The Black Panther Party (BPP) made inroads into the Milwaukee community in January of 1969 by establishing an office at 829 West Atkinson Avenue. By June of 1969, the BPP had moved to 2121 North 1st Street. The Black Panthers in Milwaukee were a very nomadic organization because most white landlords did not want to rent to armed black militants.

The Panther office was open 7 days a week, from noon until 8 pm, attempting to serve the black people of Milwaukee. This initial Milwaukee chapter of the Black Panther Party had a very short existence, as the BPP Central Committee dissolved it in November of 1969 for "counter-revolutionary leadership," and opportunism. Some Milwaukee Panthers had joined because it was a power trip and trendy, not because they seriously cared about the community. Before being disbanded, the Milwaukee chapter reached a respectable 75-100 members.

The Black Panther Party in Milwaukee was not finished, however. In April of 1972, Ronald Starks, a member of the original Milwaukee Panthers, and Michael McGee, a radical black veteran and future Milwaukee alderman, conceptualized an organization akin to the Black Panther Party. On April 22, 1972, the two helped to form the People's Committee for Survival, which was predicated on community service. The People's Committee for Survival had also grown out of the People's Committee to Free Jan Starks, a soldier in the military and Ron's brother, who had been imprisoned in Taiwan for allegedly possessing opium.

Although the Committee had no official affiliation with the Black Panther Party, the People's Committee did not hide their devotion to the ideals of the BPP. Kenneth Williamson, a Committee member, stated, "we (the People's Committee) accept the ideology, and follow the leadership of the Black Panther Party."

After the Committee became a stable organization, it applied for a Black Panther charter, which it received 1 1/2 years after applying. In August of 1973, a Panther branch was re- established in Milwaukee under the leadership of Starks and McGee at 2470 North 3rd Street, and from there they moved to 2750 North 16th Street. Even though the history of the Milwaukee Black Panther Party is a very torrid one because of police harassment and

Internal dissension, the Party did clearly illustrate that their main concern was to serve the people.

The Milwaukee Panthers believed that one of the first problems they had to address was the rampant police brutality that pervaded the city. The Milwaukee Police Department, and especially the Tactical Squad, was notorious for their brutality. Members of the Tactical Squad drove around with three or four officers to a car that was heavily armed with shotguns and rifles. Sergeant Frank Miller of the Tactical Squad was regarded as one of the most ruthless members of the Milwaukee Police Department. Miller became so notorious that the Milwaukee Kaleidoscope printed "wanted" signs with his picture on the front page.

Mark Braun maintains "the tactical squad recruited 'outcast officers' from other departments who were considered overly aggressive." In addition to this, the tactical squad was usually the first unit at the scene of a civil disturbance, providing for a highly explosive situation.

The brutality of the Milwaukee Police Department against African Americans was a main causal factor of the riot in 1967. The police, only to have the deaths labeled “justified homicide”, reportedly killed a number of Black Milwaukeeans. The infamous riot took place on July 29, 1967 and lasted for three days. Four people were killed, including an eighteen-year-old African American named Clifford McKissick. Over three hundred were injured and 186 were arrested. This riot was labeled the third worst civil disorder of this exceptionally turbulent year.

The Milwaukee Black Panthers attempted to address the problems of police brutality in a number of different ways, without resorting to violent means. Panther Walter Chesser noted that the Panthers "have the gun as merely a defensive tool." Michael Walker, an assistant to Mayor Henry Maier, also wrote, "The Party has no wish to create any civil disorder in the Community, but such problems as police brutality, or any other problems of this nature, the Party will intervene and try to rectify the problem with the best means possible."

In October of 1969, the Black Panther Party of Milwaukee began their push for the decentralization of the Milwaukee Police Department with the ultimate aim of greater community control. The Party and many Milwaukee citizens believed that police "king" Breier exercised too much power and this power needed to be given back to the people.

The Milwaukee Panthers also sought to remove "all these fascist, racist storm troopers and, in turn, replace them with some respectable new police officers." The Party also noted "the trend in law enforcement by the Milwaukee Police Department has been toward arbitrary and unequal enforcement of law to the detriment of the poor, the property-less, minority groups, and especially Black persons."

