The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Conspiracy in Jail

The Press of Freedom: Transcending of Differences

The long-distance operator finally reached the Conspiracy office the Saturday before last, several hours after the Appeals Court granted bail to the Chicago Seven. The caller asked for several of the defendants, none of whom was available. “I’m really sorry, operator,”  blurted the euphoric, thoroughly exhausted staff worker, “they’re all out getting laid.”

The nightmare, or at least its first phase, is over. Prosecutor Foran is making the rounds on the Northern Illinois Kiwanis circuit manfully describing the defendants as “fag revolutionaries” and loathsome subverters of American youth. Sprung from their five-by-eight metal cages, most of the defendants spent last week relaxing and making plans to move the Conspiracy office to New York.

Last Wednesday, Dave Dellinger, who has been advocating the abolition of prisons for 30 years, talked with a few of us about his unexpectedly brief residence in the Cook County Jail, which he described as “from a racial point of view, one of the most ideal societies I’ve ever been in.”

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The defendants weren’t prepared for the instant heroism and generosity accorded them by the inmates, who had exultantly followed the trial on television. (Even the prison guards had soft moments: one wordlessly pocketed Dellinger’s stash of Cuban cigars during the daily 3 a.m. strip-and-search routine and returned them later; another knowingly overlooked Dellinger’s copy of the New Left Review, a British Marxist monthly, while other reading matter was confiscated.)

“The inmates really know what it means to run up against a legal system which is stacked against you,” Dellinger said. “A lot of them are there because they couldn’t make bail. The fact that we had stood up to the greased machine was something new to them.”

Dellinger had the good fortune to reside in a cage that was out of the direct glare of the bulb that stays on day and night. He shared it with a veteran safecracker with a very creative passion for new hustles. “The guy was actually very friendly. We took turns sleeping except that when it was my turn he would try to convince me of his plan. ‘Dills,’ he would say, ‘you’re big now, really big. With your name and my experience we could start an organization and get eight million people to pay $4 dues a year — say a buck every three months. That’s 32 million bucks a year — 32 million, Dills, whaddya say?’ I rolled over and asked him what the hell the organization would do. He told me to leave that to him. When I finally convinced him I wasn’t interested, he sort of groaned, ‘Dills, the trouble with you is that you’re an idealist.’ ” Dellinger laughed, “I tried to explain that if I wasn’t an idealist, I probably wouldn’t be in a position to consider the proposition in the first place.”

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“The best time in jail was Conspiracy Day when 7000 people gathered outside the jail to support us. We could hear the helicopters whirling overhead. One guy at the end of the cell row had a partial view of the crowd and passed along what he saw. It was a human information chain as it went from cell to cell. The inmates shouted and joked about how the Conspiracy kids were going to blast a hole in the jail and how everybody better hurry and get packed.”

I asked Dave to discuss the disagreement he had with Tom Hayden over whether it was worth speaking out in court, thereby risking contempt citations and jail terms. Generally, Dellinger thought it was and Hayden thought it wasn’t.

“Before the trial we all agreed to wage a ‘positive defense.’ I wanted a few of us to conduct our own defense but was strongly over-ruled on that. We did agree that we wanted to present testimony that would leave the jury with a sense of what we are about as total human beings. There was no way they could judge us fairly unless they heard and saw what we believe and what leadership meant to us. But the actual courtroom resistance didn’t come out of the pre-trial discussions. It developed organically and without much prior consideration. It became a real issue when Bobby Seale was bound and gagged. During the recess following the shackling, I argued that we shouldn’t go back to court willingly. If they wanted to drag us in, okay, but as long as they held Bobby, we couldn’t acquiesce in the business-as-usual routine of the court. Tom thought we had to learn like the Vietnamese to feel no pain, that our real job was to organize people outside and that symbolic acts of non-compliance with the court could only impede our larger purpose. My response was that unless we resisted each step which moved us further along toward a fascist state, we would end up in a hopelessly defensive position. But I also thought that showing solidarity with Bobby at that point was a form of organizing.

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“We were split on the issue of what to do and finally agreed that we would go back to the court for the afternoon session and then discuss it with Bobby that evening. Bobby insisted that we continue the trial, that one person locked up was enough.”

When I heard of the Dellinger-Hayden argument, having worked fairly closely with both of them, I thought, oh boy, are they ever in character. A certain caricature has developed depicting Hayden as a kind of revolutionary Bobby Kennedy, disdaining warmth and spontaneity and caring about nothing so much as raw power. I think this is an awful distortion of Tom and I don’t want to reinforce it. What is true, I believe, is that Hayden is usually thinking five, 10, even 50 years ahead and wants to be able to share his acute sense of what it will take to make a revolution in this country. He is, or at least used to be, terribly worried that personal indulgences would deflect the movement into fruitless culs-de-sac.

