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
It might be harder to explain the omission of a dorm-style building at 1524 29th Ave. in East Oakland. That would make a compelling site, certainly, for the sickle-cell-anemia project the Panthers operated on the premises for a while, but surely even more so for the fact that this was the barracks where a police raid netted an arsenal of guns stockpiled on the premises - automatics, rifles and enough ammo to stage a mini-Waco.
The guns, to supporters, were mute testimony of Panther intent to foster self-defense in the black community. Harder to explain would be the mysterious back-yard pit police discovered then (these days the pit is host to swings and other play equipment, and the dorm itself is a halfway house for parolees and drug-recovery patients). Called "the mud hole," the pit was a draconian Panther creation to "discipline" errant members in the early days of the party. (Another Panther dormitory, on Adeline Street, had a similar mud hole.) The roughly 4-by-4-foot hole was filled with cold water. The victim was "sentenced" to remain in the hole naked, receiving blows from other Panthers who ringed the perimeter, and then forced to remain all night in the bone-chilling water.
When tour leader Hilliard wasn't painting the Panthers as social workers with Huck Finn childhoods, he took pains to emphasize the campaign to annihilate Panthers by law enforcement from Hoover on down. And it was true that Hoover et al. spied on the Panthers, engaged in dirty tricks, and were guilty of harassment and some egregious illegal behavior. Likewise, Hilliard correctly narrated the story at one tour stop, where two off-duty drunken Oakland cops had acted like assholes and shot up the storefront window of a former Panther office, punctuating the famous Huey Newton poster (the one in the rattan chair with ammo bandoliers crisscrossing his torso) with bullet holes.
But the scenario Hilliard painted for Oakland schoolchildren at the corner of 28th and Union streets in West Oakland, where Panther Bobby Hutton was killed by a police bullet while attempting to surrender, was not the full and truthful story of that evening's events. In his telling, the April 6 shootout in l968, only days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., was further "proof," of the intent of law enforcement to "wipe out black freedom fighters."
In reality, as Eldridge Cleaver admitted in a California Magazine interview in l980, the Panthers had deliberately ambushed the cops - not the other way around. Late that night, three carloads of fully armed Panthers under Cleaver's leadership had hit the streets bent on retaliation for King's assassination.
Hilliard knew the truth as well - he was convicted of assault for his part in the events and went on to serve four years in Folsom. In Hilliard's own account of that night, recounted in his autobiography, he quotes Cleaver's briefing to the Panther cadres: "'This is the plan. We'll transport a cache of guns from my house to West Oakland, catch a policeman on the way, and gun him down.'" Hilliard writes that he deemed the plan "absolutely crazy" and "pure stupidity." He warned Cleaver: "'You're talking about doing this in West Oakland, which is insane because I know that area, it's my neighborhood and there are hundreds of cops there. They're all waiting for something to jump off and they'll destroy us.'"
But Hilliard went along, and when a single patrol car pulled up alongside the caravan, the hidden Panthers opened fire. (Forty-nine bullet holes were found in the patrol car later.) Two officers were shot, one was injured seriously, while the other managed to radio for help. Panthers scattered when police reinforcements arrived and in the ensuing hours were flushed out of their surrounding hiding places. Hutton, who finally emerged with Cleaver from a neighboring basement after a tear-gas shell caused a fire, was shot while surrendering. Cleaver was not. The police called the death an accidental shooting in a tense situation.
Hilliard's forebodings were borne out: Death, prison and exile left the Panthers leaderless and stalled until Newton was released from prison. Cleaver's "revolutionary" violence was too costly, and Newton renounced it. Panthers wouldn't flaunt their weapons anymore; there would be an end for a while to engagements with the cops. Instead, Newton proclaimed, the party would serve the poor black community by setting up model programs - an alternative school, a free clinic, free shuttle service for prisoners' families on visiting days.
Surprisingly, the legacy tour skipped most of those sites, in particular the most prestigious - the Panther alternative school on East 14th Street, which flourished for a time with kudos from educators and state politicians. The explanation here may be that Hilliard, the tour's creator and interpreter, had by then been expelled from the party by a paranoid and vengeful Newton.
For Hilliard, mustachioed and muscular, the roseate portrait of the Panthers has proved to be worth more than just a place in history. He and Newton's widow recently managed to sell, through the Huey P. Newton Foundation, a collection of Panther papers to Stanford University for a six-figure price. And while Hilliard has failed so far to secure city funding for the tour, he did land a job last month as mayoral candidate Jerry Brown's new chief of staff.