Rage and Ruin: On the Black Panthers
In the beginning, little about the party was original. Even the iconic dress of black leather jackets and matching berets was inspired by earlier Oakland activists, like the now all-but-forgotten Mark Comfort who, Bloom and Martin note, “had begun appealing to young African Americans with militant style.” As early as February 1965, the month Malcolm X was assassinated, Comfort had launched a protest “to put a stop to police beating innocent people.” Later that summer, Comfort and his supporters demanded that “the Oakland City Council keep white policemen out of black neighborhoods” and took steps to organize “citizen patrols to monitor the actions of the police and document incidents of brutality.” This wasn’t enough for Newton and Seale. Inspired by Robert F. Williams’s advocacy and practice of “armed self-reliance”—for which he’d had to flee the country in the early 1960s, seeking sanctuary in Castro’s Cuba—Newton and Seale decided to break entirely with “armchair intellectualizing,” as Seale would later call it. Propaganda of the deed, they believed, would arouse the admiration of, in Newton’s words, the “brothers on the block.” They’d had it with bended-knee politics. It was time, as a favored slogan of the Party would later urge, “to pick up the gun.”
Drawing up a ten-point program stuffed with demands for justice and self-determination, the Panthers represented a rupture with the reformist activism of the traditional civil rights movement. It wasn’t long before the party saw itself as a “vanguard,” capable of jump-starting a revolution. For some—and here I do not exempt myself—it was an intoxicating fever-dream.
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In early November 1969, I left Berkeley for a few days and went to Chicago to support the Chicago Eight, then on trial for the bloody police riot that had marred the anti–Vietnam War protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. I knew some of the defendants: Jerry Rubin, whom I’d met four years before while organizing one of the first junior high school protests against the Vietnam War; Tom Hayden, who’d taken an interest in my rabble-rousing posse at Berkeley High School during People’s Park; and Bobby Seale, whom I’d encountered through my close friendship with schoolmates who’d joined the Panthers and let us use the party’s typesetting machines in its Shattuck Avenue national headquarters to put together our underground newspaper, Pack Rat. Seale had been bound and gagged in the courtroom—a “neon oven,” Abbie Hoffman had called it. The country was riveted by the appalling spectacle. I arrived at the apartment that Leonard Weinglass, one of the defense attorneys, had rented. It served as crash pad and general meeting place for the far-flung tribe of supporters and radical nomads, unafraid to let their freak flags fly, who sought to muster support for the beleaguered defendants.
Sometime around midnight, Fred Hampton, clad in a long black leather coat and looking for all the world like a gunslinger bursting into a saloon, swept in with a couple of other Panthers in tow. You could feel the barometric pressure in the room rise with Hampton’s entrance. At the time, the favored flick was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, an epic western revenge fantasy that inflamed the overheated imaginations of a number of unindicted co-conspirators like my friend Stew Albert, a founder of the Yippies. Hampton was already in the cross-hairs of the FBI and Mayor Daley’s goons, to whom he’d been a taunting nemesis. He had an open face, and his eyes flashed intelligently. He had the Panther swagger down pat, yet his voice was soft, welcoming. He radiated charisma and humility. He seemed tired, and somehow you knew he was already thinking of himself as a dead man walking. He was famous for having proclaimed: “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” You could see how people could fall for him, and you could well imagine how his enemies hated and feared him. A month later he was murdered, shot dead by police while sleeping in his bed. He was 21.
Hampton seemed destined for greatness, having already eclipsed in his seriousness Eldridge Cleaver, the party’s minister of information and an ex-con who’d written the bestselling Soul on Ice. Cleaver was regarded by many of the younger recruits within the party as their Malcolm X. A strong advocate of working with progressive whites, Cleaver was a man of large appetites, an anarchic and ribald spirit who relished his outlaw status. After years in prison, he was hellbent on making up for lost time and wasn’t about to kowtow to anyone—neither to Ronald Reagan, whom he mocked mercilessly, nor, as it would turn out, to Huey Newton. He was the joker in the Panther deck and a hard act to follow. Like so many of the Panthers’ leaders, he had killer looks, inhabiting his own skin with enviable ease. (The erotic aura that the Panthers presented was a not inconsiderable part of their appeal, as any of the many photographs that were taken of them show. And in this department, Huey was the Supreme Leader, and he never let you forget it.) Eldridge was the biggest mouth in a party of big mouths. He especially loved invective and adored the sound of his own voice, delivered in a sly baritone drawl. He was a gifted practitioner of the rhetoric of denunciation, favoring such gems as “fascist mafioso” and given to vilifying the United States, at every turn, as “Babylon.” He was a master of misogynist pith, uttering the imperishable “revolutionary power grows out of the lips of a pussy.” He was fond of repeating, as if it were a personal mantra: “He could look his momma in the eye and lie.” He was notorious in elite Bay Area movement circles for his many and persistent infidelities and for his physical abuse of his equally tough-talking and beautiful wife, Kathleen. About these failures, however, a curtain of silence was drawn. He was, all in all, a hustler who exuded charm and menace in equal measure.
Cleaver would ultimately flee the country, rightly fearing a return to prison following his bungled shootout with Oakland police in the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968. The debacle had given the Panthers their first martyr, 17-year-old Bobby Hutton, the nascent party’s first recruit, gunned down by the cops as he sought to surrender. His funeral was front-page news; Marlon Brando was a featured speaker. Cleaver was arrested, released on bail and then disappeared, heading first to Cuba and then to Algeria. Newton was still in prison, awaiting trial for killing an Oakland cop. Now Bobby Seale was fighting to avoid a similar fate in Chicago. David Hilliard, the party’s chief of staff, was left to try to hold the group together. Hoover’s FBI, sensing victory, ratcheted up its secret COINTELPRO campaign, in concert with local police departments across the country, to sow dissension in the party’s ranks and to otherwise discredit and destroy its leaders. Hoover was a determined foe. He too had seemingly embraced Malcolm X’s defiant slogan “By any means necessary.” He cared a lot about order and about the law not a whit. With King gone, he worried, not unreasonably, that the Panthers would widen their appeal and step into the breach.
The suppression of the urban rebellions that erupted in many of the nation’s cities in the hinge year of 1968 underscored the Panthers’ fear that the United States had entered a long night of fascism. Nonviolent protest struck a growing number of activists as having run its course in the face of unsentimental and overwhelming state power. The Vietnam War, despite the upwelling of the Tet Offensive, seemed endless. Richard Nixon’s election on a platform of “law and order” made a generation of reform-minded progressives seem hopelessly naïve. Fires were being lit by a burgeoning and increasingly despairing discontent. For some time, Jim Morrison had been singing of “The End.” Soon, Gil Scott-Heron would intone that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and from his California prison cell, Huey P. Newton began to dream of “revolutionary suicide.”
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