Inside the Black Panther Party (1 of 2)

The Black Panther Party was formed to protect and defend African-American neighborhoods from police brutality. By the late 1960s, it represented a major threat to the Oakland Police Department.

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Black Panther Party logo courtesy of Richard Valdemar.Black Panther Party logo courtesy of Richard Valdemar.

A recent TV documentary on Los Angeles Crip gangs included voice-over narration that Crip founders were inspired by the Black Panther Party. I've even heard the outrageous allegation that the word "CRIP" is an acronym for Communist (or Community) Revolution in Progress.

The two organizations were entirely different creatures and, except for their mutual hatred of the police, had very little in common. Watch out for politically motivated revisionist history.

In 1966, Huey P. Newton was a newly released California inmate, and he met his friend Bobby Seale at Oakland City College, where they both joined a black power group called the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). They were greatly influenced by Malcolm X, the late former Nation of Islam speaker and writer. In October of 1966, they founded an organization called "The Black Panther Party for Self Defense."

The Panthers were formed to protect and defend African-American neighborhoods from police brutality, according to Black Panther Party writings. In the 1950s and '60s, there was some merit to these allegations. I remember growing up in this era in my own Compton-Willowbrook neighborhood of South Los Angeles, where I witnessed some of what passed for normal police procedures that would shock the American conscience of today.

Editor's note: Former Compton Police Officer John "Rick" Baker covers this era in his candid unapologetic "Vice: One Cop's Story of Patrolling America's Most Dangerous City."

Evolution and Division

As the Black Panther Party grew and expanded their membership, they adopted many other black power and black nationalist social and political ideologies. Outspoken members opposed and sometimes criticized various leaders and platforms or programs within the party. After I returned from Vietnam in 1968, I heard and read some of these debates among intelligent and motivated leaders in the organization. These men and women were nothing like Crip gang thugs. Even so, tension also developed with other rival Black Power groups over the years. Confrontations were inevitable.   

The Black Panthers were modeled on socialist and communist ideals. They primarily followed a path advocated by revolutionary communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Panthers often quoted from Mao's Little Red Book and Maxims by Mao. Panther leaders advocated an armed revolution and the overthrow of the federal government. Some Panthers felt that they could create the revolutionary changes by working within the system.

In May of 1967, a group of Panthers surprised the California State Assembly by appearing in the legislative chamber in Sacramento armed with shotguns openly displayed in their hands. This shocking but legal protest against anti-gun legislation drew national attention. Before this, the Panthers had been largely unknown to the rest of the country. By October of 1967, whites supported Huey Newton in his trial for the murder of an Oakland policeman by wearing "Honkies for Huey" buttons.

The organization also published its own newspaper, The Black Panther. Eldridge Cleaver eventually took over the editorial leadership and broadened the circulation to over 250,000 readers. The BPP also published its manifesto, "What We Want, What We Believe," a 10-point program for "Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace." They also demanded exemptions for African-Americans from military service in Vietnam.

By 1968, Black Panther chapters were established in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Omaha, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Panthers could be found on most large college campuses and throughout the jail and prison system. Official membership reached 10,000 by 1969.

For a short time, the Black Panthers maintained an office in Compton. My uncle Julio Hernandez was a Compton Police officer at the time. In a related incident, he responded with his partner Johnny Cato to a shots-fired call on Fig Street in the Fruit Town gang area of Willowbrook. Two Compton brothers had been sitting on the front porch shooting their AK-47s at palm trees—a diversion to draw the police into an ambush. The front door of the residence had been booby trapped with C-4 military explosives, and the home was over an underground tunnel in which the Panthers had stockpiled weapons and explosives.

In "Vice," Baker describes how they avoided the booby traps and recovered a dozen MAC-10 submachine guns (page 94).

All this occurred during the counterculture period of anti-authority and anti-war movements. The Black Panther Party programs of free breakfast for children, free busses for families visiting prisoners, drug and alcohol abuse awareness, consumer education, community health classes, free community pantry (food), child development centers, welfare and veteran benefit counseling, disabled persons services, drill teams and community drama classes, helped to soften the Panther's harsh rhetoric and won over left-wingers and even some in the establishment.   

After shortening their name to the Black Panther Party in 1968, the Panthers focused their efforts on political action. Members who were traditionally recruited as "brothers off the block" continued to defend themselves against violence. They armed themselves with guns and as more college student activists joined the group a split began to emerge. For some, the Panther political and social programs became paramount, while others maintained their gang-like street mentality that had made them an icon in the black community.

Cop Killers

Officer John Frey of the Oakland Police Department was shot to death in an altercation with Huey P. Newton during a traffic stop on Oct. 17, 1967. Newton and backup officer Herbert Heanes also sustained gunshot wounds. Huey Newton was arrested for the murder. Newton was touted as a political prisoner framed by the police—"Free Huey" became the battle cry of the Panthers—even though he would later admit to and even brag about the murder. At a "Free Huey" birthday rally on Feb. 17, 1968 in the Oakland Auditorium, several Black Panther Party leaders spoke, including H. Rap Brown, the party's minister of justice.

"Huey Newton is our only living revolutionary in this country today," Brown declared. "He has paid his dues. How many white folks did you kill today?"

James Forman, the party's minister of foreign affairs, spoke next.

"We must serve notice on our oppressors that we as a people are not going to be frightened by the attempted assassination of our leaders," Forman said. "For my assassination—and I'm the low man on the totem pole—I want 30 police stations blown up, one southern governor, two mayors, and 500 cops dead. If they assassinate Brother Carmichael, Brother Brown, Brother Seale, this price is tripled. And if Huey is not set free and dies, the sky is the limit!"

In April 1968, a group of Panthers led by Black Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver was involved in a gun battle with Oakland police in which 17-year-old Panther Bobby Hutton was killed. Cleaver was wounded along with two Oakland officers. He would later say that it was a deliberate ambush of the police officers. It occurred two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Dec. 4., 1969, a Chicago Police tactical unit raided the home of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. In this raid, Hampton was shot and killed along with his Panther guard Mark Clark. Cook County States Attorney Edward Hanrahan, his assistant and eight Chicago Police officers were indicted by a federal grand jury over the raid, but the charges were later dismissed.

Between the fall of 1967 to the end of 1970, as a result of confrontations between police and Black Panthers, nine police officers were killed and 56 were wounded. The Panthers lost 10 members killed and an unknown number injured. During 1969, police arrested 348 Panthers for a variety of crimes.

Outside the Black Panther Party headquarters in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 18, 1970, Black Panther Party member Albert Wayne Williams was shot by officers with the Portland Police Bureau. Although Williams was critically wounded, he made a full recovery.

Black Panther member H. Rap Brown is currently serving a life sentence for the 2000 murder of Deputy Ricky Leon Kinchen of the Fulton County (Ga.) Sheriff's Department and the wounding of another officer in a gun battle. Both of these officers were black.


Inside the Black Panther Party (2 of 2)

Black Panthers' Gun Supplier Was FBI Informant

PODCAST: Patrolling America's Most Dangerous City

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