Letter from Oakland: The Panthers

I went to Oakland, dead end of the westward course of empire, and home of the Black Panthers, to take a look at a conference of the revolutionary Left. Oakland, where the American dream ends at the Pacific, and the nightmare begins, is a familiar kind of industrial city: high-rise office buildings and apartments downtown, plasticene shopping centers on the fringe, and slowly decaying wooden houses in between. West Oakland, facing the Bay and the gleaming hills of San Francisco beyond, is the ghetto where the Black Panthers were born. It is a Californiastyle ghetto, with one-family houses and neglected yards, where poverty wears a more casual face and despair is masked by sunshine.

The Panthers in July summoned their friends—a mixed bag of revolutionaries, radicals, pacifists, and liberals—to assemble in Oakland to form what they called a “united front against fascism.” The phrase itself had a defensive ring, reminiscent of the ill-fated Popular Fronts of the 1930s, and it seemed to indicate that the Panthers were in trouble. White radicals, few of whom were consulted about the agenda, privately expressed doubts about the usefulness of such a conference, and many SDS chapters did not send representatives. As it turned out, they would not have had much of a role to play anyway, since the Panthers were very much running their own show and not accepting criticism from those who came to hear them.

Like so many other gatherings of the radical Left, the conference produced little unity but a great deal of dissatisfaction. Most of the sessions were disorganized and, with a few exceptions, the speeches were little more than an interminable series of spot announcements denouncing the evils of rampant fascism. No one seemed interested in discussing whether fascism had indeed arrived in America. This, like so much of the other rhetoric of the revolutionary Left, was simply taken for granted.

When the three-day conference finally rambled to an end, the dwindling band of white radicals drifted away in dismay, wondering what kind of bag the Panthers had got themselves into. The more militant radicals from Berkeley feared that the Panthers had turned reformist, while socialists and Trotskyites complained about their dictatorial methods. The “united front,” whose creation was the ostensible purpose of the conference, had not been formed and most participants expressed doubts that it ever would be. The general consensus was that the Panthers didn’t have a very clear idea of what they were up to. They wanted to enlist allies, and they hoped that some kind of united front would develop. But they had no real plan worked out, and certainly no intention of letting anyone else supply one.

Why did the Panthers call such a conference in the first place? At least in part because they have been under increasing harassment and intimidation by the police and the FBI. During the past few months more than forty leaders and 100 members have been arrested, and some of them are now facing life imprisonment or the death penalty. The party’s founder and chief theorist, twenty-seven-year-old Huey P. Newton, is serving a fourteen-year sentence for allegedly shooting an Oakland policeman. Its most articulate spokesman, Eldridge Cleaver, has chosen to go into exile rather than return to prison on dubious charges of parole violation. Its treasurer, seventeen-year-old Bobby Hutton, was killed by police during last year’s Oakland shootout. And its acting chairman, Bobby Seale, is under federal indictment for conspiring to incite a riot at last year’s Democratic convention, although he was not a member of any of the organizations sponsoring the protests, and spent less than a day in Chicago.

The Panthers see a concerted plot by the federal government, with the assistance of local police, to destroy them. Recently Spiro Agnew has described them as a “completely irresponsible, anarchistic group of criminals,” and J. Edgar Hoover has called them, among black militants, the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” This summer the Justice Department set up a special task force to investigate the party in the hope of nailing it on violation of some twenty federal laws, including those making it a crime to cross state lines to foment civil disorder, to interfere with persons participating in programs supported by the federal government, and to damage government buildings. Senator McClellan’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has been providing a forum for police officers and their informants to denounce the Panthers, as well as white radical groups. Recently they heard Larry Clayton Powell and his wife Jean tell how the Panthers forced them to rob for the party. The Panthers, however, claim that the Powells were kicked out of the party because they were criminals, and that they are telling the McClellan committee what it wants to hear in order to win clemency.

From the record it is clear that the campaign against the Panthers has been stepped up in recent months. In March Bobby Seale was linked to the Chicago conspiracy case and placed under federal indictment. On April 4 New York District Attorney Frank Hogan announced in banner headlines that his office had smashed a Panther plot to blow up several midtown department stores, a police station, and, inexplicably, the Bronx Botanical Gardens. A grand jury indicted twenty-one Panthers and bail for thirteen of them was set at $100,000 each. No bondsman will touch the case, and the party, of course, is unable to raise such an amount of money. Meanwhile the Panthers remain in jail, some under maximum security, not for having actually committed a crime, but for having conspired to do so, an extremely vague charge that rests on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of informers.

On May 22, in a case which police claim was linked to the New York twenty-one, eight New Haven Panthers were arrested and charged with kidnapping and murdering Alex Rackley, a New York Panther. Police claim he was killed because he was an informer, the Panthers charge that the police murdered him themselves in order to justify nation-wide raids on chapter offices in a search for his alleged assassins. Whatever really happened to Rackley, federal agents did in fact carry out raids in Washington, D.C., Salt Lake City, Denver, and Chicago in conjunction with the case. Two Denver Panthers are being held on $200,000 bail—not for murder or even conspiracy but on the vague catchall charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.*

In the Chicago raid, which took place on June 4, FBI agents blocked off the street at 5:30 in the morning and confiscated Panther literature, a list of donors, and copies of a petition signed by 15,000 people calling for the release of Illinois party chairman Fred Hampton, who is in prison on a two-to-five-year sentence for allegedly stealing $71 worth of ice cream bars distributed to ghetto children.

