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.
Today, high up in the 25th floor of the poshy Lakeshore Apartments in Oakland, in a stucco and glass perch that commands an eye-flooding view of San Francisco Bay and that looks directly down on the courthouse where his imprisonment began, Newton still serves a sentence, perhaps more solitary now than he was in the state’s steel cubicle. The much talked-about penthouse apartment, rented as a tax write-off from various Black Panther enterprises, is like a two-bedroom, two-bath cage in which Newton paces almost constantly, seldom going out, and working long hours analyzing and developing his theories, speaking with a steady schedule of party members and supporters who come to plan and discuss Panther programs, and between that, working on three books simultaneously.
It is a characterless apartment, devoid of clear personality and almost sterile, not unlike an opulent prison cell. The living room squares and angles in black leather couches and a thick glass coffee table on which chessmen stand stiffly. Channel 13 on the boxy console television constantly monitors the street entrance to the building. A long glass-topped square table nude of anything but a heavy ashtray dominates the adjoining dining room. There is a painting of Che Guevara on an easel near the glass doors, and a leafy plant in one corner near a fine stereo that plays often. The music varies widely, from the themes from El Topo or Shaft to the lilt of Joan Baez, but whatever it is, there is always a detectable political theme in it somewhere; there is always a message it has to convey. A pair of binoculars with a built-in camera attachment stand on a tripod before the north wall of glass, the lenses trained constantly on the tenth floor jail cell where Newton was held before the north wall of trial. Directly below, oarsmen strain in racing sculls amid the small sailboats that drift on Lake Merritt.
It is not a place of Newton’s choosing. The decision for him to live there was made by the Panther Central Committee. It is supremely secure from an unexpected raid or attack. Less important, it serves as a virtual Panther flag in the very midst of some of Oakland’s most established and establishment citizens who live below Newton on other floors of the high rise. For all its impressive view and doorman service, the apartment is still constructed like a hasty tract home in cheap interior stucco and metal. It is as far from where Newton’s mind is as was the prison 200 miles to the south.
A Stucco & Glass Cell
We stood on the balcony overlooking the lake at twilight, the first dim yellow bulbs going on across the mall in the tenth floor jail cells. There would be a night of good Portuguese wine and popcorn, Newton answering questions in long, complicated responses, sometimes seeming to wrestle with intricate explanations and free them from esoteric intellect to understanding.
“You never weary of it?” I said. “You never look out at the lake and just wish you were there?”
“Oh yeah,” Newton said without hesitating, “I’ve become very lonely and very tired — frustrated. But that’s my own immaturity. Sometimes I wish I was still on Sacramento Avenue and stuff like that, but I had problems then, like people who are unconscious have problems — overwhelming problems, you know? Probably more agony than I have right now.” His pace slowed momentarily, as if the answer were finished, and then suddenly picked up again, pursuing the thought. “But then they have a sort of … a certain amount of happiness that I don’t experience now. Now it’s like I sacrifice that for more joy at the point where it will really be worthwhile. You see? Then I got joy out of very insignificant things — a lot of things, mad things. Like, I used to have fun at a good fist fight. It’s petty, but at that point I did, and as you become more conscious of what’s significant and what’s insignificant, a lot is lost. It’s like peeling an onion, you know, and you start wondering where is the joy, what is it really going to be? If you don’t accept anything in the system, what is it really like?
“I don’t know what it’s like, but I can’t stand the way it is and …” His voice trailed off, ending an answer with an inevitable question. If he is sometimes hard to follow, even if he has seemed a disappointment to some who expected this son of a Louisiana preacher to lead them like distant thunder, it is largely because Newton cannot resist taking one more peel off the onion — probing it deeper and deeper, looking for a satisfaction he knows religiously he will never find.
“Sometimes,” he said, “sometimes I feel like I’m suspended in a kind of void … those feelings come. I put those feelings down when I get enthused about some of our survival programs and I see the people’s joy. I know too that that joy, when we accomplish it, carries the seeds of reaction. That’s what we have to watch, that everytime we make a new level or make new gains, that we always run the risk that we’ll try to hold it there, and that’s what reaction is about. Then a new force will come and question us, and we will be the reactionaries.”
During its first five years of existence, the Black Panther Party was defined to the media public of America by people like J. Edgar Hoover, who in 1968 declared that the Panthers were the number one threat to the internal security of the nation, and then set out to devastate them in a series of sudden raids. Hoover never undertook to define Newton as anything more than the leader of a bunch of black communists, nor, for that matter, was Newton seen as much more than a one-dimensional prisoner with radical and even bizarre politics during his nationally-publicized trial in 1968. The Panthers emerged through the press in those days as a group of armed blacks with militant attitudes and loaded guns — something only slightly more sophisticated than a street gang. The description of policemen as “pigs” entered American slang direct from the Panthers. “Right on” went from a curious-sounding assent at Panther press conferences to a gimmick for television commercials. Always lost, always skipped somehow or summarized for lack of space was the Panther ten-point program and platform — both part of a calculated strategy for survival in ghetto America and eventual revolution.
