OUR STORIES 2 - Part Two

The Demise of the Black Panther Party and the
Rise of a Black Independent Political Movement

Bunchy Huey Rally Breakfast for Children

When I took on the task of re-forming the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in October 1976, I was thoroughly committed not only to rebuilding the Southern California Party Chapter but also the Party itself into a national organization. It was no secret in the Party, since Elaine and I had discussed this idea as being something that Huey also wanted to happen. At the time I had no idea that within a brief span of five years the Black Panther Party would, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist. I also did not understand, or recognize, at the time, the many contradictions that had begun to manifest themselves inside of the Party itself.

I recall the first time I became aware of the BPP while I was imprisoned at Soledad State Prison where I had been bussed from the mean streets of the Long Beach/Los Angeles area after being sentenced to Five Years To Life for armed robbery. I was twenty-three years old. It was 1966, a year after the first Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, and I was largely, but not entirely, apolitical. My time at Soledad Central, the lonely place, turned quickly into a virtual quest for knowledge of myself and my environment - both inside and outside of the prison walls. I learned later on that Eldridge Cleaver has just been paroled from Soledad Central several months before I arrived in late 1966. George Jackson, prison revolutionary extraordinaire (later appointed by Huey as Field Commander of the BBP) was being held in A-Wing-a high security cellblock.

Although a political novice when I arrived at Soledad, with the direction and assistance of fellow prisoners and counseling staff, it didn't take any time for me to pick up the trail of the struggle of African people living in America. I can never forget the African American counselor who interviewed me when I first arrived at Soledad Central. After discussing why I was there, and what I could reasonably expect, he asked me if I had ever heard of W.E.B Dubois. At the time I had no clue. Dubois was not someone I had been exposed to in nearly 12 years of Public School education. This counselor gave me a book entitled "The World and Africa" and asked me if I wanted to read it. I said yes. My life has not been the same since. This now classic work by Dubois contained many words that I barely understood, and ideas that were completely new to me. Dubois, writing in his characteristically passionate yet educating style, presented concepts that opened my mind to new possibilities of looking at myself and the world. From reading Dubois on history and Malcolm X's autobiography on present life in America; from studying courses in anthropology and astronomy to sociology, psychology, and zoology, in no time I soon began to view the world in more of a scientific and conscious black perspective. The news of the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense [from the mouths of new prisoners from the streets and the October 1967 media coverage of the BPP in Sacramento] definitely caused me to experience great excitement. I couldn't wait to be released. And I literally worked toward that end.

When I enlisted into the Party under Elaine Brown's leadership in late 1976 the BPP was ten years old, a lot smaller, and a lot smarter. On the one hand, the Party had gained valuable experience building a base of operations in the City of Oakland; but on the other hand its leadership was still continuing to learn how to build a revolutionary infrastructure inside the belly of the beast. When Huey was released from prison in August 1970 he found the Party he had helped to establish in shambles. He ordered the numerous Party chapters/branches across the county to close down and the remaining members [those who had not been purged] were ordered to relocate to Oakland.

When I was released from prison in November 1970, there were no functioning chapters or branches in the Los Angeles area. Several years later, in 1973 I made contact with the Party in Oakland, and our small cadre, including my sister Betty, organized a branch of the Committee for Justice for Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party out of Long Beach where I first became active politically in the community. We eventually organized an alternative school, which was named the Intercommunal Youth Institute [modeled after the Party's school in Oakland]. In March 1975 staff members and parents of the Institute traveled to Oakland to attend a statewide conference on Alternative Education. While in Oakland, we visited the Oakland Community School and the Learning Center and held discussions with Ericka Huggins about our joint efforts in building alternative educational models.

Following the murder of my sister by officers of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) in September 1975, my relationship and contacts with the Party leadership in Oakland became more solidified. After my sister was killed, the school in Long Beach gradually fell apart for many reasons. Virginia Harris [my first wife], her daughter Karrie and I eventually moved to Los Angeles and we became more involved around the issue of police abuse. In February 1976, we helped form the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) whose central core of activists consisted of Black and Chicano [Mexican] organizers from various communities in the Los Angeles area [including Long Beach, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Pacoima, and South Central Los Angeles]. In July 1976, the Black activists had formed a political study group and began discussing the possibilities of merging our various organizing cadres.

Sometime in the middle of September 1976, upon my request, Elaine Brown and other members of the Party's leadership arranged a meeting in Oakland with this group of Black activists. About two weeks after this meeting, our organizational cadre became formal members of the Party and the other Black activists resented the fact that we had joined the Party. Eventually I had to resign as co-chair of CAPA because of the perception by a few of the other Black activists in CAPA that the Party was attempting to take over the Coalition. This was certainly not true, and even after my resignation as CAPA's co-chair, we continued to participate and support CAPA activities.

In 1976, the Oakland-based operations of the Party clearly had been expanded and stabilized. In 1977, the BPP was, in Huey's words, instrumental in electing a new Black mayor in Oakland, and the first Black supervisor. The BPP had also gotten Ericka Huggins elected as the first black member of the Alameda County Board of Education. Although in exile in Cuba, Huey was in regular, constant even, contact with Elaine and the Party's leadership. By July 1977, Huey was looking forward to resuming his position as leader of the Black Panther Party.