There is, in fact, a lot of Hayden in Dellinger. For more than 30 years, Dellinger has been a utopian, rejecting, where necessary, historical models as a guide for what is possible in human arrangements, and eliciting, throughout the ’40s and ’50s, patronizing contempt from left sectarians and realpolitik liberals for advocating such naive causes as unilateral disarmament, abolition of prisons, sexual freedom, and the like. Like Hayden, though, Dellinger has never succumbed to the precious irrelevance of the moralists, violent and non-violent, who kind of assume that maybe things will change when the rest of us are illuminated by their sanctity.

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There is a tension in both men which stems from, on one hand, an aching awareness of the destructiveness of the American system (not simply destructive to blacks and Vietnamese but to all of us) and, on the other, a fearful recognition of the force needed to undo that malevolence. It requires a prodigious balancing act of consciousness to keep a hold on both perceptions. (Try it. Most of us find it less demanding to fix one or the other or to ignore them both.) Dellinger, I suppose, represents the tradition more sensitive to the problem and Hayden to the solution, which may account for their different views on the matter of comportment in Judge Hoffman’s court. But Chicago was a crucible into which eight movement “leaders” were tossed. What emerged, says Dellinger, was not cleavage but a coming together, an incredible trust and love which transcended the real differences which distinguish Abbie Hoffman from Rennie Davis from Bill Kunstler. Six months ago, Dellinger said, it couldn’t have happened. ❖

1970 Village Voice article about the Chicago Seven Trial

1970 Village Voice article about the Chicago Seven Trial

From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Ringmaster is Sitting on the Bench

CHICAGO — An impressive ragout of the Legal Left poured into Chicago Monday, caucused, picketed, caucused, and came away with a major victory: contempt charges against four defense attorneys were abruptly dropped by Judge Julius J. Hoffman in the Chicago “Conspiracy Eight” trial. “We have changed the entire complexion of the trial,” exulted Michael Kennedy, one of the lawyers cited by Hoffman for withdrawing from the trial by telegram instead of in person. “The judge collapsed completely. He painted himself into a corner. If they ever try to bust another attorney, in Pig City or anywhere else, we’ll be there.”

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Briefcase Power in the streets. At least on the sidewalk. One hundred fifty lawyers from all over the country — crying “foul” at Hoffman and the trial — picketing the Federal Courthouse. Motions filed, letters presented, and petitions signed demanding an end to “the travesties of justice” in Hoffman’s courtroom. Committees formed, to “stop the trial,” to impeach Judge Hoffman, to organize more actions. A half dozen press conferences. Confrontations with federal marshals. And a mini-drama with Chief Judge William J. Campbell, who descended robed from his skyscraper chambers with the court reporter, marshals, and a clerk to order the lawyers out of the glassed-in lobby. (Since all had signed an amicus curiae brief, condemning the proceedings, the lawyers claimed they had “official business” in the building and requested a larger courtroom to accommodate their numbers.)

Lawyers marching outside, sifting through the heavily guarded building, caucusing at the Pick-Congress Hotel while 74-year-old Judge Hoffman, looking like a dehydrated Elmer Fudd, lurched on through the trial in the small antiseptic courtroom on the 23rd floor of the federal building. And throughout the day, machine-gun indictments from lawyer after lawyer: “The trial is a farce,” “The trial is a charade,” “The trial is an outrage,” “The trial must be stopped.”

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Since the trial opened last Wednesday, lawyers and observers have been stunned by Hoffman, by his overt hostility to the defendants, by his rejection of routine defense motions, and by his denial of fundamental constitutional rights. Leonard Weinglass, one of the two trial attorneys, had been cited for  contempt for his opening statement. William Kunstler, the other lawyer, was sharply admonished for describing the judge’s reading of the indictment as “prejudiced.” And Hoffman had refused to postpone the trial on account of the illness of Charles Garry, a third attorney, now in the hospital recovering from a gall bladder operation. Bobby Seale, one of the eight defendants, then dismissed all his attorneys until he could be represented by Garry, the West Coast Panther lawyer.

The whopper, however, had yet to come. Four other lawyers, retained for pre-trial work and motions, withdrew from the case by telegram last week. Not good enough for Judge Hoffman. If they wanted to withdraw, they had to appear in person. (One is in New York, the other three in California.) So Hoffman charged them with contempt, ordered warrants issued, and when two appeared in Chicago — one voluntarily, the other in handcuffs — he ordered them held over the weekend, without bail, until sentencing Monday. For icing, he agreed to release the attorneys if the defendants waived their Sixth Amendment right-to-counsel objections. (Hoffman later denied he ever offered such a bargain.)

