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
As he learned more about Karenga’s philosophies and about Us, Watani liked what he heard — discipline, self-determination and cultural pride, as well as self-defense against an oppressive white society. “I found Maulana was able to capture and articulate my deepest rage.”
Soon after the Kwanzaa celebration, Watani persuaded his wife and younger brother George to join Us alongside him. He formally renounced his “slave name,” Larry, for the more “African” Watani, a name that he imbued with the meaning “He who rises in the east and strikes in the west.”
But as Watani immersed himself in the philosophies of Karenga and Us, another black revolutionary group was making its presence felt in South-Central Los Angeles — the Black Panthers. Though the two groups initially maintained cordial relations, ideological differences that began as topics of intellectual debate evolved into points of hostility. The Panthers scoffed at Us’ African-inspired clothing, hairstyles and use of Swahili. They argued that blacks in America had already established their own cultural legacy — through music, dancing, singing and soul food, and didn’t need a return to Africa. Us, meanwhile, mocked the Panthers’ financial dependence on their cult following of wealthy, white supporters and their intellectual reliance on the foreign philosophies of Marx and Mao.
As tensions rose, the FBI, which was keeping a close watch on both revolutionary groups through its infamous COINTEL program (developed to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups), picked up on the friction and used it to sow chaos. FBI agents, masquerading as Panthers and Us members, crafted insulting missives and death threats and began sending them between the two groups.
“It is hoped this counterintelligence measure will result in an ‘Us’ and ‘BPP’ vendetta,” one internal FBI memo explained.
The FBI saw its hopes realized on the UCLA campus on January 17, 1969. During a meeting between Us and the Panthers to discuss the appointment of a new head of the black-studies program, Us member Tawala Jones approached Panther and future Green Party presidential candidate Elaine Brown in a hallway outside the meeting and grabbed her.
“Why are you so fiery?” he condescendingly asked her before inquiring about her “sign.”
According to Watani, who was working security at the event, Brown knew Jones well enough to have played strip poker with him several times. She brushed Jones off to join her fellow Panthers in the cafeteria, where the meeting had just concluded, and reported what Jones had said to her. Enraged, Panthers John Huggins and Bunchy Carter stormed over to Jones and began beating him in the middle of the cafeteria. Within moments, Us member Claude Hubert pulled his gun and shot Huggins in the back and Carter in the chest. Before dying where he lay, Huggins unloaded several bullets from his own gun into the crowd, clipping Watani in the shoulder. The crowd scattered, and a bleeding Watani grabbed Jones and Hubert and fled the scene.
Two days later, the LAPD put out an arrest warrant for Watani and his brother George, who had also been present at the meeting, as well as for Hubert and Us member Donald Hawkins. Not having fired a shot, and thinking they had nothing to fear, the Stiners turned themselves in. Hawkins was arrested, while Hubert, the actual shooter, was never caught — he escaped to Guyana.
Watani, George and Hawkins were brought up on conspiracy charges — the most serious charge possible due to the implication of premeditation — stemming from the testimony of several Black Panthers, including Elaine Brown, who claimed the defendants were armed during the meeting and had fled with Hubert, the shooter. Strangely, Jones, who had initiated the conflict, was never charged with anything. Although none of the guns were ever accounted for, and though several of the Panthers, including Huggins and Carter, had shown up at the meeting armed themselves, all three defendants were found guilty of two counts of second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Because he was 18 at the time of the shooting, Hawkins was sent to detention at the California Youth Authority, where he wound up spending seven years. Though neither man pulled the trigger that killed Huggins and Carter, Watani and George were sentenced to seven years to life.
The UCLA shootout caused a media frenzy, and the Stiner brothers arrived in prison as celebrities of a sort. When Truman Capote came to San Quentin in 1973, looking to do a story on prison life, it was Watani he spoke with.
“He was definitely a strange character,” says Watani of Capote. “That voice — and the questions he asked.”
Watani remembers that Capote asked him if he “liked being in prison.” “I just shook my head and told him that was a pretty silly question. He got kind of flustered.”
But increased attention inside a place like San Quentin wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The same clashes between youth and the establishment that took place on the outside were magnified tenfold on the inside — often with deadly results. “It was like the Wild West back then,” one longtime guard says of San Quentin in the ’70s. For Watani, the attention from the Capote interview would come back to haunt him.