The day after the Chicago raid, police broke into the Panther office in Detroit, photographed documents, and arrested three Panthers, who were later released. On June 7, during racial disturbances, police entered the Panther office in Indianapolis and arrested thirty people. On June 10 a grand jury in Chicago indicted sixteen Panthers on charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and threatening to murder two people who allegedly refused to return weapons entrusted to them by the Panthers. Bond was set at $100,000 each for six of the sixteen. One of the charges, aggravated kidnapping, carries a maximum death penalty. On June 15 San Diego policemen shot their way into Panther headquarters, where they claimed a sniper had taken refuge.

That same day in Sacramento the Panther office was torn apart by police during a shoot-out. On July 31, again in Chicago, police raided Panther head-quarters during the pre-dawn hours, destroyed office equipment, medical supplies, and food for the children’s breakfast program, and arrested three unarmed men for shooting at policemen from the office windows. The Panthers insist they were attacked by the police and tried to defend themselves.

Now that the federal government has joined the local police in operations against the Panthers—Attorney-General Mitchell is trying to get the courts to admit wiretap evidence against the Panthers and other groups ostensibly threatening “national security”—the strengthening of their links with white radical groups is more important than before. This is partly a question of ideology, for the Panthers—popular impressions to the contrary—are not racist. Indeed, they are virtually the only black militant group that actually welcomes white allies. It is also a question of survival, for without support from the white community they fear they will be picked off and destroyed.

Vilified and distorted by the press, which has little understanding of their program, they are generally viewed as an anarchistic band of gun-toting, white-hating thugs. This allows the police and federal officials to abridge their constitutional rights in a way they would not dare to use against whites. Provocation, false arrests, trumped-up charges, illegal detention, barbaric treatment, excessive bail, and even legal murder—this is everyday treatment for the Panthers. They have been defined as threatening to white society, and therefore beyond the normal protection of the law.

Is it likely that members of a white political organization, even the Ku Klux Klan, would be rounded up in the middle of the night, thrown into jails dispersed around the city, kept under maximum security and even solitary confinement, detained in prison for months on exhorbitant bail for a crime that was never committed, and charged with plotting irrational actions, without the liberal press voicing its indignation? Yet this is precisely what has happened to the New York twenty-one. If you let it happen to us, the Panthers are saying to white liberals, it will happen to anyone who dissents. After the lessons of Chicago and Berkeley, white radicals, at least, are beginning to believe the Panther contention that we’re all niggers now.

The Panthers are convinced that those in power are out to get them as much for their socialist ideology and their efforts to organize the black community into an effective political force as for their defensive actions against the police. Heavily into the economics and sociology of Marxism, the Panthers see racism in this country as an integral part of the capitalist system. “Capitalism deprives us all of self-determination,” Huey Newton has said. “Only in the context of socialism can men practice the self-determination necessary to provide for their freedom.”

The Panthers are absolutely serious when they talk of the need for “socialism”; and this is what distinguishes them from the other black militant and black power groups. They see themselves as “revolutionary nationalists,” as opposed to “cultural nationalists,” who seek black pride in separatist movements, religious cults, and emulation of ancient African culture. “The revolutionary nationalist,” according to Huey Newton, “sees that there is no hope for cultural or individual expression, or even hope that his people can exist as a unique entity in a complex whole as long as the bureaucratic capitalist is in control.” On the other hand, “cultural nationalism,” explained David Hilliard, “is basically related to the physiological need for a return back to Africa in the culture, and we don’t see that that is really relevant to any revolution, because culture never frees anyone. As Fanon says, the only culture is that of the revolution.”

The reference to Fanon is instructive, for the Panthers, as can readily be seen from the writings of Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, have been deeply influenced by the black psychiatrist from Martinique who died in the service of the Algerian revolution. The Wretched of the Earth is a kind of revolutionary Bible for them, and one with far more emotional impact than the Little Red Books which are so often quoted. Both Newton and Cleaver, freely acknowledging their debt to Fanon, have described black people as forming an oppressed colony within the white mother country, the United States. The colony is kept in line by an occupying army—white policemen who live outside the ghetto—and is exploited by businessmen and politicians.

The exploiters can be black as well as white, for the enemy, they insist, is not so much racism as capitalism, which creates and nourishes it. As would be expected of socialist revolutionaries, the Panthers are opposed to black capitalism, which Huey Newton has described as a “giant stride away from liberation …” since “…the rules of black capitalism, and the limits of black capitalism are set by the white power structure.” Explaining his opposition, Newton has written:

There can be no real black capitalism because no blacks control the means of production. All blacks can do is have illusions. They can dream of the day when they might share ownership of the means of production. But there is no free enterprise in America. We have monopoly capitalism which is a closed society of white industrialists and their protectors, white politicians in Washington.

According to the Panthers, black power has been absorbed into the establishment, shorn of its horns, and transformed into innocent black capitalism, which even Richard Nixon can praise because it poses no threat to the white power structure.

As an alternative they offer “revolution,” to liberate oppressed minorities in the United States and break the stranglehold of capitalism on the economically underdeveloped countries of the Third World. Until there is some form of socialist “revolution” in America, they believe, small countries will remain prey to neo-colonialism and imperialism. The revolutionary in America, therefore, carries the world upon his shoulders. The black man in America will not be free until the white man is free, and until the white man is free, until America is transformed by a socialist revolution, the underdeveloped countries of the world will remain in economic chains.