There was one best understood image of Huey Newton at that time which appeared everywhere in posters and buttons — Newton seated rigidly in the wicker chair of African kings, his beret drawn down over one eye, one hand gripping a shotgun and the other a spear.
It was a photo posed by then-Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver. Newton disliked it and even before he left prison ordered it discontinued.
The seething image of black revenge stuck, however, portraying Newton as an angry successor to Malcolm X — the street gang leader come to politics.
And in a way, that was true too. Newton and the Panthers learned from Malcolm, just as they learned from Martin Luther King Jr. and from Franz Fanon. But the primary text was always in the streets, and what made Newton and the Panthers different from other black organizations of the time was that the theory put to practice always remained in the streets. The Panthers offered no means of escape from the system, they demanded people confront it.
Peeling the Onion
Newton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, one of seven children of a struggling sharecropper and part-time Baptist preacher. Huey’s light caramel skin bore evidence of an almost-forgotten Jewish ancestor. Walter Newton named his newest son in honor of Huey Long, the bitterly hated yet wildly loved governor of Louisiana. When Huey was still a child, the Newton’s moved north to the “promised land.”
Newton has always found it difficult to talk about himself, much less about his family. When he does, it is only to provide another bit of understanding — to peel back another layer in discovering how he personally came to the awareness he has today.
“My life experience, the place I’m from, the make up of my family,” he explained. “Louisiana and then coming north to the promised land that wasn’t a promised land. My father working three jobs all his life — a very responsible citizen, you know? And all those things he thought he was working for fading and he not understanding until this late date. My mother and my father have been married 50 years, and he’s just started to understand that something’s wrong with the system. He accepted the whole thing, you see. Yet this industrious kind of engagement didn’t bring him the success, according to American terms, that he wanted. I was probably affected by this very much. In fact, I know I was. I would try to find reasons why, and I would become angry when I was young and then later on I would understand and become less angry and more determined in making a new kind of order. “I guess the basis of the anger was that he would put so much into just trying to provide, you see? His success would be being able to survive three jobs. All of his life he wanted this — all his life he was unable to get this. I thought it was unfair then, and I think it’s unfair now. The paying of the bills. I was always connected to that in my family. Going around, you know, my father didn’t trust check books, he wanted them to stamp the receipt book. So he worked all the time and one of my sisters or brothers would have to go around with the bills, and then I early learned how much the carrying charges and the interest amounted to. A lot of times we could pay only the interest and no principle and I would wonder, where is the interest going to? And I would go to the people he’d owe and ask them about it. I started to get on an unconscious level — sort of an emotional reaction — the same thing I feel now. Except that after you become conscious of the way things work, you become less emotionally charged and more rational and direct in your dislikes. And then at some point you become less concerned even about your dislikes and more concerned about finding or contributing to the new thing what will come about as more and more people become dissatisfied.
“It was a long time before I realized what really drove me. Many times, years ago, you would ask me — ‘why you in particular?’ — and then it would upset me, but only because I couldn’t answer it. It worried me because maybe I wasn’t … Maybe I was holding something back. But I can understand it better now, because it’s part of me understanding me.”
He grew up in the deepening black ghetto of West Oakland, a handsome street kid with large fluid eyes that could rivet you on the spot and search your mind without threatening you. In school, his grades were bad. He was pushed along in an assembly-line urban school, passed with Ds to get him processed, programmed, and back to the streets.
“It was a good thing to happen really,” Newton said. “I didn’t get trained by the school system like other kids, and when I did concentrate on learning, my mind was cluttered and locked by the programming of the system.”
He was 17 and about to graduate from high school when he asked his older brother, Melvin, to teach him to read.
“He couldn’t believe I’d gone all the way through the system and still couldn’t read even simple things. He said that, and I got mad, so I just began to teach myself.”
He used records at first, picking recordings of Shakespeare and struggling along in the script to pick up the words. “The first book I ever really read was Plato’s Republic,” Newton laughed “and then I had to go over that five times or something.”
