All Aboard: Off the Pig
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.
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.
In fairness to Hilliard, no bus tour could ever capture the troubling duality of what the Panthers became under Newton's later direction. A bitter personal and political split with Eldridge Cleaver led to a killing vendetta nationwide between the two factions (fueled by cheap FBI dirty tricks), and a mounting body count charged, in deliberate lies, to the FBI and police. Newton himself spiraled for years into a gangster/crime-boss mode, with hand-picked street toughs culled from often-dedicated Panther enlistees who joined with the best altruistic yearnings.
The Panther tour acknowledges simply enough the sorry, but all too familiar, fall from grace to ruination that even the great Huey Newton succumbed to. Hopeless addiction to crack cocaine drew him to the spot where he hoped to score with insufficient funds. He made a nuisance of himself once again, provoking a younger dealer who couldn't care less about Newton's stature - or even envied it - to blow him away.
Hilliard has owned that it was he who introduced his childhood friend Newton to the more addictive smoking of crack cocaine that finally claimed him, though Newton had sniffed prodigious amounts of coke for many years.
But on the bus tour for kids, he chooses to play a familiar note of conspiracy many in the black community believe - that crack cocaine was deliberately spread around big-city ghettos to enslave black people and keep them down. Many black people viewed Newton's addiction and death as part of that conspiracy. "They finally got him" was a commonly voiced view in '89 when he died.
It's a final prevarication, a fitting close to a tour that skirted the favorite haunts of the Panther leader, the hometown boy who loved his night sorties with his thuggish praetorian guards. The tour never touched those places, but they were as much a part of Oakland Panther lore as any other stop along the way.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.