Such a comprehensive theory clearly has its inadequacies. Although blacks can be described as forming an internal colony within the United States, they do not supply raw materials, labor, or markets to capitalism in the same way as the colonies did. There is, moreover, no evidence at present that the US is entering a revolutionary crisis that will involve the mass of workers. Nor can the Panthers have much success in breaking away into a separate state. What happens, as has been asked, when there’s a border dispute? (It is not fair, however, to charge the Panthers with advocating political separatism. They claim neither to favor it nor to discourage it; they simply demand that a UN-supervised plebescite be held on the issue in the black colony. In any case, this is not an immediate problem, and certainly not a major objective for them.)

The Panthers’ Marxist-Leninist language, combined with their Fanonist theories of psychological alienation and Third World solidarity, makes them particularly appealing to middle-class white militants, who share their ideology but lack their discipline. White radicals also lack the black man’s non-reducible commitment to black liberation: the fact that he is black. A white radical can cop out any time he wants by cutting his hair and behaving like a square. A black man cannot escape. In fighting against the system he becomes, by his very act of resistance, a hero to white radicals. As Huey Newton has explained:1

Black people in America, in the black colony, are oppressed because we’re black and we’re exploited. The whites are rebels, many of them from the middle class, and as far as any overt oppression this is not the case. So therefore I call their rejection of the system somewhat of an abstract thing. They’re looking for new heroes…. In pressing for new heroes the young white revolution found the heroes in the black colony at home and in the colonies throughout the world….

While Newton favors alliances with white radicals, he points out that “there can be no black-white unity until there first is black unity.” Only blacks can decide the proper strategy for the black community.

White radicals, divided on tactics and ideology, and split into a plethora of competing, often hostile, groups, have only recently begun to deal with some of the problems of “black liberation.” There has always been sympathy for the black struggle, and even participation when it was permitted during the civil rights movement. But things have changed greatly since Stokely Carmichael kicked the whites out of SNCC and the Panthers moved into the streets with guns. Unable to lead the black movement, white radicals are no longer even sure how they can aid it. Uncertain of their tactics, and confused about their goals, they revert to ready-made formulas, like “revolution,” to deal with a multitude of complexities that are too difficult to analyze right now. Some assert that groups like the Panthers are the “vanguard” of the revolution—as though this justified white radicals’ inability to work out a coherent theory or strategy.

The Vietnam war no longer serves as the great rallying point for the Left that it used to. Radicals have a good deal to protest about, but they seem to focus their energies on largely symbolic issues, such as the People’s Park, or on the predictable seizure of university administration buildings. The radical Left is hung up on revolution, but doesn’t seem to have the vaguest idea of how it should be organized, or how the country would be run if such an event ever took place.

For the time being the Left is divided, confused, and hopelessly weak and inept, and there is no more telling sign of the insecurity of those who hold power in America than that they are seriously worried about its activities. The McClellan committee solemnly listens to the “threats to national security” posed by campus agitators, while Congress debates2 unconstitutional limitations on dissent and hysterical punishments against demonstrators. Not only do conventional politicians fear the Panthers, who at least carry guns and who can be described as a para-military organization, but even the scholastic debaters of the Students for a Democratic Society. In spite of all the spies and agents provocateurs it planted at the SDS convention in Chicago this past June, the politicians and the police apparently failed to learn that the Left is too schismatic and ego-centered to threaten anybody.

Everyone now knows that SDS split in two this year, with the national leadership, through its RYM (Revolutionary Youth Movement) faction, expelling the rival Progressive Labor group for being, of all things, “counter-revolutionary.” Among its sins the Maoist-oriented PL, through its Worker-Student Alliance (WSA), opposed the People’s Park fight in Berkeley as a liberal-reformist move, branded many student demonstrations as “adventurous, diversionary, and alienating to the working people,” accused Ho Chi Minh of selling out to the Washington-Moscow axis, criticized Fidel Castro, and condemned the Panthers for “bourgeois nationalism” in fighting the struggle on racial rather than exclusively class lines.

When the Panthers at the convention accused PL of deviating “from Marxist-Leninist ideology on the national question” and called its members “traitors,” the SDS national leadership had the issue it needed to read PL out of the organization (although this violated SDS’s own constitution) and establish itself as the defender of the black liberation movement.

While PL’s position is indeed bizarre on many issues, it is a determined, well-disciplined, ideologically trained organization. In the past it has supported the Panthers, but a break was inevitable, since PL argues that even the revolutionary nationalism of the Panthers is “counter-revolutionary.” People are oppressed, PL argues, as workers, not as blacks, browns, or women. Naturally this has won PL the enmity not only of the Panthers but of militant women opposed to “male chauvinism,” as well as Puerto Rican groups like the Young Lords, and Mexican-American (Chicano) militants.

The RYM group tried to summarize its position in a lengthy not always coherent document it called Weatherman (“you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”). Among other things, it took the curious position that “the blacks could do it [the revolution] alone if necessary because of their centralness to the system,” and signed off with friendly greetings to such enlightened outposts of proletarian freedom as Albania and North Korea.