Despite the twittering doubts of his high school teachers, Newton decided for himself that he was going to college. At the time, Merritt College was a scruffy-looking jumble of buildings just behind a freeway in West Oakland. In its own way it was segregated as black colleges in the South. Maybe its biggest advantage was the easy accessability of a social field laboratory all around it in the streets and nearby pool halls, taverns and liquor stores. It was the times as much as anything else that brought Newton into politics. The first years of the Sixties were already pulsing with social dissent, non-violent protest and civil disobedience. Newton associated himself first with the Muslims and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and eventually the Afro-American Association at Merritt, run by an intellectually-aggressive young man named Don Warden. But by 1965, Newton was becoming frustrated with the academic nature of the organization.
“It was a very intellectual black movement at the time,” he remembered. “I always had one foot in the school and one still in the community, on the block in the so-called rough sections of Berkeley and Oakland along Sacramento Avenue and down by Ashby. Guys hang around on the corner, in pool halls and so forth, and as soon as I got out of class, I would go over there. In these groups I was in, the organization would always talk about the people on the streets and the more militant they got or the more conscious they got, the more the organizations would talk about how it’s necessary to really be viable — to really relate to the community. But they were even afraid to go down there. It was sort of hypocritical, not in a mean way, because a lot of guys from college were from different — bourgeois — backgrounds. Even me. They wouldn’t let me join RAM [Revolutionary Action Movement] at the time because they said I was surely a member of the bourgeoisie.” Newton laughed. “The guy who said it had a father who was a dentist and an uncle who was a medical doctor. I always tried to tell them my father was a sharecropper, but they never believed it.”
Bobby Seale wrote later that at that time he too had become disillusioned with the “cultural nationalism” of RAM and was searching for new partners. He and Newton shared an affinity with the problems of the streets. Seale, and Newton, along with three others who never became Panthers, formed the Soul Students Advisory Council at Merritt. But within a year, both Newton and Seale had resigned after a rift over whether that group could succeed in taking itself out of intangible discussions into serious work in the streets. Newton had already concluded from his readings of Malcolm X and other revolutionaries that it was time for black men to arm themselves in self defense. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed by Newton and Seale in 1966. It started with a ten-point platform and program that detailed the needs for housing, jobs and rights of the community to control its own destiny, and it focused first on community patrols of the police.
“I thought that when we went out there on those police alerts with armed patrols, that it was a forward thrust,” Newton said, “but the patrols were frustrated, because they finally just had to report the police to the police. It was a good move, but we didn’t know until after it started that we needed some other kind of apparatus. Around the latter part of ’66 was when we were really just completely frustrated all over the country. Very few places got police review boards as a result even. We were armed and I was learning something about the law and constitutional rights of citizens, but I really thought the party would be wiped out then. I used to tell Bobby whenever we left that I might not come back again from one of those patrols. I really didn’t think we would last.”
In May, 1967, 24 Panther men and six Panther women armed with rifles and shotguns marched through the California state capital in Sacramento to protest the Mulford Act, which would make it unlawful for private citizens to display loaded firearms in public. The act was passed and the Panthers arrested, but photographs and news accounts of the incident flashed around the world and “Black Panther” permanently entered the lexicon of American social protests.
Significantly, Newton himself did not participate in the capital demonstration. The members of the party had determined he was too valuable to risk. Newton was the party’s theoretician, master-mind, philosopher — its high priest. His days on the street corners really ended right then. Within five months, he was in prison, accused of murdering an Oakland policeman who stopped the borrowed Volkswagen he was driving for a traffic violation.
Newton’s trial almost a year later began in earnest to build the myth. “Free Huey” became a slogan as familiar as “Stop the War.” Although no one could anticipate what was to follow, Newton’s trial in the summer of 1968 became a classic example in a throbbing era of political trials. Spectators jammed into lines for the few available seats in the courtroom, where five full rows of seats were taken up by press from around the country. Nervous sheriff’s deputies searched everyone before they entered the trial, marking the first time use was made of stiff, intimidating security measures. Attorney Charles Garry built the defense in a hammering social critique of racial oppression in Oakland. The authorities openly worried about a serious confrontation arising out of the trial.
Only the previous spring, the young Panther treasurer, 17-year-old Bobby Hutton, had been killed and the Panther Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, arrested after a mad shootout with Oakland police. Oakland, the press and the sociologists gravely warned, was ripe for a riot. It would be the next city to burn like Watts, they said, and in Oakland, where both sides were armed, it would be a bloody disaster.
And many of the predictions about what would ignite violence in the streets hinged on Newton, the confident-looking young black who strode into court each day from jail cell dressed in a silken turtle-neck and a trim green or black suit. He would come out of the side entrance to the court from the jail and a huge grin would spread across his face as he spotted people in the audience who he knew. Then he’d raise his fist in salute and a bailiff would glower as many in the audience raised their fists in response.
