Offing the Pigs, and Others
The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America.
by Hugh Pearson.
Addison-Wesley. 422 pages. $24.00.
For many Americans, the Black Panthers are best remembered for a day in 1967 when a battalion of menacing, leather-jacketed black toughs roamed the corridors of the state legislature in Sacramento, California, ostentatiously carrying just about every firearm imaginable. Here, the Panthers seemed to be saying, were serious revolutionaries who not only disdained the nonviolence of moderate civil-rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but insisted that if racial conflict came, the institutions of white America would be consumed along with those of the inner city.
The State House episode—all perfectly legal, according to California’s relaxed gun laws of the time—convinced many alarmed Americans that the Panthers represented a distinct threat to domestic order, and reinforced support for a toughened police stance against black militance. But there was another Panther image whose effect, while not as widespread, was at least as crucial for the organization’s future. This image was encapsulated in a photograph of the group’s founder, Huey P. Newton, seated on a wicker chair like some guerrilla prince, a spear in one hand, a shotgun in the other, warriors’ shields at each side, dressed in Panther regalia.
This photograph was to become one of the most famous political posters of the 60’s. It adorned countless dormitory walls, and captured the imagination of a white Left grown bored with traditional black leaders. The Panthers, with their brilliant, fearless chieftain, came to be regarded as a kind of domestic Vietcong, urban radicals who had nothing but contempt for sterile theorizing and ineffectual strategies of civil disobedience.
To be sure, the Panthers’ sinister side—their penchant for violence—drew some criticism. But in general the Left was convinced that instances of Panther violence were the result of police provocation; and for many on the Left there was, as well, the larger issue of whether any black could be considered guilty of any crime in a sick, racist America.
According to Hugh Pearson, however, violence and outright criminality were not incidental to the Black Panther party, but of its very essence. A young black journalist from the West Coast, Pearson has now written a history of the Panther movement which focuses on its seamier side without degenerating into sensationalism. In this regard, his work offers a welcome antidote to recent books by the former Panther leaders Elaine Brown and David Hilliard, both of which are dominated by a tone of self-justification (although they are also notable for their emphasis on the violent behavior of the Panthers both in their relations with the police and among themselves).
Basically, Pearson points out, Panther violence derived from the kind of men recruited to the organization: tough, urban, street blacks, often ex-convicts, uneducated and therefore unlikely to challenge the intellectual authority of Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and other leaders. As one of the more famous Panthers, Bobby Seale, put it, Newton wanted to recruit “brothers who had been out there robbing banks, brothers who had been pimping, brothers who had been selling dope, brothers who ain’t gonna take no shit, brothers who had been fighting the pigs.”
Under Panther guidance, men with grudges against the police were given ideological sanction to respond violently to police initiatives. In the case of Oakland, home base to the Panthers throughout their history, the police tended to be white, hostile to blacks, often recruited from Southern states specifically to help keep the city’s growing postwar black population in line. In this volatile environment, clashes were inevitable, and they occurred repeatedly throughout the late 1960’s, with casualties on both sides.
The Panthers, for their part, invited police attention. As Pearson recounts the story, armed groups cruised Oakland’s streets, seeking out confrontations. They were fortified in the belief that, given the temper of the times, a policeman’s word was no longer sufficient to convict a black man, no matter what the offense. Huey Newton’s ascension had itself been greatly helped by his having killed a white officer during a Panther-police skirmish. The incident marked one of the first “revolutionary” police killings; it was also one of the first times a black police-killer avoided prosecution, Newton’s initial conviction having been set aside by an appeals court.
Yet despite their talk about revolutionary justice and “offing the pigs,” in reality the Panthers were far more violent toward blacks than toward whites. Under Newton’s leadership, the Panthers established a wide-ranging criminal empire throughout Oakland’s black neighborhoods. Pimps, drug dealers, after-hours clubs—all were expected to contribute to Panther coffers, under threat of injury or death. Legitimate black businesses were also expected to ante up. Those who resisted often faced crippling boycotts or acts of vandalism.
The Panthers reserved their most brutal tactics for internal struggles. Like other radical groups, they suffered their share of splits over issues of personality, ideology, and power. But where other groups settled differences through expulsions, Panther rifts often ended in beatings or murder. Nor was this sort of treatment reserved for the semi-criminal elements who comprised the core of the Panthers’ male membership. In one hair-raising incident, Pearson describes how Eldridge Cleaver forced the civil-rights leader James Forman to play Russian roulette (the gun was apparently unloaded) because of rumors of Forman’s disloyalty. Forman suffered a nervous breakdown which resulted in his more-or-less permanent retirement from political life.