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It was too much — A shotgun mobilization was initiated by the National Lawyers Guild, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, calling for a massive descent on Chicago, for a crusade for the lawyers. And late Sunday they began arriving. From New York, more than 50 loaded onto an early morning flight. They came from Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington. And the demonstration turned out to   be vigorous, cheerful, and unprecedented. “We have achieved a major victory,” cried Gerald Lefcourt, one of the four attorneys, when charges were dropped. “Lawyers have come to Chicago from all over the country, and the judge has crumbled under this massive pressure.”

Not surprisingly, however, there was disagreement on the nature of the attack on the trial. ACLU members preferred to confine their complaints to civil libertarian issues. The more radical Lawyers Guild wanted some political mileage out of the trial, to use it to dramatize more generalized issues. The slogan “Stop the Trial” was adopted at an afternoon caucus, but with less than enthusiasm by the ACLUers. In addition, a return action was set for October 17, with the aim of broadening the base of support and shifting the focus from the protection of attorneys to the exposure of other legal-political repressions. Such a shift may jeopardize the involvement of the ACLU.

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The media has been loaded with criticism of the extra-court activism, the exotic support demonstrations — Yippies on Monday dispersed free apples — and the sartorial excesses of the defendants. But among the achievements of Monday’s gray-suited, attache-cased demonstration was one dramatic message, if there is a circus going on, the ringmaster is sitting on the bench. ❖


The Trial of the Chicago 7: Bobby Seale Case

Legal Left Says the Heat is On

ASHEVILLE, North Caroline — Paranoia? Not according to attorneys Arthur Kinoy and William Kunstler. Not if you’ve read the headlines for the past week. “I don’t want to sound like a Cassandra,” said Kunstler, speaking at a recent conference for movement lawyers, “but I don’t have to. It’s no longer a guess. It’s here.”

Kinoy outlined a cluster of grim developments that had staggered him over a 24-hour period: refusal by the government to postpone the trial of the Chicago “Conspiracy Eight”; indictment of Bobby Seale on a first-degree murder charge — “the first time the chairman of a national political party faces the electric chair”; refusal by a referral district court to reduce the $100,000 bail of 17 defendants from the New York “Panther 21” by the counsel for the House of Representatives that it had no intention of following the virtually unanimous Supreme Court decision reinstating Adam Clayton Powell, and the district judge then issued no order, saying this country “suffers too much from government by judicial oligarchy”; and finally, withdrawal by the government of its Mississippi desegregation plan, which prompted the revolt or half the lawyers in the civil rights division of the Justice Department.

And Kinoy paused, stopped pacing, his hands gripped the table, and his voice dropped to a whisper: “What the hell is going on?”

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Kunstler, also of the Law Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, focused on Seale. Movement leaders no longer face minor penalties, misdemeanor charges, and a few worthy months in jail. Seale, said Kunstler, faces the very real likelihood of execution. “The fun has gone out of our practice. We now face a deadening responsibility.”

The government’s case is good. There is incontrovertible proof that Seale was in New Haven on May 19, the night Alex Rackley was allegedly tortured and beaten for informing on the “Panther 21”; Seale was speaking at Yale. Police say they have the murder weapon, a .45. Police say they have tapes of the kangaroo “trial” of Rackley. And police say they have telephone proof that Seale was in the New Haven house where the trial and torture took place. Finally, police now have George Sams’s affidavit, and George Sams’s affidavit is strong stuff.

According to Sams, Seale stopped by the Panther house and, when told of Rackley’s treachery, ordered him to be killed. Legally, that means murder one. There is no room for self-defense or non-premeditation. There is no room for a mitigating defense, no room for reduction to manslaughter, as with Huey Newton.

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Sams’s affidavit could be strengthened if corroborated by one or more of the Panthers in the New Haven house. There are six girls age 16 and under. Faced with the possibility of death for murder, it is not inconceivable that one or more might cop a plea, get 20 years, be out in seven — at the age of 23 — and testify that Seale did order the killing.

And finally, there is the sensationalism of the crime itself. Rackley was reportedly tortured with boiling water. He was brutally murdered and dumped in a swamp. Seale himself was melodramatically picked up on a federal fugitive warrant for “unlawful flight to avoid prosecution,” at night, in his car, and arrested by about 20 FBI agents, with shotguns.