While the state tried Newton in that courtroom, the Panthers and thousands of supporters outside tried the state. Over the entire two months of the trial, there were demonstrations. They were conducted with fluctuating degrees of intensity and participation, perhaps depending on the heat, but they were always remarkable for their order. Panthers in stifling hot leather jackets marched with military precision, their shoe tips gleaming with spit shines, their chants sounding carefully rehearsed and carefully metered. The fringes of the crowd were constantly monitored by other Panthers with walkie-talkies. Blue and black Panther banners fluttered on the courthouse steps. It was a show that had its effect, because if the press and police officials worried over Panther organization and militancy before, now they could see a graphic example of it. And when the Panthers added displays of each member’s individual copy of Chairman Mao’s red book, the alarm deepened. Not only were the blacks getting organized, they were openly flaunting their communist ties.
Newton himself granted almost daily interviews in a tiny hot room, normally used by attorneys to talk to their clients who found themselves in the Alameda County jail. The Panther Minister of Defense smiled easily and talked freely. Surprisingly, he seldom displayed any irritation, even when a question was asked again for the umpteenth time by a reporter who had not heard it before. Newton avoided slogans and rhetoric. He seemed almost to be straining to make the complex political nature of the Panther Party understood. He would steadfastly refuse to answer only one question — how many members did the party have? Even today, it remains a secret, but then it was held back almost as a threat — “Those who know don’t tell. Those who tell don’t know,” went the standard response that Cleaver favored.
Regardless of his engaging, philosophical manner, to the press and to many of his new followers who grouped around the courthouse, Newton was still one badass nigger. Yet the more accurate image of him as an astute political leader came through too, if sometimes in lumpy distortions. Even to the jury which had been impaneled to hear a first degree murder trial of a black militant accused of murdering one cop and wounding another. When it was over, they brought back a verdict of voluntary manslaughter. The most important conclusion they reached was not that a murder had been committed, but that the cop had shot Newton first—that Newton was an intended victim who turned the bullets back on his assailant.
Still, the sentence was two to 15 years, and Huey Newton could expect to do every minute of it. The Panthers had warned that if Newton was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, “The Sky is the Limit.” A compromise verdict had not been anticipated, the reaction could not be predicted.
The evening of the verdict, an army of police waited in the basement parking lot of the newly-finished Oakland museum across the street from the courthouse, ready for anything up to and including a war in the streets. But it was Newton himself who cooled Oakland. Days before, in one of his televison interviews, he had defined “sky’s the limit” as meaning the case would be taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. He repeated that on the night of the verdict and warned his followers to avoid a deadly confrontation with the well-armed police. Oakland rested fitfully that night, but there was no riot. There was only one incident: two drunken police officers drove past the Panther headquarters late that night and opened up with a barrage of shotgun and rifle fire at the empty building. The shots crashed through the plate glass window, most of them apparently aimed at the famous wicker chair poster pasted inside the glass. The police officers were so drunk they accidentally fired one round through the roof of their patrol car. Both were given suspended jail sentences and fired from the force.
The trial built Newton into an enormous media creation for millions of people who had never seen him or heard him speak. For all its political content the violent nature of its ghetto origins lingered also.
“After I got out, I used to become angry and frustrated when a young person would meet me and the first thing he would say was something about the dead policeman. The loss of any human life makes me feel diminished, and I had difficulty explaining that. Out of my life experiences, I lost my capacity to hate.” Newton said. “I just disagree.”
Prison; Murders; Exile
Newton was sentenced to the relatively calm state prison near San Luis Obispo, an institution used for non-troublesome inmates, inmates less likely to group around the militant Black Panther leader inside the walls. Newton remained the titular head of the Panthers and an absentee member of the party’s ruling seven-member central committee. From prison, he issued edicts and suggestions and cast proxy votes in major decisions.
But the party was changing. In those days of the trial, the presence of disciplined spit-shined Panthers had not been a mere performance for the press. It was part of Newton’s belief that if the Panthers were to successfully organize in the community, they would have to win at least the respect of all of it, and that included conservative and moderate black businessmen and the key institution of the black community — the churches. Newton himself did not cuss, he ordered his followers likewise to avoid words and slogans that might offend their elders and the more conservative. He directed that shoes be shined constantly, that members speak with confidence and determination, but with respect. It was a calculated political move to win the support and trust of the community. But even before Newton was sentenced to prison, things had begun to change. Eldridge Cleaver had been released from prison on bail to await trial on charges from the April 6th shootout. Cleaver, a flamboyant and aggressive writer and speaker with a knack for turning a militant phrase, assumed much of the party leadership by the strength of his personality and uncompromising drive. Stokely Carmichael, already disillusioned with the black movement in America, was cynical about Newton ever leaving prison. Stokely severed his connections with the party in a rift over an issue that had become familiar debate back at Merritt — the hassle over cultural nationalism that constantly flew up in conflict with Newton’s own ideas about the party not being racist and confining itself to a political struggle in the community, not a cultural drive that would further isolate blacks. Cleaver sided with Newton, but took issue with winning over the hearts of church leaders and businessmen. Gradually, the Panthers abandoned their uniforms and their spit shines and settled more comfortably with Cleaver’s vindictive pronouncements against “pigs” of many descriptions.
