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Revolution on Ice

How the Black Panthers lost the FBI’s war of dirty tricks

Black Panthers, Eldridge CleaverBlack Panthers, Eldridge Cleaver

American author and former Black Panthers head Eldridge Cleaver holds a book in Paris, France on May 29, 1975

Agence France Presse/Agence France Presse/Getty Images

I say it to racist America, that if every voice of dissent is silenced by your guns, by your courts, by your gas chambers, by your money, you will know, that as long as the ghost of Eldridge Cleaver is afoot, you have an ENEMY in your midst. — Eldridge Cleaver, April 19th, 1968

Eldridge Cleaver was 3000 miles from home, sitting in front of a television set in Montreal and pondering his options. The top news story that November night in 1968 was taking place back in San Francisco, outside of Cleaver’s Victorian house. A singing, sign-carrying crowed of more than 2000 was demonstrating in support of Cleaver’s right to stay out of jail.

Cleaver had been due at San Francisco police headquarters that morning, for his return to San Quentin Prison as a parole violator. Many in the crowd thought he might be inside his house with a heavily armed regiment of Black Panthers, waiting to resist an anticipated police assault.

But Cleaver had rejected the idea of a shoot-out as suicidal and had fled the country.

Through radical contacts in Berkeley, Cleaver was able to hook up with two friends who six months earlier had discussed establishing a modern-day “underground railroad” for political fugitives and Vietnam War deserters, and set up an emergency meeting. One flew south from his home in Canada to arrange the details. They chose as Cleaver’s code name “Football.”

Two days later, at “touchdown,” the Canadian was waiting at the end of the customs immigration turnstile in the Montreal airport when Football arrived. Eldridge Cleaver was carrying an attaché case and wearing a conservative suit, a brown derby and a pencil mustache.

After passing through customs, Cleaver walked into the men’s room. The Canadian followed him and stood next to him at the urinal. They walked out together, passing the airport office of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and drove to a safehouse downtown.

The Montreal radicals then set up a clandestine meeting with a Cuban emissary at a Montreal cafe, but the rendezvous flopped when the bewildered emissary indicated he had never heard of Eldridge Cleaver or the Black Panther party. After several more stops and starts, the radicals managed to get their message through to the Cuban authorities: Football was on his way to Cuba — and much later, to Algeria.

It was the beginning of the end of Cleaver’s role in the Black Panther party.

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense two years earlier, in 1966, in Oakland. They quickly became famous for shadowing police patrols in the Oakland ghetto, watching for street arrests. With a weapon in one hand and a lawbook in the other, Newton or Seale would inform the arrested people of their rights.

Cleaver, who became a follower of Malcolm X while serving a nine-year prison sentence for assault, joined the Panthers in December 1966, a few months after being paroled. Cleaver later described the impact of their first meeting:

Suddenly the room fell silent . . . From the tension showing on the faces of the people before me, I thought the cops were invading the meeting, but there was a deep female gleam leaping out of one of the women’s eyes that no cop who ever lived could elicit . . . the total admiration of a black woman for a black man.

It was Newton and the Panthers, each carrying a gun. Cleaver eventually joined the group, bringing with him the skills he’d developed in jail writing Soul on Ice. He was also a forceful public speaker. Newton, Cleaver and Seale — the leadership triumvirate of the Panthers — knit a few close associates into a tight core which initially resisted police infiltration. The Black Panther party quickly grew into the most powerful black militant organization in the country.

In response to the quickening pace of social protest in the late Sixties, a crisis atmosphere developed at the highest level of the U.S. government. The Pentagon installed a riot-control center and briefed police chiefs in major cities on contingency plans for military intervention in the event of an outbreak of uncontrollable civilian uprisings.

Reacting to the growing power of groups like the Black Panthers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was preparing a covert counterintelligence war against the leaders of all the protest movements. In memoranda dated August 25th, 1967, to 23 FBI field offices, toplevel subordinates to Director J. Edgar Hoover explained the newly expanded version of Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program), which under one name or another had been operating for over half a century. Its intent was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists.”