In May of 1974, the Panthers publicly announced a plan that would allow citizens to elect a multiracial governing council of fifteen people, known as the Citywide Police Commission. The elections would be "low budget" elections so that rich candidates could not buy an election. The city government would allot every candidate a small amount of funds for his or her campaign. Those elected would have to be eighteen, not hold any other public office, and not be on the Milwaukee Police force at that particular time. Ron Starks noted that these fifteen "would choose area police commissioners, rather than one single, centralized administrator as Breier is now." Starks also stated "these district citizen boards will have control over hiring and firing, promotions, citizen complaints, grievances and internal investigations of the police department."

The records and meetings of the Citywide Police commission would be easily accessible to the public and citizens could petition for special meetings to take place. The Panthers also placed great emphasis on police officers patrolling the area in which they lived, therefore making them more accountable to the community, and making the police force more ethnically diverse. The Party maintained that this would create better community-police relations as well as lessen the caseload of overburdened courts. The Panthers claimed that many cases resulted from police officers abusing their authority and arresting people on petty or trumped up charges. The Black Panthers logically believed that these officers would not be as likely to do this in their own communities.

The Party set a goal of 30,000 signatures for a 1976 referendum that would request State Legislators to change the laws governing police affairs. The Panthers were not successful in 1976, but their work paid off with the passage of Assembly Bill 42 in July of 1977. Bill 42 limited the terms of police and fire chiefs in Wisconsin to ten years, a vastly different arrangement than the existing rule that had granted chief Breier a lifetime appointment. Assembly Bill 42, passed the State Assembly and Senate in April of 1977, and acting Governor Martin Schreiber signed the Bill into law in July of that year. The Black Panther Party was not directly credited with the passage of Bill 42, but it is arguable that without the community organizing and the attention that the Panthers brought to the issue, this bill would never have passed.

The Black Panther Party of Milwaukee provided a number of other community services to African Americans in Milwaukee. For instance, there was a very successful Free Busing to Prison Program. This program was created on June 9, 1972, by the People's Committee for Survival, and was taken over by the Party when the Party came back into existence. Buses carried between 250-200 people every Sunday from the Party's office to the relatively distant prisons in Waupun, Green Bay and Fox Lake.

The Party also addressed the lack of adequate health care for the black community of Milwaukee. The establishment of the People's Free Health Center in 1973 at 2636 North 3rd Street was representative of an organization that was attuned to the needs of the community.

Panther Geneva McGee stated, "all medical care at the Clinic will be provided free. We believe that good health care is the right of all people and not a privilege of the wealthy." The People's Free Health Center educated the community on a variety of health issues such as sickle cell anemia, drug abuse, children's health and birth control. The Center served as a place for general social issues to be discussed as well, such as relationships between black men and women and the need for unity among black youth. By 1976, the Health Center gave high blood pressure screenings every weekday, except Thursdays, from 1-6pm. As with testing for sickle cell anemia, the Party realized that high blood pressure was a serious concern among African Americans.

These various programs dealt with pressing problems, but no program could match the impact and legacy of the Free Breakfast for Children Program. The BPP of Milwaukee followed the national Party line and began a breakfast program in June 1969 that was open to all races. The Program continued throughout the summer, and by July of 1969, the Milwaukee BPP reported feeding 100-150 kids a day, with children being fed in rotating groups of thirty. The Breakfast Program ran from 7:00 to 9:00am during school sessions and from 12:00 noon to 2:00pm after school was out. The children were served pancakes, sausages, oranges and a glass of milk. The Party received a great deal of community support for this because the community realized the importance of such a program.

In addition to these formal community programs, the BPP provided a wide array of other services. These ranged from filling in potholes to providing temporary housing for black tenants whom they believed had been unfairly evicted. The Panthers also published a local Black Panther Newsletter that served to inform and educate the African-American community.

In June of 1969, the Party protested the segregationist policies of the Oasis Theater, located at 2626 West Center Street. The policy of the Oasis was to make young African- Americans sit on aisle floors when watching a movie because they were "troublemakers." The Party responded to this segregation by demonstrating outside the theater at which time three Panthers were arrested for supposedly blocking the entrance. The Party did achieve a satisfactory agreement with the theater owner that called for the Panthers to speak with the kids about behaving and in turn, they could sit in seats.

