Huey Newton: Twenty-Five Floors From the Street
It was one of those August days when fog jams along the coast and chokes itself in San Francisco, never reaching across the bay to sweltering Oakland; a day like the one two years ago when stiff-faced young black men in heat-devouring black leather jackets and black berets clicked and stomped in a twisting intimidating rhythm outside the Alameda County Courthouse.
The revolution has co-um
Time to pick up the gu-un.
But now it was 1970, two years later. People were again gathering outside the same squat-square courthouse, as many white faces as black, just as there had been before. But this time the uniformity of costume and rhythm was missing. The mood was anticipatory; eagerness and anxiety on the verge of celebration. A few placards dappled the crowd, worn and faded leftovers saved for this day.
“The Sky’s The Limit.”
The crowd swelled over the curb and spilled into the street by the time Newton suddenly came through the awesome double metal doors, smiling and nodding in self-conscious recognition of the hundreds waiting for him. He plunged down the smoothstone steps and into the crowd. The hovering knot of bodyguards around him lost their protective circle to the crush of flesh straining to see and touch as Newton struggled to a Volkswagen.
Some women in the crowd wept; others shrieked and shouted, “Huey! Huey!” Still he moved fast up the cluttered street, out of the courthouse shade and into the sunshine. He climbed up on a car and pulled his shirt off. His body was lean and muscled from a steady regimen of prison exercise. He cast an imposing, and nearly sensual figure.
But when he spoke, he could barely be heard. He called it a victory for the people in a voice somehow narrow, the syllables high-pitched in the throat, not gut-deep and angry in the Eldridge Cleaver or Bobby Seale style. The words did not whip and crack the hot air with denunciation or threat. He did not say “pig,” he said “police,” and he cautioned people against blocking the street.
As he said later, Newton came out of the courthouse that day almost reluctantly, as ever uncomfortable — even afraid — of crowds. “It was hot and I took my shirt off. That felt good. The sun felt good,” he said, laughing in that nasal way of his. “People thought it was a grand gesture or something, but it was just hot.”
Like the Shadow come from radio to television, Huey Newton could never quite match the vision of him that people had conjured up while he was locked away in state prison on charges of manslaughter in the 1967 killing of an Oakland police officer. The myth eroded a little that day in disappointment. People thrive on expectations and languish in fulfillment; nobody believes that stronger than Newton himself.
He had commented about his release on bail for retrial in a stoic, almost casual way. “I’ll be going from maximum security to medium security, that’s all,” he said. For more than two years, he had lived in self-imposed solitary at a California prison where he refused to work or perform prison tasks unless he was paid a legal minimum wage instead of the usual prison wages of 12 cents an hour. He fought that battle with steely personal determination, until at last the prison authorities and he reached an agreement — they would do nothing for him, not so much as provide library books or toothpaste, and he would do nothing for them, not so much as to show an instance of physical resistance to allow them to vent their frustrations in a beating.
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