To Newton, the party was going through a conflict that he had seen before, not just in organizations he had belonged to, but in the struggling years of the movement in general.
“The big problem in the early Sixties was that SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and many other blacks were in an argument—we even argue with each other now, except the party is not in that debate when they start arguing—’Well, are you a separatist or are you an integrationist?’ We’re for human rights, and yet we’re for community control and we should have a right to use all of the public institutions in the country we pay taxes on. After SNCC split whites from the organization, the white progressives, a part of them anyway, went through the same metamorphosis as SNCC did, making the same mistake, saying that they take an absolute stand. Part of their group was liberals and the other part was made up of true revolutionaries. The revolutionaries were for revolution and the progressives were for reaction. So the revolutionaries split into a camp and became separatists themselves and developed a hip culture that further divided them and further isolated them.
“The party, of course, went through the same kind of thing — unwillingly as far as I’m concerned — and became isolated. Everyone who couldn’t pick up a gun was called a bootlicker and a reactionary. It was under Eldridge’s influence. I was in the penitentiary at the time, but I was out-voted in the central committee and there were things that the party tolerated, so I just can’t blame Eldridge, even though he was supposed to be one of the most enlightened people in the party, so he must shoulder most of the blame.”
But it says something about the consciousness of people who followed that line, including myself. Even though I disagreed, I didn’t get out of the party, because if I got out of this party, I’d have to get in another one and suffer other sorts of contradictions. I think the only reason individuals should stop any sort of organization is that it’s just an outrage to his decency as a person. It didn’t get quite that far in our party, but it was on the brink of it for many people.”
With Newton in prison, the day-to-day functioning of the party fell to the responsibility of Seale and Cleaver. But in January, 1969, Cleaver fled first to Cuba and then into Algeria after a court ruled that he must return to prison as a parole violator while awaiting trial. In April of that year, Seale was arrested on charges of committing a murder in Connecticut and of conspiracy in the 1968 disturbances at the Democratic National Convention. That left Chief of Staff David Hilliard and Los Angeles Panther leader Raymond Masai Hewitt as the chief Panther leaders not in prison. It came at the most dangerous period in Panther history. Throughout 1969, there was a series of police and federal raids on Panther offices all over the country. Several Panthers were killed, including Chicago leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. At the same time, police charged that the Panthers were dealing with informers in their own ranks. Seale was accused and later acquitted of the murder of one such alleged informer in Connecticut.
If the arrests and killings threatened to cripple the party, however, they also served in another way to strengthen it. The controversy about the Panthers stayed in the headlines and the police raids became more and more questionable.
“We exist because of the oppression in the first place,” Newton said, “and because there is oppression, there will be repression to any kind of move to negate the oppression. So I think that we could not exist without the repression. The party was founded because of the oppressive condition and many of our members have been killed. But the party was not founded on one person. Through our history, many of our people have been murdered, and the history of the United States is one that’s drenched in blood. We won’t put an end to that, and we know that our comrades are dead not because of our life as a party; they’re dead in spite of our life as a party. We want to put an end to not only exploitation of man by man, but also the killing of all our kind.”
Cleaver was in self-exile in Algeria. Seale was awaiting trial in Connecticut. Even Hilliard was under federal indictment. The Panther Party seemed doomed to be an organization led by proxy from the prisons of America. Almost when it seemed certain, an appeals court overturned Newton’s conviction. He was freed on bail pending retrial.
Newton faced it with the same stoicism. He was returning to a situation that had created him as much as he created it. He was Huey the Myth on that hot day when he came out of the Alameda County Courthouse.
Year of Defection
It goes back to the people constructing a leader and then attempting to destroy their construct,” Newton said. “The image that they constructed, especially if it doesn’t fit into their super-ego needs, never works. First, the leader is meant to be everything they are not, but everything they would like to be, so he’s not a real person, generally speaking, and at any point where this leader fails in his performance, this fantasy they constructed falls. It becomes a matter of contempt. So leadership is dangerous in itself—the whole concept—and it’s not something we’ll have in the future. I can’t see in the near future where we won’t need it, but I also understand the difficulties that people will undergo and also the persons that they choose will undergo, for right or wrong reasons.”
