Rage and Ruin: On the Black Panthers
In the early morning hours of April 1, 1967, in North Richmond, California, a small, impoverished, all-black town near Oakland, Denzil Dowell lay dead in the street. The police said that Dowell, a 22-year-old construction worker, had been killed by a single shotgun blast to the back and head; they claimed that he had been caught burglarizing a liquor store and, when ordered to halt, had failed to do so. The coroner’s report told a different story. His body bore six bullet holes, and there was reason to believe Dowell had been shot while surrendering with his hands raised high. His mother said, “I believe the police murdered my son.” An all-white jury found that Dowell’s death was “justifiable homicide.” Many people in North Richmond didn’t agree.
Only six months before, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, brash upstarts from Oakland, had established the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They had quickly garnered a reputation for their willingness to stand up to police harassment and worse. They’d made a practice of shadowing the cops, California Penal Code in one hand, twelve-gauge shotgun in the other. Soon they were meeting with the Dowell family, investigating the facts of the case, holding street-corner rallies, confronting officials, arguing that only by taking up arms could the black community put a stop to police brutality. Newton and Seale were fearless and cocky—even reckless, some felt—and itching for a fight. One Sunday, the police came knocking on Mrs. Dowell’s door while Newton was there. When she opened the door, Newton later recalled, “a policeman pushed his way in, asking questions. I grabbed my shotgun and stepped in front of her, telling him either to produce a search warrant or leave. He stood for a minute, shocked, then ran out to his car and drove off.” Emboldened, Newton and Seale planned a rally that, in the event, would prove unforgettable.
A new history of the Black Panther Party, Black Against Empire, tells what happened next:
The Panthers showed up armed and in uniform and closed off the street. Word had spread and almost four hundred people of all ages came. Many working-class and poor black people from North Richmond were there. They wanted to know how to get some measure of justice for Denzil Dowell and in turn how to protect themselves and their community from police attacks. People lined both sides of the block. Some elderly residents brought lawn chairs to sit in while they listened. Some of the younger generation climbed on cars.
Several police cars arrived on the scene, but…kept their distance. A Contra Costa County helicopter patrolled above. According to a sheriff’s spokesman, the department took no other action because the Panthers broke no laws and, as required, displayed their weapons openly. Neighbors showed up with their own guns…. One young woman who had been sitting in her car got out and held up her M-1 for everyone to see. The Panthers passed out applications to join their party, and over three hundred people filled them out. According to FBI informant Earl Anthony, he “had never seen Black men command the respect of the people the way that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale did that day.”
Several days after Dowell’s death, alarmed by the Panthers’ growing prominence, California legislator Donald Mulford introduced a bill to ban the carrying of loaded weapons in public. Newton responded by upping the ante and in early May dispatched thirty Panthers, most of them armed, to Sacramento, the state capital. They were to show up at the capitol building as the bill was being debated. The police confiscated their guns soon after they arrived but later returned them, as the Panthers had broken no laws. The Mulford Act passed. The Panthers were instantly notorious, and images of their armed foray were splashed across the nation’s newspapers and shown on television. It was a PR coup. Soon thousands of young blacks joined the party, and by the end of 1968 seventeen Panther chapters had opened across the country. One enthusiast, quoted in a major feature story in The New York Times Magazine, spoke for many when he said: “As far as I’m concerned it’s beautiful that we finally got an organization that don’t walk around singing. I’m not for all this talking stuff. When things start happening I’ll be ready to die if that’s necessary and it’s important that we have somebody around to organize us.”
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The rise and fall of the Black Panther Party is a heartbreaking saga of heroism and hubris, which, in its full dimension and contradiction, has long awaited its ideal chronicler. The material is rich, some of it still radioactive. A good deal of it can be found in a clutch of memoirs, inevitably self-serving but valuable nonetheless, that have appeared sporadically over the years by ex-Panthers, including Bobby Seale, David Hilliard and Elaine Brown among the better known, but also such lesser figures as William Lee Brent, Flores Forbes and Jamal Joseph. There are also accounts by David Horowitz, Kate Coleman and Hugh Pearson. All are to be read with care. The Panthers were controversial in their day and remain so. Their history is swaddled in propaganda, some of it promulgated by the party’s enemies, who sought assiduously to destroy it, and some by its apologists and hagiographers, who, as often as not, have refused to acknowledge the party’s crimes and misdemeanors, preferring to attribute its demise almost entirely to the machinations of others. Peopled by outsize characters—starting with its magnetic and headstrong founder, Huey P. Newton, eulogized at his 1989 funeral as “our Moses”—the party’s complicated history, replete with Byzantine political schisms, murderous infighting and a contested legacy, has eluded sober examination.
Now two scholars, Waldo Martin Jr., a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, and Joshua Bloom, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UCLA, after more than a decade of work, offer a corrective. They demolish the canard that the Panthers were anti-white. What distinguished Newton and Seale’s approach was their refusal to go along with the narrow cultural nationalism that had appealed to so many African-Americans. They fought tremendous battles, sometimes turning deadly, with those who thought, as the saying went, that political power grew out of the sleeve of a dashiki. Bloom and Martin rightly emphasize the Panthers’ steady embrace of a class-based politics with an internationalist bent. The party was inspired by anti-imperialist struggles in Africa, Latin America and Asia. They began by emphasizing the local but soon went global, ultimately establishing an international section in Algiers. Their romance with the liberation movements of others would eventually become something of a fetish, reaching its nadir in the bizarre adulation of North Korea’s dictator Kim Il-Sung and his watchword juche, a term for the self-reliance that the Panthers deluded themselves into thinking might be the cornerstone of a revolutionary approach that would find an echo of enthusiasm in America.