Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver may be dead, but the Black Panthers have never really gone away. This bunch of thugs continues to capture the imagination of American intellectuals. In the last couple of weeks, the group has been celebrated at a Wheelock College conference titled "The Black Panther Party in Historical Perspective" and on a National Public Radio program that considered the group's place in American life.
The conference in Boston was called, said one of its organizers, because "far too often in looking at the Panthers, people have relied on kind of a negative portrayal of the party." Some 40 new papers examining the Panther legacy were presented, but few of them dealt with the dark side of the Panther movement.
That's the side I know well, having documented and written about it since the late 1970s, along with a number of other journalists. Newton was a thug even before he co-founded the organization with Bobby Seale in 1966. In 1964, he was convicted of assault after stabbing an unarmed man at a party with a steak knife. He bragged in his autobiography, "Revolutionary Suicide," of hanging out in hospital parking lots to pull off strong-arm robberies.
Newton and the Panthers started out monitoring Oakland police to keep them from abusing ghetto blacks. They burst into the public consciousness in the wake of a police shootout in which an officer was killed. Newton was initially found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but the conviction was later overturned.
By 1968, fault lines within the organization had developed. Newton and Cleaver had a falling out, and party chapters across the country divided into respective camps. Those on the Cleaver side were known for black nationalism and revolutionary violence. Those on Newton's side claimed to embrace his vision of social reform "pending the revolution," and they did establish a breakfast program and a Panther school. But at the same time, Newton was running the organization as an elaborate front for his criminal enterprises.
The party in Oakland operated a virtual vice ring out of Newton's favorite nighttime haunt, the Lamp Post bar. From its smoky recesses, the Panthers under Newton conducted a reign of terror, punishing rank-and-file females for even minor "infractions" by turning them out as prostitutes. Newton led an extortion racket against Oakland's bars, nightclubs, pimps and dope dealers, and his handpicked squad of collectors turned nasty whenever anyone failed to pay protection money. The Fox-Oakland theater was torched two times in 1973, its owner told me, after the owner refused to hire a quota of Panthers and to pay for protection.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, a string of murders was believed by police investigators to have connections to the Panthers. A Berkeley nightclub owner turned up dead in his car at the San Francisco airport. Panther Fred Bennett was killed. Betty Van Patter, the Panthers' white bookkeeper, was murdered after being summoned to a meeting at the Lamp Post. Most of the crimes remain officially unsolved. Newton was, however, eventually charged with the murder of a 17-year-old prostitute as well as other violent felonies. He fled to Cuba in the summer of 1974 after the prostitute's shooting, but by then he was already well known around Oakland for his cocaine-fueled violent rampages. He was eventually acquitted of the murder, after what the district attorney termed "a planned assassination" attempt of the "most important witness" in the case.
There were, of course, many serious and dedicated Black Panthers around the country, people who had no idea that Newton operated a parallel organization devoted to crime. But Newton sometimes used their efforts to line his pockets and those of his fellow thugs. Early on, Panthers everywhere collected money for sickle-cell anemia research. Newton later admitted that effort was a con, and that his organization siphoned off the money collected. Later, government and foundation grant money for social programs was similarly diverted, a fact exposed by an Oakland Tribune investigation.
The organization espoused a Marxist egalitarianism, but while its leader sipped Courvoisier in his penthouse, the rank and file were paid little, lived in cramped dormitories and worked up to 20 hours a day. Panthers who strayed from the party's rules were, in the early days, made to stand for hours in "mud-holes" filled with cold water. In later times, they were beaten.
If the Wheelock conference wanted to examine the real legacy of the Panthers, its participants should have pored over the cold statistics showing a spike in drive-by shooting deaths and gang warfare that took place in Oakland in the decade following the Panthers' demise. The Black Panther Party had so fetishized the gun as part of its mystique that young men in the ghetto felt incomplete without one.
But that's not the legacy most scholars want to examine. On Monday, after the Wheelock conference, a caller to National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" attempted to inject a note of skepticism into a discussion of the conference. "My only experience with the Black Panthers was back in the '60s in Oakland, Calif.," the caller said. " ... and my experience wasn't a good one at all because they would get on the buses and intimidate everyone on the bus. They wouldn't pay. As far as I could tell, they were a bunch of thugs."
Former Panther Kathleen Cleaver quickly cut in to suggest that the bus thugs weren't actually members of the group at all: "There were at that time," she said, "a large number of people who were sent by the United States government and paid to be informants and infiltrators who behaved as thugs" while posing as Panthers.
"That's baloney," the caller interjected.
At that point, conference organizer Yohuru Williams jumped in: "This is why we were so concerned about having historians look at this. You're looking there at an issue of memory.... There's nothing to say that the people that you encountered on that bus that day were Panthers."
It has too often come down to this: The faults uncovered about the Panthers are dismissed as slander from the FBI or more specifically Cointelpro, the FBI's domestic counterintelligence programs. Panther apologists want to see the group as having been a heroic force against racial injustice. But the party's criminal underpinnings give that tale the lie.