In Oakland a few hundred SDS people joined others from some forty organizations to form a gathering of about 3,000 people: Trotskyites and women striking for peace, communist party veterans and anarchists, factory workers and ministers. And, of course, a contingent of Panthers who, in spite of the inter-racial theme of the meeting, sat in a roped-off section at the back of the Oakland auditorium.

The conference not only got off to a late start, owing to the Panthers’ frisking everyone who entered the auditorium, but a bad one, with an interminable address by Communist Party stalwart, Herbert Aptheker, who cut into the time allotted to the women’s panel (thereby producing cries of “male chauvinism”—a serious issue for the Panthers and certain radical groups), and, even worse, a charge that the Panthers had sold out to the bourgeois, reformist Communist Party. The Trotskyites and PL people were particularly upset by this, but the complaint is unjustified. The CP is useful to the Panthers because it furnishes bail money and teams of hard-working organizers who go out and get names on petitions. While the CP is happy to ride the Panthers’ tail, it by no means calls the shots.

The Panthers ran the conference without help from the CP or anyone else. There were no workshops and no discussion from the floor, until the final night when a few questions were permitted. “When you begin to develop a united front you do not start off with a bunch of jive ideological bullshit,” Bobby Seale declared to cries of “Right on” from the Panther cheering section and much waving of Little Red Books. But as the Trotskyite ISC observed in one of the leaflets it surreptitiously distributed at the conference, “…A left which lacks respect for its own ideas and programs and cannot stand internal debate cannot possibly hope to win the support of the masses.” The Panthers, however, weren’t interested in internal debate or jive ideological bullshit (although they produced a good deal of their own in the course of three days), but support for their own programs—or, as they would say, “solidarity.”

The major program they are now emphasizing is community control of police, with cities divided into districts, each with its own police force controlled by an elected neighborhood council, and with policemen living in the district they control. “If a policeman’s brutalizing somebody in the community and has to come back home and sleep that night,” Bobby Seale explained, “we can deal with him in our community.” Participants at the conference were urged to get out and work on such petitions for decentralization—whites in white communities, browns in Latin communities, and blacks in the ghettos. For blacks and other minority groups such decentralization makes sense. It would not bring about the millennium, but it could sharply reduce the slaying and beating of ghetto people by trigger-happy, frightened, or racist white cops.

The white revolutionaries, however, were put off by such reformist proposals—particularly the Berkeley contingent, which seemed hung up on violence, with some members talking about guerrilla warfare in the streets. Even the pro-Panther SDS leadership felt that decentralization, however good it might be for the ghettos, was a bad policy for white neighborhoods, where it might lead to the creation of vigilante teams under the guise of police forces. The SDS interim committee voted against endorsement of the petition campaign unless it were limited to black and brown communities.

This didn’t go down well with the Panthers. On his return from Algiers, where he attended the Pan-African Arts Festival, chief of staff David Hilliard told newsmen that “The Black Panther Party will not be dictated to by people who are obviously bourgeois procrastinators, seeking made-to-order revolution which is abstract, metaphysical and doesn’t exist in the black or white community.” He derided the SDS argument that community control would make police forces in white areas worse than they already are, and defined the issue as one of revolutionary solidarity. “We’re not going to let SDS worm their way out of their revolutionary duties,” he warned. “If they are revolutionary, then this is what we, as the vanguard of the revolution in Babylon, dictate—that they circulate that petition, not in our communities, but in their own.”

Never very comfortable with SDS, the Panthers feel much more at home with the “brothers off the block,” the street people, the lumpenproletariat, to use another phrase they are fond of, than with the guilt-ridden children of the white bourgeoisie. With a few exceptions, such as Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, they have had little formal education beyond high school, and some of the most intelligent do not even have that. “We got our education on the street, in the service, or in jail,” the Panthers’ soft-spoken minister of education, Ray “Masai” Hewitt, told me. The Panther leaders are self-made intellectuals or, in political scientist Martin Kilson’s term, “paraintellectuals.”3

We relate to the Young Patriots” (a white, recently radicalized Chicago group that is organizing nationally), David Hilliard stated, “because they’re operating on the same class level as the Black Panther Party.” They also share a similar rhetoric. Speaking at the conference on the eve of the moon landing, a leader of the Young Patriots named Preacherman, in black beret and shades, gave a moving speech which was, in effect, a tribute to the Panthers’ ability to reach traditionally apolitical, racist white groups:

Our struggle is beyond comprehension to me sometimes, and I felt that poor whites was (and maybe we felt wrongly, but we felt it) was forgotten, and that certain places we walked there were certain organizations that nobody saw us until we met the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and they met us. And we said, “Let’s put that theory into practice about riddin’ ourselves of that racism.” You see, otherwise, otherwise to us, freeing political prisoners would be hypocrisy. That’s what it’d be. We want to stand by our brothers, dig? And, I don’t know. I’d even like to say something to church people. I think one of the brothers last night said, “Jesus Christ was a bad motherfucker.” Man, we all don’t want to go that route, understand. He laid back and he said, “Put that fuckin’ nail right there, man. That’s the people’s nail. I’m takin’ it.” But we’ve gone beyond it….

The Young Patriots started out as a street gang and gradually developed a political consciousness that led them in the direction of the Panthers. A similar attempt at radicalizing organized labor is being made with the creation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a federation of several Detroit-based workers’ groups such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and its equivalents at Ford (FRUM), Chrysler (CRUM), and elsewhere. The all-black League was started, according to John Watson, one of its founders, “because the working class is already divided between the races, and because it is necessary for black workers to be able to act independently of white workers.”