“These are enormous odds,” said Kunstler. ”I don’t know how we can overcome them. We need a major miracle, and that can only be the breaking of George Sams’s story.”

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So far, little is known about Sams. He was expelled from the party for stabbing another Panther in the leg, but was returned at the request of Stokely Carmichael. The circumstances of his capture, indicated Kunstler, are extremely suspicious. All the Panthers indicted for the New Haven plot were picked up almost immediately. Only Sams remained mysteriously at large, months after the crime, prompting a series of raids of Panther headquarters across the country. Then, quite extraordinarily, Sams is found in Toronto, not the most likely refuge for a fugitive Panther.

This summer’s raids and persecutions of Panthers by the government may stack up as child’s play if Seale is convicted. No one knows how much of a scare this could put into the movement, and no one knows how much it might alienate the broader base of Panther support. But few at the conference disagreed with the importance of Kunstler’s call for a crusade to Connecticut.

The speeches by Kunstler and Kinoy marked the emotional watershed of the 10-day conference organized by the Southern Legal Action Movement (SLAM). About 160 movement lawyers and law students shared notes, conferred, debated, and partied in this picture-book retreat in the North Carolina Smokies, with ideologies from ACLU to SOS. The focus of the conference was the South, but topics of discussion included the military, poverty law, school strikes, narcotics, political repression, housing, and new life-styles for lawyers. ❖

1969 Village Voice article about Bobby Seale and Chicago 8 -Chicago 7 trial by Jonathan Black

1969 Village Voice article about Bobby Seale and Chicago 8 -Chicago 7 trial by Jonathan Black


The Trial of the Chicago 7: Indictment and Protest

Spring’s Awakening 

It’s been a busy week. Thursday the Federal Grand Jury indicted eight “non-leaders” of the Chicago demonstration for conspiracy to break the law and incite a riot. Friday Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Dave Dellinger held a press conference at the Hotel Diplomat welcoming the indictment as “the academy award of protest” and asking others to “join the conspiracy.” Saturday there was a demonstration at Foley Square while the conspirators surrendered themselves to the authorities. Saturday evening another protest sponsored by Alternate U. and a group called the Crazies ran from the New York Times to Grand Central to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park and then back again. And then late Sunday night Abbie Hoffman’s office on East 5th Street was busted for narcotics and guns.

Spring had come. After months of being restricted to indoor sports everything seemed to burst out into the streets. There was a great deal of excitement and agitation leading nowhere in particular. The events seemed to follow each other in no particular sequence. One after another they would capture one’s attention and then disappear as rapidly as they had arisen, leaving the impression that they were somehow tenuously strung together and yet tracing no discernible pattern.

The indictment came as something of a surprise. After having anticipated it momentarily, waited for it patiently, feared it endlessly, and finally dismissed it entirely, Rubin claims that he was really shocked when it finally descended from the higher courts. “I was into something new and now they bring this whole thing back to us,” he complained. “Will Chicago never end?”

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The evening of their indictment, Rubin and Hoffman met uptown in the plush offices of their defense attorneys. Everyone hugged everyone else, talked about how this trial would go all the way, how they’d push it to the Supreme Court, how it might take six months of trial and years of appeals, but how this was what they’d been waiting for.

Most of the speculation centered around why Bobby Seale, (one of the last Black Panther leaders who isn’t in jail or in exile) had been included in the list of those indicted. One of the theories was that the New Left had friends in high places who wanted to see all its various factions unified. Others claimed that whoever had been the architect of the indictment was just plain stupid and clearly had no idea what the consequences of this cross-cultural, cross-racial, cross-political indictment would be.

The lawyers seemed more jubilant about the indictment than the indicted. Here was the test case every liberal constitutional lawyer in the country had been waiting for. The 1968 Civil Disorders Bill had been pushed through Congress by Southern reactionaries who were convinced that there was a combined black power-communist conspiracy to burn down the American cities. The bill was passed in order to stop H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael from running around the country preaching revolution. Now, for the first time, it had actually been applied, and would probably face the test of constitutionality before the Supreme Court.

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Later that evening, back at Hoffman’s apartment, the grim reality of it all began to come down hard. At first, when his mother-in-law called to ask about the indictment, Hoffman said lightly, “It’s all right, it’s just in the line of work I do.” Then, sitting in front of a color television set, listening to various garbled accounts of the indictment by pink-faced newscasters, Hoffman chewed reflectively on a lamb chop and mentioned for the first time the possibility of jail. Abbie the clown was instantly replaced by a real person. Under the law he is eligible for a grand total of five years and a $10,000 fine.

