Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The sixties: Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party

Much of the material in this post is based on the biography Huey: Spirit of the Panther (2006) by David Hilliard with Keith and Kent Zimmerman.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) was one of the most prominent icons in the United States of what we now call "the sixties". The BPP was a revolutionary political party founded by two young African-American men in late 1966 in Oakland CA: an Air Force veteran named Bobby Seale and an intellectually brilliant child of the Oakland streets, Huey Pierce Newton. Newton's first and middle names were after Huey P. Long, the colorful Louisiana populist who was admired by many Southern blacks because his economic programs had benefited them. Newton was born in Lousiana in 1942 but his parents moved the the San Francisco Bay Area in 1944, part of the wartime economic boom that brought large numbers of African-Americans to the Bay Area for the first time.

The organization Newton co-founded and led as its "Minister of Defense" began by striking a militant posture, setting up patrols to monitor the mostly white Oakland Police Department in black areas of Oakland, armed with loaded shotguns and pistols during their patrols. The BPP accomplished many other things, promoting self-reliance in black communities through food programs and community schools, for example. But the early images of gun-wielding African-American militants in black leather jackets and berets that first won them nationwide publicity and recruits continued to define them for much of the public, the police and the FBI. As author David Hilliard, a prominent Panther himself, puts it, "The press painted us as wild, gun-toting animals. We had picked up the gun, now we could not put it down; the media froze us in this agonizing posture".

It would be easy for anyone writing today to dismiss the Panther phenomenon as crazy, violent, self-destructive. Given the factionalism rife among radical activists at the time - some but by no means all of it due to police and FBI disruption activities - it would not be difficult to find plenty of people on the left from that time and later who would denounce them in various ways. The BPP itself split over the emphasis on "guns" (armed self-defense), with high-profile Party leader Eldridge Cleaver promoting a more militant posture and advocating alliances with groups like the Weather Underground, while Newton favored emphasizing their social programs, which he rebranded as "survival programs". Hilliard was a Newton partisan in that split, so that perspective inevitably colors his narrative. In other words, if you were looking for "oppo research" material to use in anti-Panther polemics, there's plenty of it to be found. (Rightwinger David Horowitz has built a substantial part of his public reputation on just such writing about the Panthers, who he credits with making him a flaming rightwinger.) But that doesn't help much in understanding why the Black Panthers had the impact they did among urban African-American communities, white radicals and even mainstream liberals.

Hilliard gives a factual account of Newton's life. But it inevitably takes on some of the feel of a story about a romantic outlaw, because that's partly how Newton styled himself. Newton and Seale founded the BPP in 1966. Hilliard makes it clear that Newton was intellectually adapt and personally gutsy. Newton studied enough law to be able to challenge police who threatened Panthers or member of the community with arrest. In 1967, the BPP conducted their own investigation of a very questionable fatal police shooting of a young black man named Denzil Dowell in the Bay Area city of Richmond, an effort which raised their profile locally.

Later that year, a Republican state assemblyman named Donald Mulford moved to tighten the state gun laws of which the Panthers were taking advantage to induce greater police restraint in dealing with the black community. Bobby Seale led a group of Panthers to the State Capitol in Sacramento carrying loaded shotguns and handguns. (I've read one account saying the guns were not loaded. Hilliard's account is clear that they were.) When they walked near where Gov. Ronald Reagan was giving an outdoor speech, Reagan went scurrying away. The Panthers then marched into the Capitol building with their weapons, and some of them walked right onto the Assembly floor. Although the police found an excuse to arrest them afterward, amazingly enough it was perfectly legal at the time to stroll into the State Capitol with a loaded shotgun. Hilliard does not report what position the National Rifle Association took on this incident.

Black Panther Party Chief of Staff David Hilliard

This demonstration earned the Panthers nationwide publicity and BPP chapters began to spring up in cities across the country. The fact that the Party made big mistakes and missed major opportunities in this situation is not surprising. A local organization led by young men with basically no political experience suddenly became a national phenomenon within a year of its founding. Not unlike a high-tech startup, they found a niche and filled it; the popularity of their "product" could cover up for many organizational weaknesses at first. The BPP immediately attracted the very hostile attention of police departments and the FBI. Hilliard recounts a number of actions of the now-notorious COINTELPRO program which made the Panthers a key target. The repression directed against them resulted in anumber of Panthers being killed, including Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago, "Lil' Bobby" Hutton in Oakland and George Jackson in Soledad Prison. Hilliard writes, "By August 1970, a total of twenty-two Black Panther Party members had been slain". Seale, Newton and Hilliard did prison time on various charges. Newton spent time in exile in Cuba, Cleaver in Cuba and Algeria. Newton eventually had charged dropped over the fatal shooting of an Oakland policeman, John Frey, and was freed from prison in 1970 after a famous "Free Huey!" campaign. In 1974, Newton was arrested in Oakland and accused of pistol-whipping a tailor, Preston Callins. For good measure, the Alameda District Attorney also charged him with the murder of a prostitute. Out on bail, he fled that same year to Cuba with his wife Gwen, where they remained until 1977. He returned to Oakland, where he beat the murder charge in court, and Callins declined to press charges on the alleged assault.