Years before, Newton and Seale had formed a working arrangement that best suited the talents of both. At Merritt, Newton had been the most outspoken of the two, but his forte was in debate — in sharp, often complicated arguments on tactics and approach. Seale was by far the better speaker. He knew how to saw at an audience with his arguments and then lift them with a crack of rhetoric. Newton spoke in a monotone. He could never pull himself away from long, intricate explanations. Perhaps most surprising, he almost never slipped into rhetoric and street slang. When he was released from prison, it was at a decisive period for the Panthers. Someone had to make speeches, had to rebuild the swell of support that was there in 1968. Newton consistently sought to appear only before small groups where he felt more comfortable and where he could exchange views. But because of his and the Panther’s notoriety, he almost always found himself making formal speeches before thousands. At Yale, half the audience walked out on him. It happened again and again. People came expecting to have their outrage stoked and directed. They left perplexed, over-intellectualized by someone who seemed not at all the badass nigger they had expected. Newton, the criticism began, had softened — he was too close to the system.
“At first, it was difficult for me to accept it,” Newton said. “I think I’ve come to grips with it now and I understand. I can only understand it by understanding the people’s consciousness and awareness. They would be very critical because of the reason we went through about the fantasy and their superman idea and, of course, this leaves themselves free of any charge or obligation and puts it safely on the back of the fantasy. If that fantasy can come in the form of a person, then that person’s in trouble, you see? But really, they can’t solve the problems of the world and of the US in particular until they go through that frustration and then eventually mature to the point where they can accept it themselves—their shortcoming is their dependency on a person in the first place. If the ideology itself is in question, that’s a different story. But the personal evaluation is very dangerous. I think too much of the time we just dismiss actions and we rely so much on the image. I think we’re caught up in that because of the media. The media, with its limitations—it probably could do a better job, but just the time limits you, the way they cut up the news. The few minutes that they can give to a particular person, to a particular issue, it’s so small until they can only throw out rhetoric. The media throws out rhetoric. They are as guilty as the people they criticize about the rhetoric, and it’s a bad situation.”
One of those to criticize Newton was Eldridge Cleaver. During a live television talk show in San Francisco, Cleaver, speaking by telephone with Newton, suddenly launched into bitter criticism of David Hilliard and others in the party, demanding they be purged and implying that the party had weakened itself by initiating breakfast for children programs and free clinics. Newton set his jaw and mumbled something non-committal in response. When he left the studio, he was walking fast and hard, angrier than most people had seen him. Two nights later, Cleaver called the penthouse to discuss his comments with Newton. Newton cut him off with an explosion of threats and anger. It was the only time I have ever heard Newton swear in anger. Party unity split briefly, although Cleaver has never been able to manage the new militant faction he vowed he would direct by video tape and written communication from Algiers. The bulk of the party, with the exception of limited factions on the East Coast, stayed with Newton.
Newton was clearly shaken by the defection. He lost not only a political ally, but one of his few personal friends. Yet without Cleaver, the party’s direction was even more clearly defined behind Newton’s scheme for community control.
Newton is currently at work on two major books. One of them, Hidden Traitor, Renegade Scab, will be about Cleaver and his defection. The other is Newton’s autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide. Beyond the political merits of them, however, the purpose of the books is to raise money for increasingly expensive Panther programs.
The current direction of the Panthers is less spectacular than the police patrols of 1966 or the shootouts of 1969, but its implication is more serious. For the past year and a half, the Panthers have concentrated on an intense and blatantly political effort at community organization. Millions of free breakfasts have been served to school children in black communities where the Panthers are active. At least two free medical clinics are operated by the party. In Oakland in particular, the effort has been impressive. Thousands of bags of groceries have been handed out free in two huge community survival conferences conducted by the Panthers, the food distribution going on from a table close by another used for voter registration.
Oakland has a black population of up to 55 percent, and whites are leaving in steady numbers. Through all the years when the Panthers were building, this enormous black community remained largely unorganized. The government and the institutions of the city were run by a grossly disproportionate number of whites. Blacks never were sufficiently organized to win real power. Now, however, that is changing. Panthers now hold key posts on the city’s poverty program. The Panther voter registration drive is virtually the only successful one in the city. Next year, Panther Chairman Bobby Seale will run for mayor of Oakland and a slate of Panthers will run for city council. It is the most organized effort at black political control that Oakland has seen, and the results of the election may surprise cynical observers.