That any organization comprised of criminals, former criminals, and aspiring criminals should have made its mark through strong-arm tactics is hardly surprising. The Panthers, however, had an added ingredient: Huey Newton. Although certainly not the brilliant political theorist of New Left mythology, Newton had obvious intellectual gifts, along with an instinctual understanding of the psychology of the white Left. He once debated the psychologist Erik Erik-son, and gave a series of seminars at Yale, at the same time that he was directing a bloody purge of Panther elements disaffected from the Oakland leadership.
Pearson, interestingly, seems not to take Newton’s intellectual pretensions too seriously, and ignores the contents of Newton’s writings and speeches. On the other hand, he regards Newton as a shrewd and even visionary political tactician. It was Newton who was responsible for abandoning the Panthers’ early confrontational style in favor of constructing what emerged as a potent inner-city political machine. The Panthers, in fact, became an important force in Oakland politics during much of the 70’s. Gaining membership on various community and anti-poverty boards, they controlled patronage programs funded by the federal or state governments and won recognition as an important power broker within the state Democratic party. Bobby Seale finished a creditable second in a race for mayor; eventually, the Panthers were to play a key role in securing the election of the city’s first black mayor.
Newton was also among the first to understand that in the changed climate of Black Power, a political justification could be discovered to explain away just about any act of criminality committed by a black. During one stint in prison, Newton rationalized an attack on a fellow black inmate by asserting that the man had upheld “the oppressor’s interests” (he had objected to Newton’s having taken more than his allotment of food). When accusations of criminal conduct were leveled against the Panthers, Newton would respond that such accusations were part of a vast anti-Panther plot orchestrated by the FBI and other government agencies, and the Left believed him.
It is of course true that the Panthers were a special target of both the FBI and local police throughout the country; yet well after the time of regular clashes between Panthers and police, the Left chose to dismiss or simply ignore claims of rampant violence among the Panthers, even when they were made by dropouts from the organization itself.
As Pearson sees it, the rise of the Panthers cannot be separated from the embrace of a rhetoric of violence on the part of large elements in the civil-rights movement of the late 60’s. He suggests that the Panthers might never have existed had not young radicals like Forman, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown not paved the way by counseling their young followers to meet violence with violence in what was portrayed as an incorrigibly racist America.
These leaders compounded the problem, in Pearson’s view, by romanticizing the black lumpen-proletariat while denigrating the values of the black middle class. Carmichael, for instance, derided successful blacks who took advantage of their newly-won civil rights to escape the ghetto, while asserting that integration was irrelevant to “the Harlem wino or the cotton picker earning three dollars a day.” The Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program, issued not long after Carmichael’s remarks, was essentially written in behalf of black criminals: a main demand called for the release of all black prison inmates.
What about the good deeds for which, at the time, the Panthers were celebrated: the breakfast programs, health clinics, schools, and other projects inevitably cited by those who contended that the Panthers were committed to the betterment of black America? Pearson devotes little attention to these; he is, in fact, convinced that the Panther legacy has contributed not to the betterment but to the deterioration of the black urban poor, the very people the Panthers claimed to speak for.
Thus, he says, the Panthers, despite their self-destructive history, retain a “legendary appeal” for a generation of young blacks who were not even alive during the heyday of Newton, Cleaver, and Seale. At a time when black authenticity is often equated with macho posturing, the Panthers are frequently perceived as the most authentic of all the civil-rights icons.
Pearson also reserves some cutting observations for the larger culture’s lionization of black gangster elements. In an earlier era, publishers touted Eldridge Cleaver’s writings as a “document of prime importance for an understanding of the outcast black American soul.” Today, a Los Angeles gang member named Monster Cody is billed as a “primary voice of the black experience.” And so it goes.
Finally, and most disastrously, the Panther phenomenon gave sanction to a disrespect for law-and-order and the police which continues to haunt black neighborhoods. Of course, the Panthers were not solely or even primarily to blame for the rise of anti-police attitudes among blacks and the liberal Left generally. But the Panther role should not be underestimated. The Panthers promoted themselves, and in turn were promoted by their supporters, as heroes for their willingness to fight the police. Moreover, the Panthers’ relentless and often ugly demonization of police officers set a tone for relations between law-enforcement agencies and the black community which remains a serious osbtacle to the war against inner-city crime.
Shadow of the Panther ranks among the more important histories of the civil-rights era. It also stands as a work of unflinching honesty, a quality too rarely encountered among histories of the black experience. Some, no doubt, will wish this book had not been written, even as they privately acknowledge its accuracy. They would be wrong, not only for desiring to suppress inconvenient history, but also because of the book’s relevance to today’s racial dilemma. As Hugh Pearson observes, the Panther legacy will haunt us “as long as so many promote themselves and are promoted by the media as pathological outsiders to the American mainstream.”