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Letter from Oakland

There’s a hawg in the stream!” shouted the Reverend E. E. Cleveland. He was holding a portable microphone in his hand as he swayed back and forth in the pulpit of the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Oakland, California. “There’s a hawg in the stream and the hawg is muddying up the cool water. God put in the stream! You got to get the hawg out, you got to get the hawg out of the stream or you cain’t get a cool drink of water.”

Amen,” shouted some of the congregation, the older women with black or white hats, the older men in suits with white shirts and dark ties, appropriate funeral clothes. But many others in the church, especially the young ones, sat in silence as the man in the pulpit took off his jacket and continued preaching in his shirtsleeves with his suspenders and belt showing. The teenage girls and a few of the women were bareheaded, with “natural” haircuts.

Two separate funerals were going on simultaneously in the church on Alcatraz St., almost at the dividing line between Oakland and Berkeley. (In spite of its grim name, Alcatraz is a pleasant street; middle-class whites live at its western end up in the hills, and the residents grow blacker down toward the much poorer eastern flatland that borders on the bay. Even there the neighborhood is more prosperous than most of Oakland’s black ghetto. The Ephesian church itself is “modern” with stained glass windows of abstract design.) One funeral was a religious ceremony while the other was political, but both were for Bobby Hutton, the eighteen-year-old Black Panther who had been killed by the Oakland Police a few days earlier as he emerged, hands in the air, from the house where he, Eldridge Cleaver, and a group of other Panthers were under siege by the police.

The religious funeral was conducted in the traditional Negro style: hymns were sung, the minister preached the Gospel, while the older mourners moaned Bobby’s name again and again, and an obituary of Bobby Hutton was read aloud, which mentioned every church choir group of which he’d been a member in his short life, but which said nothing of his membership in the Black Panthers.

The other funeral for Bobby was given him by the Black Panthers. They stood alongside the walls on both sides and back of the church, some wearing their black berets, all staring silently, almost stolidly, at the casket in front of the pulpit. The Panther services for Bobby were led by Bobby Seale, the Panther chairman, who spoke briefly and then introduced another Panther leader who talked for a few minutes of how Bobby Hutton had died to help save his people.

Neither of the two Black Panthers mentioned God or patience. And although they used the Minister’s allegory of the “hawg in the stream,” their message about it was that black people couldn’t wait any longer for someone else to get the “hawg” out of the water, but had to do it for themselves, by fighting back at those who were keeping them from drinking the cool water.

Except for Marlon Brando who was sitting with a group of Panther leaders, there weren’t many white people besides myself among the mourners. But the balcony of the church was crowded with white photographers, TV cameramen, and reporters. Once, during the service, the Negro preacher shouted up at them for snapping pictures of bodies and not of souls, asking why they came only to photograph funerals like that of Bobby Hutton but didn’t come to take pictures when his congregation was having a revival service.

And as the preacher ranted at the reporters, three young girls in the row in front of me turned around to stare at them. One of them wore a sweatshirt with Malcolm’s picture stenciled on it; all of them were obviously part of that group of high-school kids whose militance and hostility has not yet been sensed by much of the white world. Not many encounters have taken place yet between the newly emerging black high-school generation and white society.

But it was clear that these young people identified most with the silent Panthers in their black jackets and berets. Whatever doubts many white liberals and radicals, too, feel about the Panthers’ willingness to use guns in self-defense, whatever uneasiness is created among those white liberals and radicals by the Panthers’ continual use of the word “pigs” to describe the police, these are not shared by many young blacks. They may not be willing to participate directly in Panther activities but it seems certain that they identify emotionally and intellectually with them.

Such young people are not as concerned as are most whites with whether the police fire the first shot at the Panthers or whether the Panthers fire the first shot; unlike the whites, they are sure that if a policeman approaches them with a drawn gun, he is probably going to shoot them. That is reality to them as it is to the Panthers, and in Oakland they are very close to the truth.

The Oakland police have harassed the Black Panthers since they were organized early in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who met while they were students at Merritt College in Oakland. Newton had started law school but left to spend full time organizing the Panthers (the name was taken from the Black Panthers Party of Lowndes County, Ala.). Hutton, then only sixteen, was the first member Newton and Seale had recruited.