Hoover created a new division, called the Racial Intelligence Section, which coordinated Cointelpro actions against blacks. Other sections of the bureau concentrated on left-wing political groups and war protesters. In early March 1968, an FBI policy memorandum warned all agents to prevent the rise of a “messiah” who could “unify and electrify” the militant black nationalist movement. Another major goal listed in the memo was to prevent a “coalition of militant black nationalist groups.” The author of the memo, George C. Moore, became chief of the Racial Intelligence Section.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael were targeted by Moore as potential messiahs. Within a month King would be dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet, and within six months Carmichael would leave for Africa. Meanwhile, the FBI would shift its focus to the Black Panther party and concentrate 80% of its black Cointelpro actions against the Oakland-based group.

Before the end of the year Cleaver would flee to Canada and then Cuba. The Panthers would be slowly decimated over the next three years: nearly a thousand members arrested, key leaders sent to jail and 31 killed. Newton and Cleaver, two close friends and articulate Panther leaders, would become bitter enemies.

On February 17th, 1968, Stokely Carmichael traveled to Oakland to appear at a large “Free Huey” birthday rally. Newton was in jail pending trial on charges stemming from a shooting incident in October 1967 that had left one policeman dead.

Speakers at the rally, including Carmichael and Cleaver, announced a merger between their two groups: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — the “prophetic shock minority” of the civil rights movement — and the Black Panther party.

It was an important coalition — exactly what the FBI was afraid of in its “messiah” memo. Agents went to work. Within a week 16 Panthers had been rounded up by police on a variety of charges, all of which were later dropped. But the $9000 in defense funds that had been raised at the rally was exhausted by bail fees. One of the Panthers arrested was Bobby Seale. Police broke into his apartment and hauled Seale and his wife Artie out of bed, charging them with conspiracy to commit murder. The charges, which were subsequently dropped, were based on evidence heard “through a door” that Seale and other Panthers were preparing to kill “someone.”

The FBI strategy was detailed in a memorandum written on February 29th by George C. Moore citing a 1967 case in Philadelphia. “The Philadelphia office alerted local police who then put Ram [a radical group] leaders under close scrutiny. They were arrested on every possible charge until they could no longer make bail. As a result, Ram leaders spent most of the summer in jail….”

A month after the Free Huey rally, the Black Panther party forged another political alliance — with the white-dominated Peace and Freedom party. Later, Cleaver was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate. The bureau took note. Internal memoranda were circulated warning that the Panthers were beginning to attract the widespread support of white radicals and antiwar activists.

Meanwhile, in the midst of a black sanitation workers’ strike that had crippled Memphis, Martin Luther King delivered one of his most militant speeches, predicting that fascism was coming to the U.S. For four and a half years King had been the object of intensive FBI surveillance and harassment. The bureau had tried to discredit him, blackmail him and force him to commit suicide. In the words of the man who directed the FBI “war” against King, “no holds were barred.”

Three nights later, on April 4th, 1968, a gunman squeezed a trigger in Memphis and King was dead.

The night before King’s assassination, armed Oakland police broke into St. Augustine’s Church, disrupting the weekly meeting of the Black Panther party. No shots were fired, but a new wave of tension spread over the group.

All over the country, King’s murder unleashed one of the most violent waves of rioting in U.S. history. People discharged their pent-up anger and frustration in a frenzy of burning and looting. Millions of television viewers watched smoke billow over the White House as the nation’s capital burned. The Army simultaneously sent troops into Washington, Baltimore and Chicago. Others were placed on alert in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

The rioting continued all the next day and night. Memorial rallies for King were held in many cities. In Los Angeles, as members of the local SNCC office attended one such ceremony, the LAPD raided their office.

In San Francisco there were rumors that the Panthers were going to be raided by police. A secretary at Ramparts magazine, where Cleaver worked as a staff writer, heard from a “friendly” San Francisco policeman that the Panther office would be raided sometime in early April.