High on the BPP's agenda of conditions for Huey's return was a change in political leadership in Oakland. With the electoral victory of the first black Mayor of Oakland, Lionel Wilson, the stage was set for Huey's return from exile in Cuba. A well-respected former judge, Lionel Wilson was very close to the Party and an outspoken supporter of the Party's community-based survival programs. Wilson was in fact a member of the Board of Directors of the non-profit corporation that operated the Party's independent school. Wilson's mayoral victory in 1977 was largely the result of the Party's strong backing, with Party members playing leading roles in Wilson's inner-circle campaign organization and get-out-the-vote machinery. Prior to Wilson's election, both Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown had run surprisingly strong electoral campaigns for mayor and city council, receiving upwards of 40% of the vote in 1973 and 1974, respectively..

As a result of the BPP's growing political influence in the Oakland area, the Party leadership had begun planning in 1976 for Huey Newton's return from his self-imposed exile in Cuba, where he had fled in the summer of 1974 after being indicted for the alleged murder of a street prostitute. By 1977 the BPP leadership believed that there was a more congenial atmosphere for the kind of court battle that we were going to fight. With the election of Lionel Wilson it seemed that the Party was poised to make dramatic changes in the political machinery of Oakland. It seemed that the Party was now in a position to realize its objective of turning Oakland into the first liberated territory controlled directly or indirectly by the Party. But this reality was not to be materialized.

It was no secret that the Party, in the early 1970's, had made moves to influence, if not outright control, the flow of drugs, particularly cocaine, into the City of Oakland. Huey and his so-called Squad were notorious users of cocaine who frequently employed less than revolutionary methods in interacting with the underworld in the Oakland area. When I joined the Party in 1976, there was certainly no shortage of cocaine around and the desire to use it, among Party members and leadership, had become acceptable and rather commonplace. Many times I felt somewhat out of place with the Party leadership whose use of cocaine was in conflict with my personal attitudes about such drug use. I had personally developed a very unpopular, but I believed correct, personal attitude about the recreational use of cocaine (it was one-too expensive, and two-set a bad example in the community). I know that my personal position, I believe, placed some limitations on its widespread use among Party members in the Southern California Chapter, and more than likely contributed to the strained relationship and aloofness that I began to sense from some of the Party leadership. I'm sure this factor contributed to the contradictions that developed between our newly formed Chapter and the Party as a whole. I know that my personal position had offended some members among the rank and file, and also within the leadership of the Party.

On July 4, 1977, Huey Newton returned to Oakland from his political exile in Cuba , via Canada, where he had been detained (put in jail), in spite of arrangements with the Justice Department and the Canadian Government to allow him to turn himself in on the arrest warrant after consulting with his lawyers. Chapter members were among the nearly 500 supporters who greeted Huey at the San Francisco International Airport. It was an up time in the Party. Members seemed to be, and were in fact inspired by Huey's return. A spirited defense was soon being waged on Huey's behalf. Shortly after Huey's return, three of the felony changes against him were reduced to misdemeanors. Much later Huey was acquitted of the felony assault and the murder case, after two mistrials; the last ending in September 1979.

On a number of occasions I had driven to Oakland in hopes of meeting with Huey, but for some unknown reasons such a meeting never took place. In fact, I learned that Huey was often in the Los Angeles area, but he never would even visit the Chapter or attempt to meet with us. In the late 70's, at least on the surface, the Party was apparently functioning efficiently. It had financial resources, in large part because of the success of the operations of the Oakland Community School (formerly called the Intercommunal Youth Institute), the Oakland Community Learning Center, and a growing movement organized as the Committee for Justice for Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party that had been formed in 1974. Once again, as was the case when the BPP was originally formed in 1966, a free Huey-like movement became a critical component in the organizational infrastructure of the BPP.

Reorganizing the Southern California Chapter was a righteous job. At night I drove a taxi in order to have funds to assist in maintaining our communal household. We found that the negative publicity about the Party had seriously affected the community's ability to relate to us. Although there was no shortage of people who wanted to become Party members, there were only a few who could fit into our criteria for Party membership. Our ranks remained small, never exceeding 10 active members; however, we had gotten lots of community supporters from the occasional media coverage of the reopening, and our daily paper sales. At our high point we were distributing nearly a thousand papers a week. But all was not without contradictions. Members of the Party, who lived in the Compton area, decided that they wanted to have their own branch. Despite my vocal opposition, the Party leadership approved their split with the Chapter. Several months later, one of the Compton members was killed in an abortive robbery attempt of a 7- Eleven Store.

This kind of mindless activity would never have occurred within the structure of the Chapter that I coordinated. Nonetheless, I later wrote Huey a long letter in August 1979, recounting the contradictions I had observed within the Party since reforming the Chapter. In this letter I also explained that I had learned that a Black Panther Defense/Offense Committee had been formed on the deceased brother's behalf, and that a leading member of the Party, Ericka Huggins, had been invited to speak at one of the other brother's bail reduction hearings. A fact sheet had been produced claiming that the deceased brother and his crime-partner were members of the Southern California Chapter, and that I was no longer the Coordinator of the Chapter, nor a member of the Party. I also requested Huey's personal intervention and attention to these matters. I did not even get an acknowledgement that the letter had been received.

