By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Think Hard Rock Cafe. Think Disney theme park, Web pages on the Internet, and think bus tour as cute and cartoonish as the Yellow Submarine, and you have an idea of some of the various ways radical politics of the '60s and early '70s are being marketed in the '90s.
Now picture the militant, edgy Black Panther Party. They're back, they're chic, and they're selling wisps of revolutionary dreams. This fall, the so-called Panther Legacy Bus Tour of Oakland, the birthplace of what J. Edgar Hoover once deemed "the most dangerous" political group in America, was launched to nationwide notice.
Sponsored by the so-called Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, the tour was conceived by David Hilliard, a childhood friend of Newton's and former Panther chief of staff. The two-and-a-half-hour bus tour takes off intermittently - three have been conducted so far, including one for dignitaries and one for crowds of schoolchildren, and more are planned as ticket sales dictate.
Those who took the tour report that it's guided and narrated by Hilliard himself and hits a half-dozen nostalgia sites in Oakland, sites chosen to reflect Hilliard's preferred version of the Panthers as more pussycat than fearful. It's a revisionist view of the Panthers as choirboys, not gun-toting, hell-bent revolutionaries ready to off the pig in their neighborhood.
Yet, however tame Hilliard's updated Panther image, it was sufficiently compelling to draw Oakland's top political contenders for just about every spot open in the next major elections. Leading the turnout for the tour's debut last October was Oakland mayoral candidate Jerry Brown, who defended the Black Panthers - "this elite group," he called them - and linked their fate to the long-gone native Ohlone Indian tribe: "They were the first people wiped out," Brown said suggestively, coyly echoing the Panther orthodoxy that law enforcement conspired to wipe out the Black Panthers.
Current Mayor Elihu Harris was onboard; so was state Senator Barbara Lee, heir apparent to the vacated Ron Dellums congressional seat and, when she was barely out of her teens, a volunteer driver for Huey Newton. The candidates deemed the tour good for political business and signaled that the association with the Black Panther Party was as warm and fuzzy as a Norman Rockwell vision of America's lost past.
But those sepia tones could only be achieved by careful selection of the tour sites, by choosy narration and strategic omission. For, like Hoover, their nemesis at the FBI, the Panthers had a dark side.
Mayoral candidate Mary King, currently an Alameda County supervisor, highlighted the memorial paradox when she waxed nostalgic about traipsing into the Fox Lounge, a favorite Huey haunt, during a transit strike and finding Newton: "The joy was to go there and have a cocktail with Huey," she enthused on the bus ride. In fact, the Fox Lounge was not included on the tour. Its true nature, and Panther leader Huey Newton's conduct there, were suppressed.
It was in the Fox Lounge, on MacArthur Boulevard, in the summer of l974, that Newton, irritated at the sight of Oakland vice cop George Whitfield, yelled to his 6-foot-7 bodyguard, Robert Heard, "Shoot him, shoot the pig-ass motherfucker." No shooting took place, but when cops later arrested a handful of Panthers in the bar, they confiscated enough shooting power on them to start a small war.
Nor on the tour was the Lamp Post, the site of some of the most shocking Panther criminal behavior. The bar and lounge was Newton's favorite haunt - he referred to it as his "living room."
Here the party laundered money, put Panther women to work as prostitutes and sold dope. The vice operations, along with Newton's extortion of Oakland pimps and after-hours-club owners (for protection money, which, when not forthcoming, led to murders and drive-by shootings), ensured a steady flow of money to boost the donations from rich white liberals that poured in for a while.
Police and other Panthers believe the Lamp Post was the last place the party's then-bookkeeper, Betty Van Patter, was seen alive. She'd been complaining of illegal financial cover-ups she was asked to perform as part of her job keeping the Lamp Post books. Her body was found weeks later, floating in the Bay, bludgeon wounds to the head.
Also at the Lamp Post, Newton and his bodyguard Heard delivered a vicious beating to Diane Washington, who stopped by for hamburgers but got far more when she and her friend Helen Robinson "sassed" Heard and Newton. Washington, particularly, was socked around for her smart lip. Newton, in fact, often got into fisticuffs at least on his nightlife rounds in Oakland's bars and after-hours clubs, accompanied by armed "bodyguards."
The public rarely caught a glimpse of this underside of the Panthers, and it is certain to be avoided in Hilliard's current bid for Panther respectability and historical resonance.
The tour stops at sites that convey nostalgia and safe images. The boyhood homes of Newton, Seale and Hilliard were visited as important historical meccas, but the tour bypassed Newton's posh penthouse overlooking Lake Merritt, where he lived like a prince (from 1970 to l974) while the rank and file were stuffed into ratty barracks in Oakland's black ghettos. Also bypassed was the Panther leader's sprawling house in the tony Oakland Hills (his domicile upon returning from exile in Cuba to stand trial for the slaying of a young prostitute), purchased for him by Hollywood producer Bert Schneider (The Monkees, Easy Rider), a perennial Panther backer.