On the night of April 6th, Cleaver was in the Ramparts office dictating his thoughts on the King assassination in an essay entitled “Requiem for Non-Violence”:

“I think that America has already committed suicide and we who now thrash within its dead body are also dead in part and parcel of the corpse. America is truly a disgusting burden upon this planet. A burden upon all humanity. And if we here in America . . . “

Cleaver broke in midsentence to answer a phone call from Warren Wells at the Panther headquarters. Wells, who functioned as Cleaver’s lieutenant, gave an agitated account of a visit from a black man claiming to be a cop. The man had walked into the office as the Panthers were preparing for a fundraising barbecue, scheduled for the next day.

After showing Wells and the other Panthers a San Francisco police identification badge, he offered a warning: “Listen to me, man. The position I work in allows me to know that the Oakland and Emeryville [an Oakland suburb] police are gonna hit you. There’s gonna be a raid on your office — soon.”

Cleaver took the threat seriously and told Wells he would come to the Panther office immediately. When he got there Cleaver helped the Panthers load guns into the trunks of three cars. They had decided to disperse the weapons at Panther residences around the city in case of police raids. They also placed food and supplies for the barbecue in the cars.

What followed is a matter of controversy. Police say the purpose of the Panther caravan was to find and shoot down cops. Panthers say they were transporting the picnic supplies to David Hilliard’s home, where the food was to be cooked.

As the three-car procession approached the intersection of 28th and Union Streets in the Oakland ghetto, Cleaver says he stopped the car and got out to urinate. Suddenly a patrol car sped up, lights flashing, spotlighting Cleaver standing behind his car. The police testified afterward that it looked like Cleaver was going to shoot at them — though Wells and Cleaver say he wasn’t carrying a gun. Wells heard one policeman call: “Everyone out with your hands up!” Then came a shattering fusillade of gunshots, seemingly from every direction.

Windows in the Panther cars splintered. Wells thought he saw police firing from rooftops. He ran but was hit in the buttocks, the force of the shot knocking him off his feet. He crawled under a bush, bleeding. He and the other Panthers were quickly arrested. Cleaver and Bobby Hutton found refuge in the basement of a house. For the next 90 minutes, combined Emeryville and Oakland police forces perforated the thin walls of the house with heavy gunfire. Between them, Cleaver and Hutton had one rifle, which they used to return the fire. At one point during the battle Cleaver looked up and was hit in the chest by a tear gas cannister. Fearing that he was wounded, he removed all his clothes while Hutton checked for blood.

Near the end of the battle the house burst into flames. Hutton and Cleaver called out to police and threw their gun outside a basement window. As they emerged from the house, black Oakland police officer Gwynne Pearson saw the two of them, one naked, with their hands up, walking about five feet apart. “A group of policemen surrounded Hutton and Cleaver and started escorting them toward the police cars. I could see that they were pushing Hutton, and my partner, Ralph Jennings, who was above me on top of a building, said they were shoving and kicking him.

“Because of this shoving of Hutton when he was walking with his hands up, he stumbled and then there was one shot — a very slight pause — and then maybe eight or nine shots, and Hutton seemed dead, though he was still able to crawl a few more feet.”

The coroner later reported that Hutton had been shot at least six times — above the right eye, in the mouth, in the chest, in the back, in the arm and in the legs — all from close range.

During the police shooting Cleaver was nicked in the leg but not otherwise hurt.

The identity of the black “policeman” who warned the Panthers of an imminent police raid has never been discovered. Two investigators hired by Panther attorney Charles Garry failed to locate him. The Officers for Justice, a black police officers group in San Francisco, says it knew of no such policeman.

It is not known whether the mysterious policeman who tipped off the Panthers on April 6th was part of cointelpro. But the role he played was identical to one recommended by Hoover in a cointelpro memorandum to the San Francisco field office a little over a year later, on May 11th, 1970. Hoover proposed developing a “suitable police employee to play the role of [an] alleged disgruntled employee” who would supply the Panthers with “disinformation” in “face-to-face meetings.”

The FBI was illegally monitoring the events leading up to the shoot-out, even if it took no overt action. Starting on February 26th, 1968, and working in eight-hour shifts, a team of agents was unlawfully intercepting all telephone calls to and from the Panther headquarters. Therefore, the FBI knew of the tipster’s visit, and of the Panthers’ subsequent decision to move their guns out of the office. But Charles Gain, then Oakland’s police chief, says he was never informed of this vital intelligence information. Moreover, he adds, “the only time we ever encountered a large group of Panthers on the streets with guns was the night of the Hutton incident.”