White workers have been encouraged to form radical organizations of their own to work out a common strategy with black union revolutionaries, but progress has been slow. Speaking of such a group at the Detroit News, Watson observed, “…although a number of the white guys who were down there had risen above the levels of racism and understood the exploitative nature of the company and of the system, they had very little experience in organizing to fight oppression and exploitation.” As with the Panthers, these black workers consider themselves to be in the “vanguard of the revolutionary movement,” and see most whites still on the fringes of the real struggle.

These “revolutionary” union groups were started to protect black workers who felt they were being treated unfairly and even victimized by racist white union leaders. Also, they believed, together with like-minded white workers, that union chiefs were in collusion with the bosses to speed up work schedules and ignore grievances over intolerable working conditions. The radical union groups are, first of all, self-protective associations for people unprotected or abused by the regular, bureaucratized unions. Secondly, they hope to stimulate a political awareness that will lead to a revolutionary situation in America.

For the time being, however, it is clear that the ghettos are potentially the most explosive places in the country. This is where the Panthers are organized (although they are trying to establish closer contacts with the revolutionary union movements, as well as with student groups) and where they draw their main support. Much of their appeal for ghetto youths (shared by many whites) is their image of a powerful black man with a rifle. In his recent book of essays4 Eldridge Cleaver describes his own first encounter with the Panthers at a meeting in the Fillmore district ghetto of San Francisco: “I spun round in my seat and saw the most beautiful sight I had ever seen: four black men wearing black berets, powder blue shirts, black leather jackets, black trousers, shiny black shoes—and each with a gun!”

Since then Cleaver has learned that there is more to being a Panther than carrying a gun. But the image of power and violence is still the basic one created by the Panthers. When ghetto youths learn that party membership is not like joining a street gang but more like taking religious vows, many of them become disillusioned and turn away from the Panthers. They are put off by the strict discipline,5 the political indoctrination, the discouragement of racism, and such community service projects as the Panther program to provide free breakfast to ghetto children. The Panthers have had to purge people who turned out to be basically criminals or racists unable to relate to the party’s political and intellectual program.

Unlike many of the ghetto youth, who want action, retribution, and loot, young black idealists are drawn to the Panthers’ philosophy of social justice and equality through power. Where there have been spontaneous black riots, such as those following the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Panthers have tried to cool it, to discourage violence that could lead only to further repression without any political gains. Unfortunately the political leadership in most cities is too dense to realize that the Panthers are actually a force for stability in the ghettos. An intelligent white ruling class would encourage the Panthers rather than try to destroy them; that it has failed to understand this does indeed argue for its own inherent instability.

Lately the Panthers have been emphasizing programs directly related to the needs of the ghetto community, such as free breakfasts and health clinics. This summer they have also been setting up black “liberation schools,” where children between two and sixteen are taught some things about American history, economics, and politics that they never learn in the public schools. Clearly much of this is indoctrination, although the Panthers claim that they are correcting the distorted image that black children receive of themselves and their society.

White middle-class revolutionaries tend to patronize such activities as reformist. But the breakfasts, the schools, and the clinics have won the Panthers support within the ghetto that they never could have gained by guns alone or by Marxist-Leninist analyses of the internal contradictions of capitalism. In Oakland, where the party has existed for nearly three years, it is an important element of the black community, respected even though it is not often fully understood. Just as the police have been forced to respect the power of the Panthers, so the white power elite has had to deal with an organized, politically conscious force within the black community. Throughout much of the Bay area, where the Panthers are particularly well organized, they are an articulate, alert defender of black people’s interests. The Panthers are there when the community needs them, and they are there when no one else seems to be listening.

An example that comes to mind, simply because it occurred while I was in San Francisco, concerned a sixteen-year-old boy who was shot in the back by a member of San Francisco’s Tactical Squad while he was fleeing the scene of an alleged auto theft. The shooting occurred near his home and was heard by his mother, a practical nurse, who was thrown to the ground by the police when she ran to his side screaming, “Don’t shoot my boy again.” The wounded boy was thrown into a police truck and nearly an hour elapsed before he actually reached the hospital. It is the sort of thing that happens every day in Hunter’s Point and a hundred other black ghettos around America. The only difference is that, miraculously, the bullet was deflected by a rib bone and the boy was not killed, and that the Panthers brought it to the attention of the public by calling a press conference which Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, and Masai, the party’s three top leaders, attended.

At the conference were a few representatives of the local press (the television stations were invited but refrained from sending anyone), myself, a few Panthers, their lawyer, Charles Garry, the boy, Jimmie Conner, and his parents. The boy, soft-spoken and composed, spoke of the incident as though it were a normal part of life, and when asked why he ran away, replied, with the tedium of one explaining the obvious, “Why did I run? Because I’m scared of police.” With him sat his parents, an attractive, quiet woman in her mid-thirties and a handsome, somewhat stocky, graying man who works in aircraft maintenance. Both very light-skinned, eminently respectable, and both bitter and confused about what had happened to them.

