Journal du Voyeur

Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 153 pp., $5.95

On April 2, 1969, twenty-one Black Panthers were indicted in New York for having plotted to bomb the Botanical Gardens, a police station, and several retail stores, including Alexander’s and Abercrombie and Fitch. According to District Attorney Hogan, these bombings were to have occurred at the height of the Easter shopping season; in fact, he said, the bombs were to have gone off on the very day that the indictments were announced. Several Panthers went underground before the police could arrest them. One was held as a juvenile offender and thirteen others, of whom two were women, were imprisoned for want of bail that ranged from $25,000 in one case to $50,000 in two others, and $100,000 for each of the remaining ten.

The gravity of their conspiracy was such, according to the district attorney, that the city would not be safe if these thirteen remained at large pending their trial. Since Hogan is thought to be a cautious man, unlikely to make such claims on insufficient evidence, the courts ignored the arguments of defense counsel that such high bail was excessive in the case of defendants who had no record of serious crime, and the Panthers went to jail.

Shortly thereafter Murray Kempton undertook to write a book about the case, came to know the Panthers’ wives, friends, and attorneys, and soon became absorbed by his subjects. He also came to sympathize with them, as one might sympathize with anyone caught in the toils of criminal justice in New York.

From the start Kempton doubted that these Panthers were the menace that the district attorney had charged. For one thing, the Easter bomb plot seemed rather fanciful, more likely the product of inflamed imagination than the scheme of serious revolutionary terrorists. Was it possible that literalminded police spies had infiltrated the Panthers, mistaken their rhetoric for action, and convinced a credulous district attorney of a plot when there had been nothing more than fantasy and loose talk?

Furthermore, the Panthers, whatever their intentions may really have been, had not gone so far as a group of white terrorists who had actually exploded several bombs throughout the city and were arrested in the act of planting still another. But these white defendants had been granted lower bail than the Panthers, and one had already posted her bond and was free. It may therefore have seemed to Kempton, as it did to other liberals at the time, that perhaps the Panthers had been victimized for their revolutionary political views and because they were black.

In pleading for high bail, the assistant district attorney in charge of the case seemed to confirm the first of these suspicions when he said that “these defendants are not ordinary run of the mill criminals. They are terrorists.” The courts accepted this opinion and the Panthers were sent separately to various jails throughout the city. As Kempton later wrote, “For the first five months of their detention, their lawyers were permitted to …

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Letters

Radical Chic March 11, 1971