Furthermore, the Panther effort has aimed at insisting that black as well as white businessmen in the community make a steady contribution to the party’s survival programs. In one such instance, after months of picketing, the Panthers succeeded in a near total community boycott of a resisting black liquor store owner. The contributions, small in cases, but on a steady basis, go not to the political arm of the Panthers, but to the free survival programs. The Panthers argue that it is simply an obligation of businessmen to contribute something to the needs of the people from whom they profit.
“The revolution itself is strictly a fight between the old and the new,” Newton said, “with the new always winning. But we want the new thing to be as desirable as possible, you see, so that’s what we mean by harnessing the forces. We have to understand the forces. Even if you think in absolute terms, like the absolute revolution, you would probably be nearing the problem that all revolutionaries carry the seeds of reaction. You’re nearing the reactionary goal, because you’re being absolute in what you’re going to achieve and then you stop to consolidate that, and once you stop, you become the reactionary stopping new progress.
“That’s probably what happened in 1776 with the American Revolution. There was a revolutionary force there. It was for a time a positive revolutionary movement. The reaction set in when they tried to consolidate their power, to stop all other forms of movement toward even a higher level of freedom and compromises. In our movement, things become more difficult in a similar way. At the time of ’58 and ’60, for example, you were talking about working within the laws, the established order, and attempting to get them at least to be honest with themselves — stop the hypocrisy. But now we’re coming closer — many things have been settled, many things have been compromised. Now you’re coming closer to the new revolutionary movement’s questioning of the system itself — the very foundation principles upon which this country was founded. It’s more difficult to get people involved in that, but it’s closer to home.”
Given the current Panther political campaign, that sounds contradictory, but Newton goes about revolution in no hasty manner — he peels it back, layer by layer.
“In the late Fifties and early Sixties,” he went on, “the police and the national guard and so on were sometimes used to protect the people who were moving to point out the system’s hypocrisy. Now, those forces are used exclusively to protect the system. You can only get to that point after you exhaust what the law would already support, and I think that was a necessary period. But the frustration comes when we ask ourselves, ‘What do we do next? Do we get out of the system and so forth?’ We contend, though, that everybody is in the system until the system itself is transformed, even people in other countries, such as Vietnam. That’s why we talk about United States imperialism.
“No one can say, ‘I have dropped out—I am no longer in the system.’ When you’re in prison, you’re even closer to the system, you feel it more, and you might be in there for whatever reason. You don’t transform the system as an absolute thing. The system itself has its own internal contradictions and we have to know what to do to increase and decrease that contradiction in order to heighten it and bring about a qualitative leap. All qualitative leaps are the new thing that grows out of the old. But in doing this, we still won’t jump out of the system. We’ll see a new foundation, new principles, new laws established, but they will grow out of the old as surely as the United States grew out of the English empire.”
Since he was released from prison, Newton has visited the People’s Republic of China, where the Panthers are respected for their Marxist analysis. Newton often cites Chinese examples in his statements today, but he does not create Chinese models. To him, the solution for tactics of an American revolution are where they have always been — in the community itself.
“We’re using practical methods — practical programs,” he said. “Like our survival program is not a revolutionary program, nor a reformist program, it’s a strategy and a tactic through which we hope to make revolution or make the changes necessary. First, we use it to organize the people, to educate them to the trouble — the reason they don’t have adequate food, clothing or shelter, and in some instances why the tax is so high, what the money is being used for. It’s not being used to lighten the burden they have in the area of health and education for their children. We’re using very practical methods to point that out, very practical programs. That’s the only way you’re going to get people organized anyway, is to try to show them you’re first sensitive to their needs and you’re doing something about contributing to their general move to alleviate themselves of the burdens they have in their daily lives.
“This was the party’s position all along. The incorrect line was taken up at one point and the enemy—the US ruling circle—used it to isolate us and to construct an image of a gang or some mad hoodlums and shoot-out gunslingers.”
The Big Eye Maybe
Huey Newton is not the hard-bitten revolutionary people expect. “Revolution” enters his conversation frequently, but it hangs in the air like a cruising hawk, and Newton offers no ultimate answer for its end:
“Nor even an ultimate question, because I wouldn’t know how to ask that question. I don’t understand Alpha or Omega, I only understand events in between, and that’s all part of a process that will deliver the answer someday what the meaning of the beginning and the end and the absolute and the finality means. Now we just have some sort of vague notion that there’s something we don’t know about. There’s an answer we don’t have. It’s only hypocrisy to say you do have the answer, because that stops your move, that will make you fight anyone who contradicts you. The party has gone through many changes with many ideologies. We’ve been transformed and partially the reason is that we understand that the social forces are constantly in motion and we’ll be left behind as many other groups—as SNCC was—if we don’t take these things into consideration.
