In October 1966 Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Within two years the party had more than 5,000 members and chapters in more than 20 cities across the country. Their explosive growth got the attention of the authorities; Federal Bureau of Investigation chief J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." They were, in fact, the largest revolutionary body in the US since the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers of the World in the early years of this century. Yet they collapsed almost as quickly as they emerged. Why?
For years many on the Left have attributed the Panther's demise solely to the vicious COINTELPRO campaign launched against them by Hoover and police agencies across the country. Adam Hochschild, writing in the New York Times, called the attack on the Panthers "...one of the largest campaigns of disinformation and destabilization ever mounted against an American political group." In 1969 alone, according to Manning Marable, there were over 233 police actions against the Panthers, including the predawn raid in Chicago that killed Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
Police efforts were certainly a significant factor contributing to the Panther's demise. Yet police harassment -- in the form of agents provocateurs, infiltrators and direct repression -- has plagued revolutionary groups throughout history. Why were the Panthers so vulnerable? David Hilliard's autobiography, This Side of Glory, makes a significant contribution to understanding the reasons. With the inside perspective offered by Hilliard, it becomes apparent that the Panther's paramilitary structure and lack of democratic procedure were weaknesses exploited by the police to destroy them.
As the party's national chief of staff, Hilliard had a lower public profile than other Panther leaders. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were the acknowledged theoretical leaders, with Cleaver and Seale its most prominent and charismatic spokespersons. Hilliard was the behind the scenes player who managed the party's daily operations, including ensuring regular publication and distribution of the party's paper and primary fundraiser, The Black Panther.
Hilliard's personal story is fairly representative of the experiences of many Blacks in the US before the civil rights movement. He was born in the mid-1940s, the 12th child of an impoverished Alabama family. His illiterate father was a hard worker, but his numerous blue collar jobs never provided enough income. Several of Hilliard's older siblings joined the post-War migration of southern Blacks to the cities of the North. In the early 1950s, Hilliard and his mother joined one of his brothers in California. Even without the strict Jim Crow laws of Alabama, life in Oakland was harsh, and Hilliard quickly learned to fight and defend himself. One of his early associates was Huey Newton, who respected Hilliard's toughness. Together they became involved in drugs, alcohol and petty criminal activity. Married with several children by his early twenties, Hilliard made a marginal living in various manual labor jobs. His most consistent work was as a longshore worker, and the experience helped begin his political radicalization. Hilliard proved an eager recruit when Newton approached him about the new political organization.
The Panthers began by patrolling the police: following cruisers, monitoring arrests and, when necessary, confronting the cops. Huey Newton was arrested and charged with murder following one confrontation, in which an Oakland police officer was killed. Arguing that Newton was justifiably defending himself from the officer, Newton's defense became the center of the party's organizing efforts. "Free Huey" became the rallying cry of the entire Left, who began to see the Panthers as the vanguard. White radicals across the country, including several prominent Hollywood figures, contributed money to Newton's legal defense. Uninspired by the passivity of the mainstream civil rights movement, urban Blacks flocked to the party. The Panthers epitomized militant Black liberators with their members arrayed in black leather jackets and berets, belts of bullets across their chests, automatic rifles in hand. This image was enhanced when Bobby Seale led a contingent of armed Panthers into the California state capitol in Sacramento, where legislators were considering a gun control bill aimed directly at the party. This excursion gave the Panthers international exposure.
The phenomenal growth of the Panthers exposed significant problems. Though they espoused a eclectic radical mixture of Marx, Mao, Fanon and Malcolm X, political consciousness throughout the organization was inconsistent and uneven. Many new members put the priority on confrontations with police rather than on study groups. The New York chapter was attracted to a form of cultural nationalism similar to Ron Karenga's US party. Attracting many members eager to even a score with the cops, party discipline was irregular. The party had been given a van to distribute the newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hilliard recounts how one member used the vehicle, easily identifiable with a Panther painted prominently on its panels, to rob a gas station. Such incidents were frequent, and were sensationalized by the media to represent the Panthers as violent thugs.
But the Panther's overriding problem was political. According to Hilliard, the party had two distinct contending currents from the very beginning. Newton envisioned a comprehensive community service organization, offering free breakfasts for children, sickle cell anemia testing, and political and historical education. Eldridge Cleaver favored a more militaristic, confrontational entity. The classic polarity faced by any revolutionary organization -- between social democratic opportunism and ultra-left substitutionism -- confronted the Panthers. Yet they had no democratic means for deciding strategy and tactics; the party's political perspective depended upon which leader was most prominently positioned to provide direction. While Newton was in jail awaiting trial, Cleaver exerted the most power. His influence provoked an unfortunate shootout with the Oakland police in which teenage party member Bobby Hutton was killed. Cleaver left the country to avoid prosecution resulting from the case, eventually finding refuge in Algeria. From there he continued to influence the party.
The tremendous response of the "Free Huey" campaign succeeded in winning Newton's release shortly after Cleaver's departure. This created a dramatic shift in the party's operation. Arrested while the party numbered in the dozens, Newton had in actuality been little more than a figurehead during its exceptional growth. According to Hilliard, Newton hated the famous poster image depicting him sitting in a wicker chair wearing a black leather jacket and beret, gripping a shotgun in one hand and a spear in the other. Yet this was the image that had attracted so many to the party.
When Newton was released from jail, the party regained not the expected inspiring leader, but rather a reluctant public speaker and a poor organizer. The vastly enlarged party was unfamiliar to Newton. He trusted none of the leaders, suspecting their allegiance to Cleaver. FBI efforts exacerbated the splits among Panther leaders. Newton received anonymous letters suggesting that Cleaver was organizing a faction within the party to kill him. Using drugs with increasing frequency, Newton began to summarily dismiss many leaders who had been essential to building the party. The case of Geronimo Pratt, who remains imprisoned today on a fraudulent conviction, is particularly egregious. Hilliard eventually became another of Newton's targets, and served several years in Vacaville state prison for a contrived rap related to the shootout that killed Bobby Hutton.
Last year's rebellion in Los Angeles, forced the nation to acknowledge that the situation for most African Americans has not improved in the years since the Black Panther Party captured headlines. The party had caught the anger of many urban Blacks, and began to provide political direction and focus. However, the growth of the Black Panther Party illustrates how quickly a revolutionary situation can overwhelm an untested and underprepared political organization. Had the Panthers emerged earlier in the civil rights movement, they might have had the luxury of time to learn from their mistakes and those of previous movements. "What lends this book a certain timeliness is the fact that most of the injustices that inspired the formation of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s remain in place to this day," Hilliard said in a recent interview. "My hope is that this book will serve as a catalyst, to show that it is possible for a small but dedicated group of people to influence society." One hopes that many of today's activists will take advantage of David Hilliard's experience.
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