unleashed the hounds from the FBI against the Panthers and other black activist groups in August 1967, who set up a complex program of intrigues and double-crosses that would have made Joseph Stalin take notes. Through infiltration, rumor-mongering, and at least one definite police double murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago, the Chief was able to put various Panther leaders in jail or on the run. In the government's most blatant example of incarceration-by-any-means-necessary, Bobby Seale went on trial as one of the original Chicago Eight, then was bound, gagged, and sent to the slammer on a four-year term for contempt of court. While he was in prison, he went on trial in the New Haven Black Panther Murders case, which involved one police informant who got killed and one hit man who either flipped or was a police informant to begin with, depending on who you choose to believe. The case was dropped after the jury failed to reach a verdict. He was released from prison in 1972. An FBI frame-up is suspected in the case of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, who spent years in prison on a discredited charge for a 1968 robbery and murder. The FBI was also able to successfully foment deadly strife between the Panthers and rival black nationalist groups using anonymous letters.

Fourth, corruption and racketeering. In 1970, after it became evident that the pick-up-a-gun stuff wasn't working out so hot, the Panthers announced with great fanfare that they were launching a "survival" program that fed breakfast to inner city kids. But there are a couple of asterisks to go with putting the breakfast program-cum-Community School under the "good" category. It turned out to be a fundraising bonanza for the Panthers that did in fact get some food into needy mouths, but there was never a good accounting of where all the money from white liberals' open wallets or local and State governments went. Accountant Betty Van Patter showed up dead in December 1974, shortly after she brought bookkeeping discrepancies to the attention of Elaine Brown, who was chairing the Party while Huey Newton was hiding out from charges of murder and assault in Cuba. Members of the Panther "security squad" were on the payroll of the umbrella group for the Panthers' social programs, although they had no known duties.[4] After a long investigation, Huey Newton was eventually sentenced to 6 months' jail time and probation after pleading no contest to cashing a $15,000 State check, intended for use by the Panthers' community programs, for personal use. At time, the Panthers were accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars of State grant funds.

From early on, the Panthers were known to "tax the dope trade," as they called it. A community fund drive for the Panther "survival" programs in 1971 saw solicitations from the Panthers to local businesses that amounted to shakedowns. Two arsons at Oakland's Fox Theater occurred after a local concert promoter refused demands from the Panthers for piece of the action. The Panther "security squad" was reportedly doing shakedowns of bars, after hours clubs, dealers, pimps, and hookers through the 1970s. A number of shootings through the 1970s occurred against Panther shakedown targets. News reporters critical of the Panthers were threatened (at least once by Brown) and two arsons are suspected to be in retribution for critical reporting by the Oakland Tribune.[5] David Horowitz, a former New Left activist turned batshit insane arch-conservative, claims he witnessed everything from major members of the Party leadership extorting pimps and hookers to them bashing in the back of Betty Van Patter's skull.[6] Horowitz went on to be known for his attempts to foment witch hunts in academia, but his account of his experience with the Panthers is what it is.

Fifth, Baby Huey himself. Newton was frequently wrapped up in charges of violence, starting from his youthful stabbing of another man with a steak knife, which he was actually convicted for, to charges of assault and murder. In October 1967, he was in a car pulled over by a white police officer who recognized Newton, and called for backup. When another officer arrived as backup, shots were exchanged between the people in the car and the first officer, which proved fatal for said officer. Newton showed up at a hospital later in the day with a gunshot wound in the abdomen, and was arrested and charged. The Panthers played that situation into a cause celebre for the left, rallying supporters around the "Free Huey" campaign during Newton's incarceration from September 1968 to May 1970. Newton claimed not to remember anything, the guns were never found, and after a conviction for manslaughter by an all-white jury was overturned by a higher court, the prosecution more or less went nowhere and Newton walked. Kate Coleman, veteran of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and equal opportunity muckraking journalist to the left and right, would claim years later that she had been told Newton's errand that led to the shootout was a large marijuana sale. If that claim is true, Newton was never in trouble over political violence; he only got into trouble over good old knucklehead violence.