Had they been white, their son would have been reprimanded, or at most taken to court. But they are black and their son was almost killed, as other boys have been killed in Hunter’s Point and elsewhere for even lesser crimes—if indeed Jimmie Conner was guilty of a crime. When asked about the incident, Mrs. Conner replied, “Just another Negro gone, that’s the way we believe that they think about the kids up here. Too many of our kids are dying for nothing. They see police three blocks away and they start running because they’re scared. I’m gonna fight them. If I have to go to jail OK. If I have to work for the rest of my life, I will. If they shoot me that’s fine. I’m gonna fight, this has got to stop.” The story so far has included the radicalization of Mrs. Ozella Conner, housewife, mother, nurse, and now friend of the Black Panthers.

How did the Panthers get involved in this incident, although none of the Conners is a member of the party? Because a doctor at the hospital where Jimmie was taken was so shocked at his treatment by the police that he called Charles Garry, who in turn called Bobby Seale. What followed was a press conference, followed by a lawsuit under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, followed by press coverage—which of course could never have occurred had the Panthers not been called in.

The cynical would say that the Panthers have something to gain from this publicity, which indeed they have. But that is to miss the point, which is that by such actions they are establishing themselves, in the eyes of the black community, as the defenders of the black man too humble to interest anyone else. They can sink their roots in the black community and win its allegiance partly because no one else is fulfilling that role. This is one of the things that the Panthers mean by “educating” the people, informing them of their rights and making them activist defenders rather than passive victims. This education is carried on through meetings, discussions, leaflets, and the party newspaper. While their tactics have shifted several times since the formation of the party in October 1966, their objectives remain the ones set out in their ten-point program of black liberation.6

Looking at this program and talking to the Panthers, as well as reading their newspaper, The Black Panther (which everyone interested enough to read this essay ought to do in order to gain, if nothing else, an idea of the atrocities that are going on under the name of law and order), make one realize that the “revolution” they talk about is not necessarily the cataclysmic upheaval that sends the white middle class into spasms. Rather, it is the achievement of constitutional guarantees and economic justice for black people. These gun-carrying, Mao-quoting revolutionaries want what most middle-class Americans take for granted. As Huey Newton has said, if reformist politicians like the Kennedys and Lindsay could solve the problems of housing, employment, and justice for blacks and other Americans at the bottom of the social heap, there would be no need for a revolution. And, it goes without saying, little support for such groups as the Black Panther Party.

The Panthers have a voice in the black community (although not necessarily so large as many whites imagine) because they offer hope for change to ghetto people whom the civil rights movement and the poverty program bureaucrats have been unable to touch. They walk proudly through the streets of Oakland in their black leather jackets, and they hold mass rallies for the liberation of Huey Newton in the shadow of the Alameda County Court House where he was sentenced. They speak to the black man’s image of himself. They tell him that he is no longer powerless against the forces that oppress him, and that his struggle for freedom is part of a world-wide liberation movement. In this sense they fulfill a real psychological need.

While they have not yet shed white blood, except in self-defense, does this mean that they never will, that their talk of guerrilla warfare is simply rhetoric? It would be rash to say so, for the Panthers have declared that they are ready to kill anyone who stands in the way of “black liberation.” And they are convinced that racism in this society is so pervasive and deeply rooted that there can be no freedom for black people until it is extirpated by some form of revolution. Even Gene Marine, who, in his highly informative book, The Black Panthers,7 freely admits his admiration for the Panthers, confesses, “I am frightened by them.” Like some of the white revolutionaries who emulate them, the Panthers seem to have over-learned The Battle of Algiers, and have tried to apply its lesson to a society where the situation is totally different. The United States today is not Algeria of 1954, nor Cuba of 1958, nor even France of 1968. It is a deeply troubled, but nonetheless largely stable society which is capable of putting down an insurrection ruthlessly and quickly.

Don’t the Panthers realize this? They seem to, at the present moment anyway. This is why they are serving free breakfasts to ghetto children; attempting to form alliances with white radicals, liberals, workers, and pacifists; and urging people to sign petitions for the decentralization of the police. They may be going through a temporary stage, but the direction in which they are heading is clearly marked reformism. Right now they seem interested in maximum publicity, which is why they hold meetings and press conferences, and complain about the way the mass media ignores or distorts their actions. Some of their sympathizers fear that the Panthers are pushing themselves too much in the public eye, and that this only aids the enemies who are trying to destroy them. But since the police and politicians are out to get the Panthers in any case, perhaps such an effort to convince the public that they are not really monsters is their only chance for survival.

It is curious, to say the least, that the federal government has decided to come down hard on the Panthers at the very time that they are emphasizing ballots and petitions, community self-help, and political alliances, rather than shoot-outs. The severe harassment and repression they are now suffering may, if anything, improve the Panthers’ appeal among the black bourgeoisie and white liberals. It would be one of the ironies of our irrational political life if John Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover, together with the so-called “liberal” mayors of cities like San Francisco and Chicago, succeeded in giving the Panthers a new vitality just at the time when the party seemed in difficulty.

Mention of the word “revolution” is enough to send most politicians and police officers into a rage. Like radicals in general, the Panthers naturally talk a good deal about revolution, and use such other catch-words as fascism, imperialism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. They connect racism with the evils of capitalism, and quote freely from the sacred texts of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Walk into any Panther office and you are likely to find not only Little Red Books lying about, but the officer of the day with his nose buried in the works of Mao, or one of Lenin’s many pamphlets. Slogans, often vague and even meaningless in the context in which they are used, become part of the revolutionary vocabulary. This is true not only of the Panthers, who use such slogans to reach an audience with little formal education, but of young radicals generally. The deliberate inflation and distortion of language is a disease of the Left.