Saturday morning I arrived at Foley Square in front of the courthouse where Rubin, Hoffman, and Dellinger were to surrender themselves. An impressive contingent of some 20 elite Black Panther troops were on hand to give evidence that the Panthers are not going to be quiet about Seale’s indictment. Standing in formation in the cold morning sun, their uniforms and discipline gave them a presence which the twice as numerous white protestors lacked.

Once the three indicted men disappeared into the courthouse, the Panthers moved up and faced off with the police who were jealously guarding the steps leading up to the halls of justice. Kafka must have been somewhere in the crowd. Each Panther stepped up nose to nose with a policeman, raised his crossed arms in front of him, and started chanting: “No more brothers in jail. Off the pigs.” Then they filed out.

Inside, Hoffman lit up a cigarette in front of the judge and was told to put it out.

Outside, Paul Krassner, editor of the Realist, complained bitterly about not having been included in the indictment.

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The demonstration Saturday evening in front of the New York Times came as comic relief when compared with the seriousness of the indictments. The police, however, did not take it as a joke and deployed such an arsenal of force in front of the truck loading platforms on 43rd Street that only an idiot would have made a move. The Tactical Patrol Force lined the barricades, paddy wagons were invitingly open at each end of the street, patrol cars were illegally parked all over Times Square, and there were more plainclothesmen than people.

The United States is probably the only place in the world where demonstrations have turned into a spectator sport. Sailors, prostitutes, newsmen, printers in four-cornered newspaper hats, passing motorists, theatre-goers, local bartenders, and the whole gang took time off to come out and watch the Crazies do their bit.

“What are they bitching about now,” a cross looking little old lady with a Macy’s shopping bag asked a plainclothesman.

“Are you in this demonstration or reporting on it?” a detective from the Red Squad questioned me as he examined my press card.

“What’s in the bag, kid?” a detective asked a long haired boy who was carrying a sign which read “The Saturday Load and the Sunday Bullshit.” The boy handed the officer the bag. Opening it he found to his eternal disappointment and minimal embarrassment that it was not a concealed weapon of infernal destruction but only a bologna sandwich.

“Move along, miss,” a young cop suggested politely to a beautiful blond girl who was standing on his corner watching the picket line. “I can’t,” she said, batting her eyelashes at him shyly. “l’m with them,” she continued, gesturing toward the demonstrators.

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Suddenly there was the very strong smell of puke at the Broadway end of 43rd Street. Apparently one of the stink bombs which the demonstrators had brought with them went off by mistake within their own ranks. It was not the only weapon which ran afoul that evening. Several plastic bags of yellow paint, intended for the windows of the trucks which were taking away the Sunday issue of the Times, fell on the ground and splattered several hapless demonstrators who stepped on them.

A pregnant woman who had been holding a toilet-paper-roll version of the New York Times was snatched out of the picket line and hustled away by detectives for no apparent reason. Attorneys who tried to accompany her were turned back. For a moment it looked as if something might happen. The demonstrators surged forward and the police pushed back, banging their clubs on the barricades in a manner which invoked no less than utter terror.

“Scotty Reston is a You Know What,” one poster teased, “All the News That’s Shit to Print,” someone else claimed, “The New York Times Disguises Bald Racism with a Liberal Toupee,” another whined.

But no one could really get it up for the Times. Everyone had their own little bitch, everyone read it with their own kind of skepticism, but the point was that the picketers knew in the back of their minds that after the demonstration was over they were going to slink off to their local newsstand and buy a copy of none other than the Sunday edition of the Times — the very one they hadn’t been able to stop from coming out. They would buy it Sunday and buy it again on Monday to see if their little display of annoyance had hit the Big Times.

By 9:30 p.m. things were beginning to peter out. The picket line was getting shorter and shorter between the rows of policemen and everyone was just about shouted hoarse. The general movement seemed to be toward Grand Central. There another group of Crazies promised to lay a wreath of flowers at the information booth where last year’s bloody riot had begun when someone had climbed up on top of the clock and ripped the hands off.

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At a meeting at the Crazies’ storefront in the East Village several days before, Hoffman had told the others who were planning the demonstration that he didn’t think it was a good idea to go back to Grand Central: “I was knocked unconscious there last year and I don’t plan to do it again. Let’s at least make it a different place next time. Once you’re inside the station the cops can block off all the entrances and you have to run the gauntlet in order to get out.”

“All I hear is fear, fear, fear,” a boy by the name of Danny who was sitting on the floor complained. “People are supposed to be afraid of us. Remember?” he reminded the others.