The April 6th shoot-out devastated the Panther leadership. Party treasurer Hutton was dead. Cleaver was in jail as a parole violator. Seven others including Chief of Staff David Hilliard were under arrest.

But the incident also inspired a national outpouring of sympathy from white and black liberals. The membership of the party swelled until there were 40 chapters nationwide and the weekly circulation of The Black Panther newspaper had risen to 150,000.

Cleaver was released from jail in June on a writ of habeas corpus by a superior court judge who noted, “The peril to his parole status stemmed from no failure of personal rehabilitation, but from his undue eloquence in pursuing political goals . . . .”

As soon as he was out, Cleaver declared war. He spoke all over the country, demanding that the authorities “Free Huey or the sky’s the limit.” In one speech, he bellowed: “I didn’t leave anything in that penitentiary except half of my mind and half of my soul, and that’s dead there . . . . That’s my debt to society, and I don’t owe them a motherfucking thing! They don’t have anything coming. Everything they get from now on, they have to take!”

By this time Hoover had worked himself into a paroxysm over the Panthers. He declared that they represented “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country . . . Leaders of the BPP travel extensively all over the United States preaching their gospel of hate and violence not only to ghetto residents but to students in colleges, universities and high schools as well!”

The FBI estimated that one out of every four black people, including 43% of those under 21, had a “great respect for the BPP.”

Hoover directed his agents to step up their Cointelpro war on the Panthers. Targets for clandestine action were selected from the bureau’s Rabble Rouser Index (some of those listed were eligible for detainment in concentration camps in the event of a national emergency). A Black Nationalist Photograph Album was compiled to help local field offices identify rabble-rousers who visited their area. And a Racial Calendar was circulated to keep track of “black nationalist type conferences and . . . racial events and anniversaries.”

The FBI’s preoccupation with the Panther threat encouraged local police departments to harass the group around the country. During 1968 and 1969 police raided 31 Panther offices in 11 states. The Panthers cataloged over 400 encounters with police during those two years. Some of the arrests were for such crimes as the illegal use of a bullhorn, profanity, crossing an intersection incorrectly, putting up posters, placing a table illegally outside an office, reckless abuse of a highway by a pedestrian (selling newspapers), and spitting on a sidewalk.

The endless succession of arrests cost the Panthers most of the money raised by their defense committees and sales of The Black Panther. From December 1967 to December 1969 alone, over $200,000 in nonreturnable bail premiums was paid out by the party.

By the fall of 1968 the SNCC/Panther alliance had fallen apart, and Stokely Carmichael left for Africa. FBI officials in New York boasted to Hoover that they had “shocked” Carmichael’s mother into believing that the Black Panthers had a plot to kill her son and took credit for his abrupt departure.

Huey Newton was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 2-15 years in prison. Cleaver’s parole release was overturned and he was ordered back to jail in 60 days.

“The tactic which the authorities used against me was to keep me under constant pressure,” Cleaver remembers. “They ‘knew’ me very well. I had been State raised: I had climbed up the ladder from Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, starting at the age of 12, to Folsom Prison, making all the stops in between . . . . I had been studied, numbered, analyzed and psyched out much more than the average person in the movement.”

Cleaver felt he was involved in a “dance of death” with the FBI. “This reached a point where I was afraid to sleep in the same place twice. Whenever the FBI would discover one of my shelters, they would telephone and ask for me. Sometimes this would blow my mind. If I had gone through elaborate evasive tactics and made my way to what I considered to be a ‘cool pad,’ then the phone suddenly rang and someone asked for me, it was unsettling, to say the least. Sometimes they would say, ‘Just checking,’ or, ‘Thought you could shake us, didn’t you, Eldridge.”‘

Cleaver made his escape to Canada in late November, just as Hoover was implementing a new strategy to provoke violence against the Panthers. During 1969, partially at the FBI’s instigation, a succession of promising Panther leaders was murdered in southern California and Chicago.

