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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.”

  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.

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