In the end it was decided that they would go ahead with the Grand Central demonstration in spite of its risks. As one bearded member of the group explained, the strategy of the Crazies is “to walk that thin line between getting your head bashed in and just managing to get away with it — that’s what it is to be a Crazy.”

But by the time the Crazies got to Grand Central on Saturday it was already effectively blocked off by the police who had locked most of the doors and asked for tickets at the few entrances they left open.

“Where’s your ticket, kid,” a policeman asked a Crazy who had decided to make a test of his constitutional right of free movement.

“I don’t have one, but if you let me go in I’ll buy one,” he promised.

“Uh uh, you got to have it with you.”

“But how can I have it if you won’t let me in to buy it?” he argued logically.

“Look kid, we don’t want your demonstration here.”

“I’m not going to demonstrate, I just want to go out to Long Island to visit my grandmother,” he lied.

“Try Penn Station,” the cop countered.

“Here we are at the Prague border, everyone take out their ticket, you can’t travel here without a passport, remember, you’re in Amerika,” the boy shouted at the other freaks who had been listening intently to the dialogue.

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According to Howard Smith, who arrived at Grand Central slightly later, the police were not the only ones who were guarding Grand Central against an invasion of crazies. A number of men wearing buttons which read “PFB” (Peter Factor Brigade?) were patrolling the area, promising demonstrators that if they got inside they’d be “only too happy to kick the shit out of you.”

“What does PFB stand for?” they were asked. “You’ll know when the time comes.”

“What time will that be?”

“When Lee gets ready to tell you.”

“All right, now I guess we have to ask who Lee is,” Krassner said.

The question remained unanswered. Lee will remain a mystery … “until the time comes.”

Meanwhile, outside, most of the demonstrators had grown tired of standing around and headed off uptown, some 150 to 200 strong, toward the park where they were scheduled to meet at midnight. Marching together up Madison Avenue they began to feel their strength and [the] disruptive possibilities of such a large mobile force. “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh,” they chanted over and over, as if the second verse (“The NLF is gonna win”) had been forgotten over the winter or had simply disappeared out of pessimism. A few marchers strayed out in the street dodging in and out of traffic, trash barrels were overturned, and then the police arrived. They drove alongside the march for several blocks and people began to think they were just giving them an escort uptown. No such luck. At 50th Street a gray car drove up onto the sidewalk, splitting the marchers in half. All four doors opened simultaneously and plainclothesmen poured out, grabbing whoever was nearest. Half the group was forced back downtown and the other half continued east. A few blocks later it happened again, only this time it became clear that there were police spotters in the ranks who pointed out the demonstrators they thought were ring leaders. Each time it was the same. The police would run toward the center of a group arresting one or two and leaving the rest to wander around wondering where the hell everyone else had gone to. By the time I arrived at the park I was with four other people.

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“This is all bullshit,” a boy next to me mumbled as we walked through the park toward the Sheep Meadow. “This isn’t a revolution, it isn’t even a decent demonstration. It’s an outing,” he explained as if he finally divined the truth, “a walking tour of New York City.”

“Maybe the revolutionary logic behind it all is to keep the troops physically fit,” I suggested, “like Mao leading everyone down to the river for a swim.”

“Yeah,” the boy agreed, “it could be listed in ‘100 Ways to Lose Weight,’ or whatever that bestseller is called.”

Sheep Meadow was a bummer. The cavalry had the high rocky ground to the south, plainclothesmen blocked off the east, scooter cops could be seen to the north, and patrol cars covered the west. “We’re surrounded,” someone observed in the dark.

“Let’s go home, the cops have made their point, they can have this place if they need it so desperately. The Viet Cong never try to hold a hopeless position when they’re out-gunned,” a dark-haired politico with a pointy goatee announced. “Go home, no one’s having any fun here anyways. This sure doesn’t look like any festival of life to me.”

After a huddle it was decided to take the young man’s advice. On the way out of the park, the wreath (which was supposed to have been planted in Grand Central) was placed in the hands of a lovely nude statue which stands in the plaza in front of the Plaza Hotel. Cheers went up and everybody got their thrill. Then we walked back down to Times Square again, where again the police insisted on intervening. A fairly large group then subwayed down to Sheridan Square and marched triumphantly over to St. Mark’s Place where they were greeted by those who had been too spaced out to make the trip. It had been a long walk and everyone was fagged out. No one except the most naive thought any of it had been worth it.

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The next night, Sunday night, Abbie Hoffman’s office on 5th Street — down the block from the police station — was raided and the police discovered a suitcase full of guns and blackjacks and a packet of heroin. It was all vaguely reminiscent of Rubin’s bust last year just before the Chicago convention when the police broke into his apartment, tore the posters off the walls, riffled his papers, and busted him for possession of pot.