Hoover designated the San Francisco field office as the control center for the FBI’s secret war against the Panthers because it was close to the group’s national headquarters. (According to a later review by the Congressional General Accounting office, San Francisco has more FBI “domestic intelligence” operatives (86) than any other city — more than ten times as many as Atlanta.) A team of these experienced agents, most of them middle-aged, volunteered for the elite Panther squad when it was originally set up. From that point on, until the Panthers were officially “neutralized,” at least six FBI agents worked full time out of San Francisco. One of the agents, William Cohendet, a 30-year veteran of the bureau who fancied himself a writer, wrote up many of the Panther squad’s reports and sent them to George C. Moore in Washington.

Attorney General John Mitchell, who came with the change in administrations in 1969, virtually rubber-stamped any bureau request for wiretap authority, so the Panther squad’s 24-hour-a-day telephone interception program was now “legal.” Agents compiled wiretap reports on a daily basis and sent three-inch-thick intelligence compendiums on the Panthers to Washington every month.

“Some of the things we used to hear on the wiretaps were funny,” Cohendet recalls. “It reminded me of Amos and Andy. Fundamentally, I think, black people are jovial, happy and fun loving.”

The elite Panther squad differed with Hoover in his assessment of the Panthers. From their vantage point across San Francisco Bay from the group’s headquarters, they felt that the Panthers were not likely to embrace outright violence.

“Your reasoning is not in line with bureau objectives,” Hoover fumed in a May 1969 memo. He ordered them to disrupt shipments of the Panther newspaper, and to cultivate informants inside the party. He also tongue-lashed the San Francisco team for not recognizing the importance of “publicizing the evils of violence, the lack of morals, [and] the widespread use of narcotics.”

Finally, Hoover concluded:

You state that the bureau . . . should not attack programs of community interest such as the BPP “Breakfast for Children” because many prominent “humanitarians” . . . as well as churches are actively supporting it. You have obviously missed the point. The BPP is not engaged in the “Breakfast for Children” program for humanitarian reasons [but to] create an image of civility, assume community control of Negroes, and to fill adolescent children with their insidious poison. . . .

As always, the agents adhered to Hoover’s mandates. “There was tremendous fear of Hoover among the agents out here,” Charles Gain remembers.” “It was almost all they could talk about. They were afraid of being sent to some awful post in Montana.” Hoover instructed his agents to be always alert for ways to splinter the Panther organization from within.

During the spring and summer of 1970 the Panther squad sensed its chance. The issue of guerrilla struggle was opening an ideological breach within the party’s ranks. One faction wanted to pursue underground guerrilla warfare against the police, while the other wanted greater emphasis on the party’s evolving “survival programs,” including the Breakfast for Children effort, and community learning centers.

In August 1970, Huey Newton was released from prison after his manslaughter conviction was overturned on appeal. During his three years in jail, Newton had assumed almost mythical status. He was the only Panther leader capable of resolving the growing factionali-zation of the party, some of which was created by undercover police agents who had infiltrated hastily formed Panther chapters in other cities.

One infiltrated Panther cell was a guerrilla group organized in Dallas, Texas, by Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, originally from Los Angeles. In December 1970, Newton suddenly and publicly expelled Pratt and his followers. Newton made his decision after being told that Pratt was a police agent who was planning to take over the party. The source of that information, however, was Melvin “Cotton” Smith, who himself later surfaced as an undercover informant for the LAPD.

Abandoned by the Panthers, Pratt was later arrested and sent to prison on the word of another LAPD undercover operative.

Pratt’s expulsion from the party was one of many by Newton. The “New York 21,” jailed on $2.1 billion bail for a bombing conspiracy conceived by a third police agent, sided with Pratt and were kicked out en masse.

From his distant post in Algeria, Eldridge Cleaver was baffled by the growing disunity in the party. Joined by his wife Kathleen and several other Panther exiles, Cleaver had opened the international section of the party in mid-1969. Though Cleaver encouraged Pratt and the more militant segments of the party with his aggressive rhetoric, he still considered himself loyal to Newton.