The Party also picketed I & L Food Stores in late June of 1969. A number of people in the community had complained that the store set prices too high, knowing that people in the community had no other option for grocery shopping.

By September of 1973, the BPP ran a childcare facility in Milwaukee as well as an egg coop, where they sold eggs at wholesale out of their office. The Party also attempted to set up a community blood bank that would sell blood at a fraction of what it was sold for at hospitals.

Besides the decentralization plan, the Party served as a watchdog of the Police Department. They participated in the Committee of 21, a community organization that developed out of the slayings of John Starks, Mary Pendleton and Jerry Brookshire, demanding an investigation and indictment of the officers involved. Despite the efforts of the Panthers and the Committee, a jury ruled that the killings were justifiable homicide.

The Milwaukee BPP took part in almost every worthwhile community project they could. In April of 1975, they joined in a coalition of Milwaukee organizations, including Project Involve (a senior group), Women United for Action and U.S. Steelworkers in their denunciation of a proposed hike in bus fares. Bus fares were already at a national high in Milwaukee. The BPP assisted in drafting a proposal that called for free bus service, paid for by the wealthy businesses, because they needed those workers who rode the bus. The Party was also active in June 1975 during the Milwaukee meat cutters' strike. The predominantly black Local 248 was protesting their wages of $1.39 an hour.

The Party also mounted active opposition to U.S. Senate Bill #1 in April of 1975, the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which would have curtailed the rights of many citizens. Its critics labeled the Bill as "the most repressive piece of legislation since the Alien and Sedition laws." The Bill would have made executions mandatory for certain criminal offenses and called for fifteen years imprisonment of a $100,000 fine for membership in an organization that called for revolutionary change.

The Party spent a great deal of effort combating the use of the "Death Chambers" at Waupun State Prison. The Death Chambers were soundproof isolation cells in the basement used to break inmates both physically and mentally. A rally was held where David Dubois, then editor of The Black Panther was the keynote speaker and 10,000 signatures were collected from the community. So much public opinion was mobilized that Wisconsin Governor Pat Lucey was forced

By March of 1974, the survival programs of the Milwaukee chapter were serving roughly 500 people a week. The programs were supported through benefits, profits from newspaper and egg sales, donations from individuals and businesses and their own financial resources.

Despite the short-lived existence of the Milwaukee BPP, they created a durable legacy of community activism and service. Programs like the Free Breakfast for Children were started with the hope that the community would take it over. In providing the spark, the BPP hoped they could instigate social change that would outlive their organizational existence. Like the old school socialists, the BPP embraced bread and butter issues that could appear more reformist than revolutionary, yet the style of their activism and the radical context of their politics made it possible for them to credibly claim that they served as the "Vanguard" in the city's movement for social justice.

The Milwaukee BPP shared many characteristics with other Panther branches, but it also had unique qualities. Like other Panther chapters, Milwaukee Panthers were armed, they formed numerous coalitions with whites like the SDS and the Patriots, they had a highly publicized trial (the Milwaukee Three), they had internal dissension, they provided numerous community services and they were victims of severe police oppression. One distinctive quality of the original Milwaukee chapter is that the Central Committee disbanded it after only eleven months. It was also unique that they were re-established and that no Milwaukee Panther was ever killed by the police, which unfortunately is not something that most other chapters could claim.

The BPP of Milwaukee was outwardly confronting the power structure in the name of oppressed Black people and the Party paid a heavy price for doing so. Police vandalized the office on two separate occasions. In March of 1969, Walter Chesser alleged that police for no apparent reason other than being a Panther beat him. In June 1969, Nate Bellamy, Lieutenant of Information, had his car rammed by the police, causing him to be hospitalized and then arrested for allegedly carrying a concealed weapon.

The worst spell of persecution occurred in September of 1969, when within a span of 48 hours, six Panthers were incarcerated in two separate incidents. Eyewitnesses said that three Panthers were viciously beaten during their arrest. The other arrest was of the infamous Milwaukee Three, Booker Collins, Jessie White and Earl Levrettes, who supposedly tried to murder a police officer. The three contended that they were all brutally beaten six separate times within 24 hours after their arrest. Collins and White were given 30-year sentences and Levrettes was given ten.


Presented by Andrew Richard Witt,

an excerpt from his thesis paper

@ the University of Wisconsin