While it’s still impossible to say whether the raid on Hoffman’s place was a frame-up or not (the young man who left the suitcase full of guns, for example, has mysteriously disappeared), we may never know for sure. However, Hoffman claims that “it is totally inconceivable that a person in my position would hide an arsenal of guns and dope a couple of houses away from a police station.”

To make matters even more mysterious, rumor has it that heroin was found planted in the Peace Eye Bookstore and at the Switchboard — both likely places for busts if there was to be a heavy crackdown on the Movement in the East Village. Nothing, however is revealed. ❖


The Trial of the Chicago 7: Birth of a Conspiracy

Courtroom in Chicago

CHICAGO — Conspiracy. See conspire. To join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end. To act in harmony.

A conspiracy is what they throw at you when mere causality is not enough, or when the absurd becomes too painful to bear. The great explanation.

Conspiracy. Bear that word in mind. You’re going to have it shoved down your throat before the year is out.

Jerry Rubin is in Chicago because of the Conspiracy. He is charged, with Rennard (Rennie) Davis, and Bobby G. Seale, and John R. Froines, and Lee Weiner, and David T. Dellinger, and Thomas Hayden, and Abbot H. (Abbie) Hoffman, with crossing state lines to foment disorder or to otherwise violate the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end. To act in harmony.

“With my indictment,” he wrote in the underground press not long ago, “I join the list of outstanding world figures who have crossed state lines to create disturbance: the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the late Marilyn Monroe, rock bands, the President of the United States, and Joe Namath.”

Ever the Yippie. He wears a Jimmy Hoffa for President button over one nipple, a Jerry Rubin for Mayor over the other. On the plane to Chicago, he talks about Cincinnati (where he grew up, and where he plans to return for a visit in late April). He talks about television (both he and Hoffman own color sets and find the viewing experience essential — the watched watches). He expounds on why the assassinations must be viewed as positive events (they helped inch America toward a revolutionary context) and he speculates on the chance that he himself might some day be the object of someone’s insurrectionary ardor. He admits he is afraid of being killed, sometimes. I admit I am afraid to travel with him, sometimes.

In Chicago, we go to meet Bobby Seale’s plane. Three Panther bodyguards greet us in the lounge. The brother who is currently under indictment, charged with stealing 710 ice-cream bars, nods and whispers, “Power to yuh.” I lean forward and offer a bleached handshake.

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The lawyers meet their clients in a banquet hall on the fourth floor of a Y which stands in the shadow of the Conrad Hilton. From the window, you can see the hotel’s worn brick backside, and beyond that, Grant Park. You keep expecting to find a commemorative plaque along the walk, but the city fathers have done all they can to restore that strip of lake front to its former gentility. Freshly planted grass and newly sprouting flower beds face the hotel. The masquerade is reflected in the faces of pedestrians. They want very much to forget that the equestrian statue of General Logan, which guards the park, was ever aswarm with grimy, vulgar conspirators.

The attorneys sit around a long table, fortified with legal pads and iced tea. Even the veteran defenders seem like mavericks on this case. With good reason. To some on the left, the Chicago indictments represent the most brazen attempt since McCarthy to crush active dissent, and anything less than acquittal will signal the start of a massive governmental drive. Even those who are not about to read pogrom into the charges admit that a conviction would stunt the movement. “At the very least,” suggests one attorney, “it would have a chilling effect on those not really committed yet.”

This little scenario hangs over the proceedings as the defense begins to construct its case. It’s an awesome task, and the odds against aquittal seem formidable. Which could explain why the men sitting around that banquet table seemed so sober.

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Chicago’s Federal Building stands like a glass and steel truncheon. A skyscraper with style … polished gray stone lobby … the great seal embossed in black … the jails upstairs and outasight.

Ten marshals and 45 policemen keep the crowd outside the courtroom in order. I wait my turn, then file past the world’s spiffiest crewcut plainclothesman, who searches me for weapons and then lets me pass. The galleries are already filled with people — many black kids and a few unrepentant freaks.

“Take that hat off,” a marshal orders a brother in a purple beret.

The man points to a cop in uniform. “If he take his hat off, I take mine off.”

“Throw him out,” the marshal snarls, and the crowd begins to hoot.