Initially, the Panthers functioned as a Community Alert Patrol in the Oakland ghetto, following police cars and advising the residents of their legal rights if they were arrested. The group then called itself the Black Panthers For Self-Defense and the members stressed, again and again, that they would not attack first, but would defend themselves, with arms, if they were attacked. When the Panthers began their patrolling, the police compiled a list of all the license numbers of Panther cars, and stopped them arbitrarily. In October 1967, Huey Newton was arrested for the alleged murder of a police officer who halted his car; the circumstances surrounding the incident are still obscure and will not be clarified until Newton’s trial takes place in June. His arrest has become a central issue among black militants and white radicals: the cry of ‘Free Huey” is raised continually and Newton is now a congressional candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party.

The Panthers have recently become a frankly political organization. Much of their program would be acceptable to liberals; they ask for jobs, better housing, and decent education for blacks. But many liberal and even radical whites or blacks are uneasy with such Panther demands as the release of black prisoners from prison: the Panthers say they are engaged in a full-scale attack upon the legal system of America which, they insist, has deprived blacks of their rights to be tried by a jury of their peers. Yet the Panther leaders also express their opposition to rioting, and have been willing to work in close cooperation, on an equal basis, with white groups. Basically, the Panther political positions are related to what Eldridge Cleaver has described as the emergence of “national consciousness” among those minority groups who the Panthers insist are not American citizens except on paper. The Panthers believe that these minorities are in fact separate nations, systematically excluded from American society, and that therefore they should be given the opportunity to govern themselves and decide whether or not they wish, in Cleaver’s phrase, to “integrate into Babylon.”

Thus, the Panthers insist on the right of the blacks to “self-determination” and to breaking up the systems which now govern the lives of the ghetto residents from the outside. They want to police their own ghettos with men and women who live in the community. But their demands also strike at many American institutions. They ask for reparations for the hundreds of years in which black people have been the source of cheap labor. “If the white American businessman will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessman and placed in the community.”

Most of the white community in California is unaware of the Panthers’ political position; all they can see are the guns which are played up by the press and on television. They are made uneasy, too, by the black berets and leather jackets that have become the Panther uniform. The Panthers do not discuss the size of their membership but it is obvious that they have at least a few hundred members in the Bay area, and they are now organizing in Los Angeles and other cities. They have also worked out a formal merger with SNCC. Still, the police tactics are hurting the Panthers: their homes are entered without warrants and their leaders arrested on charges which are then dropped.

Bobby Hutton had been killed on the night of April 6 after the Oakland police had stopped a car of Panthers returning from a meeting. According to the police version, the Panthers shot at them and they returned the fire. The Panthers maintain that the police pulled their guns and shot at them first. A few minutes later, the police surrounded the house into which the Panthers had run. Tear gas grenades were thrown, machine gun bullets poured into the floodlit house, setting it on fire. After about an hour and a half, the Panthers stopped shooting back and surrendered. Bobby Hutton was the first to come out of the house. He stepped forward with his hands in the air, and was told to move from the floodlit area to a police car. A police officer shouted, “He’s got a gun.” Bobby fell dead, his face and body riddled with bullets. Later, the police admitted he did not have a gun.

Only at the end of Bobby Hutton’s funeral, the difference between the two separate funerals became clear; just before the last benediction was to be given, the preacher asked to speak a moment more. Directing himself to the Panthers alongside the walls, he pleaded with them to work in God’s way with patience for the freedom of their people. He went on and on and on, his voice rising and falling, his body swaying. The young people in the congregation seemed to grow restless, until Bobby Seale walked up to the pulpit, and the preacher ended his plea. Seale spoke a few moments as if to reestablish the dominance of the Panthers and gave the signal for them to file past Bobby Hutton’s bier. After all of them had walked past the coffin, the people in the congregation moved out into the aisles: directly ahead of me was the girl in the Malcolm sweatshirt. As he walked by the coffin, her eyes filled with tears. Angrily she blinked them back.

A few days later, four other members of the Panthers were arrested near the Panther office by the Oakland Police Department on “suspicion of robbery.” After seventy-two hours, they were released for “lack of further evidence.”

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