The Panthers, however, realize that racism is deeply embedded in the cultural history of Europe and America and is not, as certain Marxists still argue, simply a by-product of class society. As Huey Newton has said, “Until you get rid of racism…no matter what kind of economic system you have, black people will still be oppressed.” What revolution seems to mean for the Panthers is the transformation of the ghetto and the “liberation” of black people, and of all oppressed people, from lives of poverty, degradation, and despair. The steps by which this will take place are not specified precisely, but they need not be violent ones unless every other road to radical change is closed. Having defined the problem, the Panthers now ask white America what kind of solution it proposes. So far as the Panthers are concerned, the answer has been harassment, repression, and even murder.

The Panthers are not racist, but they refuse to take any instructions from their white sympathizers. Indeed, this may be what makes it possible for them to be anti-racist. Commenting on the anti-white sentiment in SNCC before it became an all-black organization, Huey Newton recently said, “We have never been controlled by whites, and therefore we don’t fear the white mother-country radicals.” Their willingness to work with allied white radicals is not shared by most black militant groups. When Stokely Carmichael recently left the Panthers, his stormy letter of departure8 centered on just this issue.

As the Carmichael-Cleaver exchange indicated, the black militants are just as fragmented into feuding factions as are the whites. Their rivalry, however, is a good deal more violent, and the struggle between the Panthers and the “cultural nationalist” US group of Ron Karenga led to the murder of two Panthers in Los Angeles last year. The Panthers are serious about wanting to carry on programs of education, and in spite of the terrible repression they are now facing have an enduring faith in the democratic system of petitions and ballots—far more than do the young white radicals. But like most revolutionaries, they are highly authoritarian and want loyal and unquestioning followers (as Stokely Carmichael rightly pointed out in his letter) rather than critical colleagues.

Unlike the white revolutionaries, however, the Panthers do have some fairly clear ideas of what they want—even though they are uncertain about the best way to get it. Whatever their shortcomings, they did not seem to me self-indulgent, romantic, or part-time players at revolution. They are in this struggle for keeps. Anyone who is a Panther today, or who contemplates joining the party, knows that there is a good chance that he will be jailed or die a violent death. Panthers have already been murdered by the police, many have been beaten and wounded, and others are almost certain to be killed in the months and years ahead. It takes courage to join the party, to submit to its discipline, and to face the likely prospect of imprisonment or death. But for some there is no other way. As Eldridge Cleaver has written, “A slave who dies of natural causes will not balance two dead flies on the scale of eternity.”

The Panthers have come a long way since Huey Newton and Bobby Seale first formed the party three years ago in Oakland. It has spread across the nation and has eclipsed such groups as SNCC and CORE to become the most powerful black militant organization in America. This rapid expansion has created problems—not only increasing police harassment and repression as the Panthers become more influential within the black community, but also the difficulty of maintaining the high standard of membership that its leaders would like. Not all Panthers have the organizing ability of Bobby Seale or the analytical minds of David Hilliard, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey Newton. Which is to say that the Panthers are not super-human, as some white radicals would like to believe, any more than they are devils.

Beneath an inflamatory vocabulary of ghetto hyperbole and a good deal of facile Marxist sloganizing, the Panthers seemed to me serious, hard-working, disciplined, and essentially humanistic in their work within the black community and in their vision of a more just society. For the Panthers, weapons are an instrument of self-protection, and ultimately the means to achieve the revolution that, in the absence of a peaceful alternative, will make liberation possible. For some of the white militants I spoke to around Berkeley, however, it seemed that revolution is the means, and denouncing or shooting up the “fascists” (who seem to include just about everyone who disagrees on tactics or strategy, and many readers of this magazine) is conceived as the end. Since Chicago, and particularly since the brutal suppression by the police during the battle of People’s Park, some West Coast militants seem to have become traumatized by violence, convinced there is no other way to carry on radical politics.

But Che’s prescription is no more relevant in the tree-lined streets of Berkeley or Cambridge than it was in the mountains of Bolivia. The Panthers are prepared for guerrilla warfare, as a last-ditch stand, because they think they may have no other alternative. There are white revolutionaries, on the West Coast and elsewhere, who, in the impatience of their rage and their inability seriously to change a society whose policies they find oppressive, accept this prescription uncritically, and, in view of the forces marshalled against them on the Right, with a half-conscious quest for martyrdom. As its frustration increases, the New Left becomes more shrill in its rhetoric and dogmatic in its politics. Instead of focusing on the most blatant inequalities and injustices of American life, it is assaulting the periphery. Instead of trying to educate the people to inequities of the social-economic system and the cost of maintaining an empire, it has successfully alienated the working class—without whose support no radical change, let alone “revolution,” is possible.

In its resistance to the draft, the war, and racism, the radical Left has aroused parts of the nation. More people now realize there is something seriously wrong with American society but are not certain how to deal with it. Many are frightened and attribute all unrest to a conspiracy of “trouble-makers.” Others know that change must come, but would like it to be as unobtrusive as possible. It remains to be seen how many can be reached, whether it be on the plane of morality or self-interest, and convinced that change need not be personally threatening to them. To do this radicals must have plausible ideas on how a transformed society would produce a better existence for the mass of people. It does little good for the radical Left to dismiss everyone who disagrees as “fascist,” for these are a majority, and if they are treated as fascists long enough, they may begin behaving in such a way as to make the current repression seem like libertarianism in comparison.