Newton was again charged with murder in 1974 over the shooting death of a woman, allegedly because she used a childhood nickname he had a special dislike for, "baby". He was also charged with assault for allegedly beating a tailor in his Lake Merritt penthouse, again, over the use of said nickname. He fled to Cuba to avoid prosecution, and returned in 1977 to reclaim his post as the head of the Party and face the charges. Newton eventually beat both the charges, but the process was awfully messy and bloody. The key witness for the murder trial was the target of a botched hit by three Panthers, who attacked the wrong house and got themselves shot up instead. The Panther medic who treated one of the hitmen was himself later the target of a botched hit, shot in the back and buried in the desert. He survived but was paralyzed by the gunshot injuries, and implicated two Panthers as his assailants.[7] Newton denied involvement in these botched hits; however he was the head of the Panthers at the time, as well as the defendant in the case the witness was involved in, so go figure. But all that bloodshed paid off for Baby Huey, as the target of the first hit was too frightened to testify after the attempt on her life and the other two witnesses in the murder trial had credibility problems. After two trials with hung juries, the case was dropped. The tailor was also beset by untimely memory problems, eventually leading to dropped charges, but Newton pled out on charges of illegal gun possession in the process.

Newton was also a power hungry, ruthless, dirty, and violent infighter within the Panther organization. Returning from his incarceration in 1970, Newton sought to reassert his position as top dog of the Panthers, purging anyone he thought might challenge his position, all the while presenting a new face to the public as the head of a reborn community organizing and service organization. In Newton's purge of 1974 Robert Hilliard, who occupied the top position while Newton and Seale were incarcerated, was expelled, as was former chairman Seale. Newton's purges often involved beatings, as in the case of Seale and in 1977, Brown. In 1971 Newton expelled another rival in the Party, Geronimo Pratt, who was in jail since 1970 on a murder charge and in 1972 convicted on the word of a police informant. It was a contention in the Pratt camp that the Panthers had evidence supporting Pratt's alibi that he was 350 miles away at the time of the murder, but withheld it on the orders of Newton (Pratt's conviction was overturned in 1997). Other Panthers who felt that they had been abandoned by the Party while they were in legal trouble, or felt that the Party had a politically-motivated role in their trouble a la Pratt, gradually coalesced into a rival group, the Black Guerrilla Army. Newton's killing in 1989 was rumored to be the work of that group. Regardless of whether the defense of Panthers was deliberately withheld for factional reasons, which would put Newton's behavior close to that of a jailhouse snitch, or simply neglected, there was a perception that the closer you were to Newton, the more seriously your defense was taken.[8]

The Aftermath[edit]

From 1978 on, the Panthers were a spent force in Oakland politics. White liberals and government funders started keeping their wallets closed after the story broke over misuse of grant funds for the Panther School. By 1980 there were only around two dozen members of the Panthers left, but Newton was able to score one last triumph, a piece of paper from UC Santa Cruz that entitled him to be called "Doctor." In 1982, as Doctor Baby Huey was facing investigations stemming from the alleged diversion of $600,000 in State grant funds and there was no prospect that the Black Panther Party would ever be a cash cow again, Newton disbanded it. Newton would eventually plead no contest to cashing a $15,000 State check for personal use, for which he was sentenced to 6 months in jail and 18 months probation. Newton was shot to death in west Oakland in 1989, shortly after leaving a crackhouse, by a crack dealer who rolled with a group of disgruntled ex-Panthers. Beginning in the mid 1960's the inner city black community descended into a hell of drugs, gang violence, single motherhood, and unemployment- trends which peaked in the 1990's. The Panthers left legacies in the Crips and various Oakland political machines based on race.

See also[edit]

  • Huey Newton & Bobby Seale - the founders of the original Black Panther Party.
  • New Black Panther Party - a completely unrelated group appropriating the Black Panther name, adhering to a conspiracist anti-white, anti-LGBT, and anti-Semitic ideology far removed from the original Panthers.
  • New Left - the radical left movements of the late 1960s of which the Black Panthers were a part.
  • White Panther Party - a bunch of thugs opposed to the Black Panthers. their white allies.

References[edit]

  1. Up Against the Wall, Curtis Austin, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2006, p. 353-55
  2. Ten-Point Program and Platform of the Black Student Unions
  3. Sale, Kirkpatrick: SDS, Vintage Books, 1973, p. 566-567.
  4. The party's over, New Times, July 10, 1978
  5. The party's over, New Times, July 10, 1978
  6. Horowitz, David. Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
  7. The party's over, New Times, July 10, 1978
  8. The party's over, New Times, July 10, 1978