In the fall of 1970 the two leaders agreed on a reunion. Cleaver prepared a triumphant reception for Newton in Algiers, and Newton applied for a passport. But Newton’s application was mysteriously denied. Thus a meeting which might have resolved their growing differences and salvaged the party never took place. (Six months later, after the split between the two leaders had become irreparable, Newton was finally issued a passport.)

The party’s internal bickering over the issue of guerrilla war escalated. In Algeria, the Cleavers received a steady flow of visitors from the U.S., as well as letters and telephone calls, offering contradictory explanations for the factional acrimony.

Much of this confusion was orchestrated by the FBI and has since been chronicled by the Senate Intelligence committee. The Panther squad, with international help from the CIA, was determined to drive a permanent wedge between Newton and Cleaver.

The major effort was launched by an anonymous letter to Cleaver which said Panther leaders were seeking to undercut his influence. The FBI then instructed its legal attaché in Paris to mail a followup letter to Oakland, which the bureau claimed created suspicion between the Panther leadership and their followers in Europe.

On August 13th — a week after Newton got out of jail — the Philadelphia FBI field office used an informant to plant a purported Panther document questioning Newton’s leadership capacity. The directive, according to an FBI report to headquarters, “stresses the leadership and strength of David Hilliard and Eldridge Cleaver while intimating that Huey Newton is useful only as a drawing card . . . .” The fictitious directive was then mailed anonymously to Newton.

When the FBI was informed that LSD advocate Timothy Leary was visiting Cleaver in Algeria, the San Francisco field office sent Newton an anonymous note complaining that Cleaver was “playing footsie” with Leary, in violation of the party’s policy against drugs. In January 1971, when Cleaver seized Leary’s drugs and publicly condemned him, the FBI sent Newton another letter, denouncing Cleaver for “divorcing the BPP from white revolutionaries.”

The Los Angeles field office wrote an anonymous letter to Cleaver in November which criticized Newton for failing to arrange sufficient press coverage of a Cleaver-led delegation of American leftists to North Korea and North Vietnam.

In December 1970, the BPP attempted to stage a Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention in Washington D.C. The conference was a failure. The Los Angeles field office received approval from Washington to send a letter to Cleaver intended to “provoke Cleaver to openly question Newton’s leadership. . . . If Cleaver received a sufficient number of complaints regarding Newton it might . . . create dissension that later could be more fully exploited.”

A barrage of unsigned letters was sent to both the Panther leaders from the FBI. One to Newton was from a “white revolutionary” complaining about the incompetence of the Panthers. Another was supposedly from a black student at Columbia University. Another, from Berkeley, was sent to Cleaver. A fourth, mailed to Cleaver in January 1971 from a Boston “white revolutionary,” attacked Newton and read in part: “The Black Panther party has failed miserably. No longer can the party be looked upon as the ‘Vanguard of the Revolution.”

Unable to meet face-to-face with Newton, Cleaver became anxious about the direction the party was apparently taking. He sent Connie Matthews, a Jamaican-born Panther who had visited him in Algiers, to Oakland to check on the allegations.

But Cleaver’s attempt to clarify the dispute backfired. The FBI sent Cleaver a letter, purportedly from Matthews, which stated:

“Things around headquarters are dreadfully disorganized with the comrade commander not making proper decisions . . . . I fear there is rebellion working just beneath the surface . . . . We must either get rid of the Supreme Commander or get rid of the disloyal members.”

That same month, the FBI Chicago field office produced a fake letter from a Puerto Rican group to Cleaver: “You are gone, those you left behind have big titles but cannot lead, cannot organize, are afraid to even come out among the people. The oppressed of Amerikka cannot wait. We must move without you . . . .”

On January 28th, 1971, FBI headquarters reported that one “result of our counterintelligence projects now in operation” was that Newton had recently disciplined several high Panther officials and that he was prepared “to respond violently to any question of his actions or policies.”The memorandum, which was mailed to four field offices, continued:

“The present chaotic situation within the BPP must be exploited . . . . You should each give this matter priority attention and immediately furnish bureau recommendations . . . designed to further aggravate the dissension within BPP leadership and to fan the apparent distrust by Newton of anyone who questions his wishes.”

