Rage and Ruin: On the Black Panthers
Among the challenges in grappling with the Panthers and their legacy is keeping in reasonable balance the multiple and often overlapping factors that combined to throttle the party. The temptation to overemphasize the role of the FBI is large. It should be avoided. There is no doubt about the evil that was done by Hoover’s COINTELPRO: it exacerbated the worst tendencies among the Panthers and did much to deepen a politics of paranoia that would ultimately help hollow out what had been a steadily growing movement of opposition. It sowed the seeds of disunity. It cast doubt on the very idea of leadership. It promoted suspicion and distrust. It countenanced murder and betrayal. But the Panthers were not blameless. Newton, for his part, provided fertile ground for reckless extremism and outright criminality to grow and take root. Cockamamie offshoots like Donald DeFreeze’s so-called Symbionese Liberation Army and even the lethal cult of Jim Jones’s benighted People’s Temple owed an unacknowledged debt to Newton’s example. His responsibility for enfeebling his own and his party’s best ambitions, gutting its achievements and compromising its ability to appeal to the unconvinced majority of his fellow citizens, is too often neglected in accounts of this kind. Yet it is precisely this sort of postmortem and historical reckoning that is necessary for any proper and just understanding of the party’s politics and history. It is work that remains to be done.
Bloom and Martin barely concern themselves with the party’s swift descent into thuggery, consigning only six paragraphs in the closing pages of their book to a section called “Unraveling.” They prefer to dwell on the party’s glory years from 1967 through 1971. They deny that the party’s end was rooted in its undemocratic character, and instead attribute its defeat largely to what they believe was the deft way the political establishment undercut its base, by initiating reforms and awarding concessions that won over the Panthers’ allies. “The costs of appeasing allies,” they conclude, “thus made continued insurgency impossible, and the national organization defanged itself.” While they allow that after 1971, the party “became increasingly cultish…with a mafioso bent,” they blame the erosion of the party’s image on journalists and critics like Kate Coleman and David Horowitz. They excoriate both as “right-wing activists,” which in Coleman’s case is calumny. In no instance do they dispute the accuracy of either Coleman’s reporting or Horowitz’s cris de coeur. Coleman, a veteran of the Free Speech Movement and a longtime muckraking reporter, published, together with Paul Avery, a scrupulously reported and damning indictment of the Panthers’ criminal practices in New Times magazine in 1978. For this sin, she incurred death threats and castigation from former party stalwarts. Horowitz, a former editor of Ramparts magazine in its senescence, broke with Newton when he learned that the Panthers had very likely murdered Betty Van Patter, a white woman who had loyally served as the party’s bookkeeper and had discovered suspicious irregularities in the accounting ledgers. Horowitz felt responsible, for it was he who had recommended Van Patter for the job. He has spent the years since atoning for the blood he feels still stains his hands.
But what matters most to Bloom and Martin, apparently, is not whether Coleman’s reporting is accurate or Horowitz’s criticisms and self-flagellations are warranted. Rather, they are most exercised by the damage they believe was done to the party’s image by Coleman and Horowitz in making the charges public. They concede that “retrospective accounts from a range of sources add some credence to these accusations,” but insist that “few of the accusations have been verified.” Bloom and Martin’s research is impressive—yet somehow they have missed or omitted accounts that might detract from or unduly complicate their overly generous portrayal. For example, the late Ken Kelley, a gifted and honest reporter, wrote courageously about Newton, whom he knew well and for whom he once worked. In a story published in the month following Newton’s death, which appeared in the East Bay Express, Kelley revealed that Newton had admitted to him shooting 17-year-old Oakland prostitute Kathleen Smith and ordering the killing of Betty Van Patter for refusing to clean up the party’s books. Van Patter’s end was gruesome, according to Kelley: “They didn’t just kill her. They kept her hostage, they raped her, they beat her up, then they killed her and threw her in the Bay.”
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It would be unjust to allow the supernovas of the Panther elite to overshadow the unsung heroes whose audacity and tenacious commitment to change was sparked by the party. That would miss the larger, less obvious story, which is one of persistent idealism. It owes almost everything to the wellspring of activism that the Panthers, at their best, summoned into being. Bloom and Martin are alive to this crucial point, and it is here that they make their strongest and most convincing contribution. The collapse and destruction of the party, occasioned by the unremitting enmity of the state as well as by its numerous self-inflicted wounds, should not be permitted to overwhelm the good work that it engendered in the many who enrolled in its cause.
I remember especially my old high school comrade Ronald Stevenson, who at 16 joined the party, inspired by its program of resistance and empowerment. There were thousands like him across the country. With the party’s encouragement, Ronnie organized a Black Student Union, going on to be elected its first chair. Together, we launched a campaign to establish a black history course and department. Our only disagreement was whether the course should be elective or mandatory, he favoring the former, I the latter. I felt that if the class were voluntary, only the black kids would be likely to enroll. I believed that such history was arguably even more important for white people to know in order to challenge racial stereotypes and to grasp the essential contribution that black people had made to American history and culture. After all, how could you consider yourself an educated and serious person if, say, you only knew about Abraham Lincoln but not Frederick Douglass? Or about John Brown but not Nat Turner? All this may seem self-evident today. In 1968, it was not. We fought hard, mobilized fellow students and their parents, and issued our “nonnegotiable demands.” We won, and the Berkeley Board of Education agreed to establish such a course. It was among the first in the nation to be offered in a high school, and Ronnie and I were eager to enroll. Forty-five years later, Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower and Basil Davidson’s The African Genius, two of the books we were assigned to read, still have pride of place on my bookshelves.
A year later, 17-year-old Ronnie was on the run, accused of having shot and killed a former member of the Black Panther Party outside its Shattuck Avenue headquarters. For the next decade, I’d occasionally hear that he was in Cuba or Algeria. The truth was that he’d gone underground and changed his name, but instead of fleeing to Havana, he’d gone to Mahwah, New Jersey, where he’d gotten a job in an auto plant. There, ever the organizer, he’d become a member of the United Auto Workers, eventually elected to represent 300 of his fellows as their district committee man. But after eight years in the plant, Ronnie and the other workers found themselves out of a job; the plant had closed. He told me all this when he showed up at our tenth-anniversary high school reunion, having decided to return to California and face the music. The charges against him were eventually dismissed, and he re-enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1983, where he founded a program called Break the Cycle that hired undergraduates to tutor local at-risk elementary and middle school students, with an emphasis on mathematics. The program was a success, running for more than twenty years. Ronnie would graduate with a degree in African-American studies in 1990 and became a lecturer in the department. He also started a community program that put kids from South Berkeley together with police officers each week to discuss racial profiling. He died in 2010 of a brain aneurysm. He was 58.