America is not now a “fascist” country, nor is it likely soon to become one, although this is not impossible. Probably it will continue to be an advanced capitalist society in which cruel inequalities and repression, unlivable cities, and inhuman conditions of work continue to exist along with considerable liberty to take political action, while our rulers control an empire of poor nations abroad. It is the duty of the Left to find ways to change this system: to educate people rather than simply abuse them; to understand what is happening in the factories and farms and lower-middle-class neighborhoods and be in touch with the people in them; to use the universities as places where the complex problems of replacing repressive capitalism and imperialism with a better system can be studied seriously; to stop playing Minutemen and begin acting like radicals. If there is ever going to be a revolution in this country, it will have to happen first in people’s heads. What takes place in the streets of a society like this one has another name. It is called repression.

  1. *

    On August 19th, shortly after this article was completed, Bobby Seale was arrested in Berkeley by FBI agents in connection with the Rackley case. So far, fourteen other Panthers have been arrested in various states on similar charges. The day before Seale’s arrest David Hilliard, the Panther Chief of Staff, was ordered to face trial on charges of attempted murder arising from last year’s Oakland shoot-out. With these arrests, the chief national Panther leaders are in exile, in jail, under or facing indictment, or dead.

  2. 1

    The quotations from Huey Newton are from an interview in The Movement, August 1968, republished as a pamphlet, and available from SDS.

  3. 2

    The level of Congressional discussion is exemplified by the following dialogue, from The Congressional Record, between Senators Long (D. La.) and Byrd (D. Va.):

    Long: Has the Senator ever heard of the Students for a Democratic Society?

    Byrd: Yes, I have heard of that group.

    Long: Does he agree with me that they are about the scum of the earth?

    Byrd: I do not know whether I would use the same phraseology the Senator uses.

    Long: They’re about the most contemptible people I know of. They’re the most overprivileged group in this country. Is the Senator familiar with the fact that the parents of these people have put up the money to pay all their expenses and buy soap for them? But they refuse to take baths. That they have put up the money to buy them razor blades? But they refuse to shave. That they put up the money to buy food for those children? And they spend it on marijuana. They are the most sorry, contemptible, overprivileged people in the world and I say those people are a good element for the Communists to move in on.

  4. 3

    Describing such leaders as Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, Kilson has written: “Unlike the established elements in the Negro intelligentsia, the para-intellectuals share a cultural experience similar to that of the black lower classes. They share too the lower classes’ brutalizing experience with the coercive arm of white-controlled cities, especially the police power. These common experiences enabled the para-intellectuals to be spokesmen for the Negro masses as they emerged into a militant politicalization through riots. The paraintellectuals came onto the scene as legitimate and natural leaders. Moreover, they advance the politicalization of the black urban masses, after a fashion, by formulating descriptions of black-white relations, past and present, and policies for altering these relations that the Negro lower class finds meaningful. Few of the established elements among the black intelligentsia have, until very recently, had such success.” (Martin Kilson, “The New Black Intellectuals,” Dissent, July-August 1969, p. 307.)

  5. 4

    Eldridge Cleaver, Random House, 211 pp., $5.95.

  6. 5

    There are twenty-six rules of discipline that all members must follow, of which the first is “no party member can have narcotics or weed in his possession while doing party work.” In addition, there are eight “points of attention”:

    1. Speak politely.

    2. Pay fairly for what you buy.

    3. Return everything you borrow.

    4. Pay for anything you damage.

    5. Do not hit or swear at people.

    6. Do not damage property or crops of the poor, oppressed masses.

    7. Do not take liberties with women.

    8. If we ever have to take captives, do not ill-treat them.

  7. 6
    1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.

    2. We want full employment for our people.

    3. We want an end to the robbery by the CAPITALIST of our Black Community. [N.B. Recently changed to “capitalist” from “white man.”]

    4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.

    5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.

    6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.

    7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.

    8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.

    9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.

    10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny. [Followed by an explanatory paragraph taken from the US Constitution: “When in the course of human events….”]

  8. 7

    Signet, 1969, 224 pp., $.95 (paper).

  9. 8

    In spite of his official title of Prime Minister, Stokely Carmichael was not much more than a figurehead in the party. From his self-chosen exile in Guinea, he sent an open letter to the party, distributed by his wife at Kennedy airport to the press, in which he declared:

    The alliances being formed by the party are alliances which I cannot politically agree with, because the history of Africans living in the US has shown that any premature alliance with white radicals has led to complete subversion of blacks by the whites through their direct or indirect control of the black organization.

    He also criticized the “present tactics and methods which the party is using to coerce and force everyone to submit to its authority,” and declared that unless the Panthers change their political direction they “will at best become a reformist party and at worst a tool of racist imperialists used against the black masses.”

    To this denunciation Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information in enforced exile, replied in the pages of Ramparts:

    That you know nothing about the revolutionary process is clear, that you know less about the United States and its people is clearer, and that you know even less about humanity than you do about the rest is clearest of all…. You should know that suffering is color blind and that the victims of imperialism, racism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism come in all colors and that they need unity based on revolutionary principles rather than skin color.