The clandestine operation intensified. On February 2nd, FBI headquarters instructed 29 field offices to submit new disruptive proposals within eight days to take advantage of “an exceptional opportunity to… possibly neutralize this organization through counter-intelligence.”

A new outpouring of anonymous letters followed. Cleaver received a phony letter from the “New York 21” attacking Newton, and another from a nonexistent member of a New York radical group. Newton’s brother received an anonymous letter revealing an imaginary plot by Cleaver and the New York chapter to assassinate Newton. The FBI reported that both Newton and his brother thought the letter was authentic, and that Newton believed that an informer had infiltrated the highest levels of the party.

The FBI then mailed a letter to one of Cleaver’s associates in Algeria, falsely claiming that the recent death of a Panther was linked to the factionalism within the party. The letter warned that Kathleen Cleaver’s planned trip to the U.S. should be aborted because of the threat of violence.

The bureau sent Cleaver another letter in late February, forging the signature of veteran Panther Elbert “Big Man” Howard:

“I’m disgusted with things here and the fact that you are being ignored . . . . It makes me mad to learn that Huey now has to lie to you . . . . I can’t risk a call as it would mean certain expulsion. You should think a great deal before sending Kathleen. If I could talk to you I could tell you why I don’t think you should.”

The forged letter referred to the contents of a telephone conversation between Newton and Cleaver which had been intercepted by the FBI. The call itself had been prompted by an earlier FBI letter purportedly from Connie Matthews.

The FBI’s capacity to manipulate the growing Newton/Cleaver split was aided by the CIA’s supersecret mail intercept operation, code named htlingual, which monitored communications to and from Cleaver.

The Panther squad planted a damaging story through San Francisco Examiner reporter Ed Montgomery that Newton was living under an assumed name in a $650/month penthouse apartment in Oakland. Newton and the central committee of the Panthers had chosen the apartment for security reasons, and had arranged a financial deal with the owner to cover the rent. But for Newton’s opponents inside the party the story destroyed whatever was left of his myth.

The New York Panthers called a press conference denouncing Newton and demanded that he be placed on trial for misusing party funds.

Then the Newton/Cleaver split, manipulated at every turn by the FBI, reached its climax. In a telephone call to a television talk show on February 26th, 1971, Cleaver criticized Newton’s expulsion of party members and called for the removal of Chief of Staff Hilliard.

Outraged, Newton immediately placed a return call to Algeria. Elaine Brown, who was with Newton at the time, remembers that “Huey had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Eldridge, I thought we had a party.”‘ For his statements in the TV interview, Cleaver and the entire international section of the party were expelled by Newton.

FBI agent Cohendet says, “We just helped the [Newton/Cleaver] split along . . . . I’m sure they would have split because of the personalities of the men, and [Cleaver’s] fleeing took away all his chance of doing anything. He was yelling out in the desert there. Unless you’re on top of these little flunkies here, they’re not going to listen to you. That’s just the nature of the beast and the people they were working with. ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’

“We absolutely felt Cleaver was a danger,” Cohendet explains. “Matter of fact, the party should be thankful for whatever help they got [from the FBI]. Getting rid of Cleaver was a big thing; he took all those hoodlums with him. And so Huey didn’t have any problems anymore.”

The Panthers themselves say that the Cleaver/Newton split was inevitable — that the ideological breach between the two leaders made a rapprochement impossible.

Cleaver is less certain. “The FBI was very instrumental in the split. They very skillfully fed our egos and our paranoia.”

The militant black movement, which had been building steadily for a decade, now stood at an impasse. The FBI had attained its objective. To insure that Cleaver got the point, the San Francisco office mailed him a copy of The Black Panther announcing his expulsion. And on March 25th the San Francisco Panther squad mailed a bogus letter to Panther European offices which read in part:

The Supreme Servant of the People, Huey P. Newton . . . has ordered the expulsion of the entire Intercommunal Section of the Party at Algiers. You are advised that Eldridge Leroy Cleaver is a murderer and a punk without genitals . . . Leroy’s running dogs in New York have been righteously dealt with. Anyone giving any aid or comfort to Cleaver and his jackanapes will be similarly dealt with no matter where they may be located . . . Immediately report to the Supreme Commander any attempts of these elements to contact you and be guided by the above instructions.