Hilliard's book includes one long chapter by Newton's second wife Frederika, giving a more intimate picture of Newton as a private person. Hilliard is frank about the substance abuse problems which both he and Newton experienced. Frederika's account of the drug and alcohol problems is vivid and sad. By 1977, the BPP was a significant force only in the Bay Area, where under the day-to-day leadership of Elaine Brown it had achieved a certain amount of conventional political influence and even respectability in Oakland. The Party's fortunes declined fairly rapidly once Newton took over direct leadership. Hilliard's account doesn't explain the reasons for it, though Newton's state of health no doubt contributed much to that result. Newton was killed by a young drug dealer in Oakland in 1989, apparently in a drug deal gone bad, though Hilliard also writes, "I must say, in 1989, during the last six months of his life, Huey was sober". He also writes, "Huey was later diagnosed as being bipolar and [sic] manic-depressive. Unfortunately, we didn't recognize it at the time. None of us understood the severity of his drug addiction and alcoholism".

The Black Panther was the Party newspaper

There's no question that the Panthers had a significant influence. On the positive side, their "self-defense" program, for all its practical faults, was a significant factor in highlighting the severe nature of police misconduct in poor black urban neighborhoods in many cities, a pattern extensively documented in many cities at the time by various observers, including the Kerner Commission Report of 1968. It's pretty obvious that having armed vigilantes following the police around was no more than a very temporary solution. But it had an effect. The BPP encouraged many activists to direct their energies to constructive organizing in other meaningful community projects. And they helped define a self-confident identity among urban African-Americans, especially outside the South, as the most prominent advocates of the Black Power movement. It would be foolish to ignore those achievements or the experience in community organizing that many people gained in working with the BPP.

At the same time, it would be unrealistic to ignore real problems among the Panthers, some of which I've mentioned already. In Newton's particular case, the murder of Officer John Frey was never resolved. The charge of murdering the prostitute sounds unlikely. The Preston Callins assault charge was simply dropped by the alleged victim. Hilliard writes, "The Black Panthers were a party and a movement, not a gang". And that's accurate enough, in general. But they were a tough bunch operating in a tough environment. Though they fought heroin as a danger to the black community and Oakland drug dealers once put out a hit on Newton, the BPP also tried to organize pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers. In their demands for contributions from dope dealers and from some of the shadier establishments in the Oakland area, some of the methods described in Hilliard's account would be hard to clearly distinguish from extortion. They operated on some of the grimmest edges of society, in other words. And that required having a least a partial "gang" aspect. Any serious revolutionary party would have to be prepared to operate outside the law under certain circumstances. (As we've seen the last few years, many Republicans are prepared to do so as well, and not merely in pursuit of personal aggrandizement.)

But that can lead to some ugly compromises. In his famous book Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver had described a black man raping a white woman as an "insurrectionary" act against the white power structure, which in itself is disturbing enough on its face. In a manuscript written long after his break with Cleaver, Newton reported that a black mother complained to the Party that Cleaver had raped her 14-year-old daughter. Newton writes, "When charged by the [Party] central committee, Cleaver's only response was, 'I only wish that she had been 12 years old'." Again, the source had an interest in making Cleaver look as bad as possible. But Newton's account hardly reflects credit on himself or his fellow BPP leaders that they would apparently take no action to at least distance themselves and their Party from him after such a admission on his part. Any organization that considers itself insulated from the normal rules of society, whether its a cult or an established church or a political group, is particularly vulnerable to such abuses. Still, that was an ugly compromise indeed. My point in including that is to say that there were genuinely ugly and indefensible aspects of the real existing Black Panther Party. And you don't have to rely on sources as shaky as David Horowitz to know that. History is not always made by nice people. Or good ones.

But just as it's important to understand those negative aspects, it's also important to understand the social and political context in which the BPP made such an impression on so many people. The Black Panther Party and the their followers and admirers were much more than Huey Newton or Eldridge Cleaver. And to understand that portion of US political history, it's necessary to have some idea about what actions and decisions and leadership factors made their successes possible, however one chooses to judge the nature of those successes.

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