“I said what happened in the past ten years was a move forward in the national consciousness of oppressed people. People of the world were even more conscious, because they saw more of a connection between their oppression and the oppression of the people here. When the Left becomes mature, then they’ll know how to take advantage of that stage of development—the stage where they’re at a higher level, where they’ve gotten more compromises. Then they’ll know how to ask for more instead of committing reactionary suicide because they didn’t get the prize. There is no prize to be gotten, there’s only the process and that is the process of life.”
His autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, bears a title that conjures up more militant images—images of the dead Jackson brothers, of Fred Hampton, of Malcolm X.
“It’s not a doom though,” Newton said. “Revolutionary suicide forecasts a doom of the system. Che spoke of revolutionary suicide, only in different terms. He said things like, ‘Wherever death surprises me, I’ll welcome it.’ He also said at another point, ‘To the revolutionist, death is a reality, and victory is a dream.’ He talked about it when he said what makes the guerilla in the people’s army so invincible or so strong is that morale’s so high. It’s because they don’t measure their success or failure on a pay scale. The regular army, when they come after the people’s army, is paid. They measure their success against the probability of collecting their paychecks. And as the possibilities or probabilities of collecting a paycheck drops, their morale drops. They’re mercenaries. The guerilla is not. He’s there because he’s got no choice, really. He’ll suffer reactionary suicide—that’s death while he’s just standing there not attempting to defend himself—or he’ll put up obstacles and guard himself against his own death. For the revolutionist, the war machine against him is so strong that there’s little chance he will eat the fruits of the revolution in his lifetime. People say ‘Revolution in our lifetime.’ I say, ‘Yes, it’s going on all the time, but I think it means something different.’ It doesn’t mean we’ll eat the fruits of revolution in our lifetime. I doubt that very seriously on an individual level. But if you’re concerned with that, if you’re concerned with dedication to the people that have a one percent chance of individually tasting of the fruit, then you have made a choice. I’ll contribute to humanity and to my children after me, but I won’t suffer a slow death here and now where conditions are so intolerable.”
He is, in fact, not talking about death at all, but about dedication, and almost in the tongue of his father, about faith. Newton gave me a copy of George Jackson’s last book, “Blood In My Eye,” and inscribed the fly leaf with a poem he had written:
By having no family,
I have inherited the family of humanity.
By having no possessions,
I have possessed all.
By rejecting the love of one,
I have received the love of all.
By surrendering my life to the revolution,
I found eternal life — Revolutionary Suicide.
Weeks later, an East Indian friend read the passage and with surprise noted its close similarity to the writings of Hindu swami Vivekanada, an Indian militant turned religionist who died in 1902 after travelling the world promoting a universal religion based on the Hindu Vendanta.
Perhaps that is a glance at the core of the 30-year-old Black Panther Supreme Servant of the People whose first impressions go back to attendance as often as three times a week at his father’s church.
“I don’t think the correct way is so much to go out and find the people’s needs and be aware of the conditions as much as it is revolutionizing yourself and freeing yourself, because you are interconnected to the whole thing. You’re related to it. It’s said over and over again—there’s definitely a relationship between the rich and the poor and much of the very wealthiest people’s emptiness and absurdity in their existence is based upon the system that they’re caught up in. Many times they want to change this because they find that not only does it make their lives very empty, but it’s also causing suffering by the people generally—the people who are oppressed by their ways of behaving. So it’s really not an altruistic thing that brings you to try to harness the forces so the process will go in the way you would like it—it’s saving yourself. Only then, you become larger, because you see that you’re bigger than your limited definition—your name. You become the Big Eye. The Big Eye encompasses all the things that you touch and those things that touch you.
“When you expand like that, then you have to find an organization that systematically can question the oppressing system and the status quo of the reactionary ruling circle. As that expands, you expand into a mass movement and the mass movement topples the organization. The masses topple the ship, really, because they’re the sea upon which the ship rides, and when this happens, of course, then you’re near the day when, the organization will be the organization of humanity.
“Then we’ll have the army so we can topple the ship—the authority of God himself. God is only everything we don’t know and don’t understand, yet he affects and controls us, the unknown parts of nature, or ourselves, you see, because we’re also nature.”
But how would people ever know if they found an organization—a ship—they could trust?
“You can tell the tree by the fruit it bears,” Newton said. “You see it through what the organization is delivering as far as a concrete program. If the tree’s fruit sours or grows brackish, then the time has come to chop it down—bury it and walk over it and plant new seeds.”
He stopped a moment and thought about it, looking out at the late night sparkle of Oakland.
“You got me preachin’ my old man’s sermons,” he said, laughing. “