Bobby Seale had already left the Party when I became a member in December 1976; he was allegedly kicked out by Huey over disagreements about party discipline. By late 1977, Elaine Brown had also left the Party in a dispute with Huey, who, it appeared to me, had become increasingly estranged from the Party's rank and file. It was rumored that Huey had physically assaulted Elaine, which in turn had caused her to quietly slip away from Oakland and the Party.

It was as if Huey did not have any more interest in building the Party. In any event, Huey's increasing paranoia (fueled by real and imagined conspiracies by law enforcement, and other unknown persons, to assassinate him) began to affect the rank and file, the Party leadership, and even the Chapter's financial sustainers. One of our major White sustainers wrote me in December 1977 informing me that because of Elaine's recent resignation, and what appears to be the cult of personality of Huey Newton, he was terminating his monthly contribution. This was a major setback, because the finances of the Chapter were so tenuous.

In the midst of these changes occurring after Elaine had left the Party, I often reconsidered my decision to reform the Southern California Chapter. But I decided to continue the work, because I was a firm believer that the Party's political ideology and its approach to organizing were essentially correct. However, at one point, I had to write to Central and advise that I will not tolerate undemocratic decisions and tendencies. As can be imagined, my insistence that the Chapter be allowed to question and to be critical of decisions made in Oakland, and that the Chapter be treated as an equal, was not well received.

Thus, the reformed Southern California Chapter was left to sink or swim, with very little assistance from the Oakland base. Occasionally rank and file members would come to Los Angeles for the purpose of soliciting donations on the streets for the Party's operations in Oakland. These usually unannounced visits resulted in further contradictions between the Chapter and the Party leadership. Other than these periodic visits the Party leadership seemed to have very little concern about the Chapter and its development, even though I was ordered to submit monthly reports to the Party leadership on our numerous activities; ordered to discontinue the production of a local Chapter Newsletter (although this was agreed to when the Chapter was first organized in January 1977); ordered to limit the work of the cadre to distribution of the paper and the development of chapter programs, to take down the Party Rules and Regulations from the walls of the office; to call into Central any disciplinary problems that developed within the Chapter, and to not be involved in any more speaking engagements. In January 1979, I was informed that because the Chapter was unable to pay for newspapers prior to being shipped to Los Angeles, that our weekly shipment was being discontinued.

All of these changes and contradictions within the Chapter and the Party as a whole took its toll on our small membership. We had a high of fifteen members in 1977, but by August of 1981 there were only four members left in the Chapter. A similar attrition of membership was occurring in Oakland. In late October 1980, I received a form letter from Jonina Abron, Publicity Director of the Black Panther Party, indicating that the new address and telephone number of the BPP and the Committee for Justice for Huey P. Newton had been changed to a Post Office Box. The Party Headquarters and the Black Panther Newspaper were closed; shortly thereafter the Party's premiere survival program, the Oakland Community School and Learning Center was sold to a local church. The Party was over!.

In August 1981, I sat down and again wrote Huey Newton a long letter. I pointed out that the major contradiction was the lack of any official contact with this Chapter and the Party's leadership in Oakland. I also advised him that in spite of my admittedly subjective love of the Party and its past works, and given my objective analysis of the Party during these past three and one half years, I am forced to accept and concur in these conclusions that to attempt to continue to build the Black Panther Party is unrealistic and romantic...The Party's basic ideology and grassroots political orientation had taught me and the other comrades a great deal, and undoubtedly our political consciousness has benefited from the experience. So, we reluctantly, and with much sadness, withdraw, individually and collectively, our support for the Party in general and the Southern California Chapter in particular. With revolutionary criticism, love and undying hope for the eventual liberation of oppressed peoples, we remain dedicated to the revolutionary ideals of the Black Panther Party but submit that the Organization is no longer viable.

Although the BPP was defunct by 1981, another progressive political tendency in the National Black Community had been developing. In 1972, the Congress of African People (CAP) had convened the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) in Gary, Indiana; over 8,000 delegates and observers attended. But the concept of a mass-based independent Black political party was not to be materialized at the Gary Convention. The most obvious obstacles had been Black Elected Officials who were unwilling to share power with the nationalists, and who feared their ability to broker the black vote would be affected by a mass black political forum to which they had to be accountable. A resolution calling for an immediate creation of an independent black party was defeated. However, a compromise was passed calling for the creation of a National Black Political Assembly (NBPA) as a permanent body to develop a united black political strategy for 1972 and beyond.

In 1980, the Founding Convention of the National Black Independent Political Party (NBIPP) was convened in Philadelphia, with more than 2,000 Black activists in attendance. One year later, from August 21-22, 1981, more than 800 delegates from 27 states gathered in Chicago for the First National Party Congress. Having learned about the NBIPP from local Black activists, I knew that I needed to be in Chicago and began making plans to be there. [To be continued].