Power to the People
David Hilliard, Chief of Staff
For Huey P. Newton
Supreme Commander

“Read that language in those letters,” says Cohendet. “Would you think that was written by a bunch of white men? When you listen to them every day for a couple of years you get to know their vocabulary . . . . Don’t you think it was a pretty good operation, if you had to give a candid opinion of it?”

The same day of the fake Hilliard letter, FBI headquarters officially declared its cointelpro war against Cleaver and Newton a success. Cohendet summed up the Panther squad’s view of Newton’s expulsion of the party’s “left wing” in a note to headquarters: “A leopard may not change his spots but a Panther might.”


Five years have passed since the FBI declared its secret war on the Black Panther party a success. The Senate Intelligence committee has published its final report, but the full extent of the war may never be known. According to Senate investigators, cointelpro accounted for only about five percent of the bureau’s files on the Panthers. “No one knows what’s still buried in those files,” one investigator stated.

In the aftermath of the ideological split within the Panther organization, at least six more persons lost their lives. These slayings destroyed much of what was left of the party’s credibility, and filled Panther members and sympathizers with fear.

William Cohendet is now retired, as are most of the FBI’s San Francisco Panther squad.

“We in the FBI have had enough unfounded criticisms. People are looking about it from one side. As I say, I’m proud of the things I did, and I would never apologize to anybody.

“My point is that all this was being done to get, rid of this terrible canker inside the United States body. If you could see the smashing of windows on Market Street, the inciting to riot, standing out there on the Polo Field, denouncing the president of the United States. I can’t see how anyone dedicated to law and order would want that situation to continue, and what has to be done is show it in the proper frame. These things had to be done. You know, our courts are supine. They hate to convict anybody.”

George C. Moore is now retired from the Racial Intelligence Section of the FBI. He refused to talk to Rolling Stone.

The Black Panther party has managed to survive, despite the counterintelligence war waged by the FBI, CIA and state and local police agencies around the country. It is now a local organization, however, without strong national influence.

“The government didn’t succeed in destroying us,” Elaine Brown, a leader of the party, says. “We survived. We had to go through these hard times because we didn’t have any blueprints to follow. This is the tenth anniversary of the Black Panther party, and we can count 31 brothers in the grave. These motherfuckers intended to kill every one of us. But it’s too late today. Our ideas are out there — they cannot be erased from the minds of the people. This is a success story. The FBI does not mess with us now. And the battle is still on. They should have got us all then — it’s too late now.”

Huey Newton is living in exile in Havana, Cuba. He is wanted in Oakland on a variety of charges, including murder. Reached by telephone, Newton said he is currently unable to give an interview but plans to return to the U.S. at some point after the trial of Eldridge Cleaver.

Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973 but was defeated. He has since disappeared, and his family, which has not heard from him in six months, is concerned.

Stokely Carmichael, whose brief relationship with the Panther party ended in a mutual denunciation, lives in Africa.

As promised, Eldridge Cleaver’s ghost has returned to haunt, but so far it’s the left and not the government that is suffering his rhetorical assaults. Cleaver no longer sees the United States as the major source of evil in the world. Disenchanted with Cuban and Soviet socialism, Cleaver has written denunciations of racism and authoritarianism in the socialist bloc. He now considers himself a “social democrat” in search of a new ideology that incorporates “soul and poetry.” He is currently reexamining the role of religion. Cleaver also is trying to interest manufacturers in his controversial design for codpiece pants.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Cleaver admitted that his new view of the U.S., formed overseas, may not be completely accurate. But Cleaver is not on trial for his new politics. Instead he is about to stand trial on charges stemming from the April 6th, 1968, shoot-out where Bobby Hutton was killed. Denounced by his former comrades, Cleaver has had trouble raising defense funds and finding a lawyer. His prospects appear grim.

None of the FBI agents involved in the cointelpro war against the Panthers have been prosecuted for their actions.

In This Article: Coverwall, FBI


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