The judge enters, Julius J. Hoffman, a balding, 74-year-old man who settles into his chair, casing out the surroundings. He stares hard at the press section, trying to fathom the presence of long hair. His eyes wash over the defendants, settling momentarily on Abbie Hoffman, who has come to court in a blue shirt with Chicago Police Department insignia affixed to the sleeve. Finally, he turns his attention to the attorneys, and even here, he is displeased to note the presence of facial hair around the earlobes.

“These men taking bread out of the mouths of our Chicago bar?”

William Kunstler, who defended Jerry Rubin at the recent HUAC hearings, stands and answers: “Your honor. It’s not bread. It’s only water.”

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And then the arraignments begin. This is a preliminary hearing, designed to set a date for trial. But there are crucial matters to be decided such as travel restrictions. The U.S. Attorney has requested that the defendants be confined to the district of Southern Illinois, and the defense intends to contest that motion, as an abridgement of free speech. The decision will serve as a fair indication of what the conspirators can expect from Judge Hoffman when their trial begins.

But now it is time to plead, and David Dellinger stands against the lectern. “Obviously not guilty,” he announces. “The guilty party has not yet been indicted.”

“Sir, you were asked to plead guilty or not guilty,” Judge Hoffman says. “There will be no speeches. How do you plead?”

“I said obviously not guilty.”

“Obviously has nothing to do with it,” the judge scowls, and then be instructs Dellinger’s lawyer to help his client out.

“Sir, he has pleaded.”

“No, he has not pleaded. There will be no speeches or embellishments.” Titters from the gallery. “If there is any further laughter or any other disturbance, I will have the courtroom cleared. Now, how do you plead?”

“Not guilty,” Dellinger mutters.

“Now that’s the way to do it.”

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The procession continues with Abbie Hoffman, who pleads not guilty in the softest voice I have ever heard him use in public. He has never been convicted in court. It’s a record he’s fiercely proud of. Now, charged with defacing the American flag by wearing a starred and striped shirt at HUAC, and charged with possessing guns and narcotics after a raid on an apartment registered in his name, he is not about to risk contempt of court.

Jerry Rubin grips the lectern and pleads with his fist raised. “Let the record show,” the judge intones, “that Mr. Rubin pleaded guilty with a fist raised in the air.”

“He pleaded not guilty, your honor,” Kunstler interrupts. “That was a Freudian slip.”

“I’m sorry, but that raised fist confused me. I didn’t know whether it was directed at me or not.”

“Sir, that is a symbol of defiance against certain things these defendants think is wrong.”

“Certainly they don’t think I’m wrong.”

Kunstler lets a quick sharp smile cross his lips. “I won’t even bother to answer that, sir.”

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It had been a small but energetic lunchtime rally. Four hundred people filled the courtyard of the Federal Building, and when the Conspiracy Eight (as they had already begun to call themselves) emerged from the arraignment, the shouts of “power to the people” managed to drown out the canned organ music which came from hidden speakers and was audible from blocks away.

First to speak was Bobby Seale, who denied that the Panthers were a racist organization, and buoyed his audience with the chant “Black power to black people; white power to white people.” Tom Hayden said the movement was expanding despite the indictments, and he offered as evidence a mutiny at Fort Carson, Colorado. He said 80 soldiers had gone over the wall with M-16s and ammunition, and had set up a camp somewhere in the Rockies. He said the Army knew about it, but was afraid of the publicity a confrontation might produce.

And Abbie called the hearing “the beginning of the spring offensive. We are joyful at this attempt to combine our forces,” he intoned, “and we thank these people for getting us together because these are the signs of a dying system and we shall dance on the graves of the empire.”

It was true. If the federal sweep had drained the movement of its jaunty brashness, it had solidified some unsteady alliances and created, in the eight men under indictment, a potential popular front for radical youth. The government itself had suggested, by its choice of conspirators, that the best defense lay in unity. And in the tradition of generational combat, the strongest response to a parental attack was to turn the oppressor’s weapons back on himself. Or as Jerry Rubin told the rally: “The only way to defend ourselves is offensively.”

So it looks as though the United States of America may actually succeed in creating a conspiracy in its midst.

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It had been a depressing morning and a grueling afternoon. They had to admit that Judge Hoffman had intimidated them. And it was true that the government had coerced the defense into negotiating, against its will, for the lifting of travel restrictions. Despite repeated appeals, the judge bhad refused to consider the defense motion on confinement, but he suggested rather broadly that the two sides work it out together. When the defense refused to engage in collective bargaining, the judge shelved the issue, and sustained a prosecution motion that the bonds for out-of-state defendants be transferred to Illinois. That seemed innocent enough, but when the actual transference was attempted, it became apparent that the law would require confinement anyway, as part of the process of re-establishing bond. With the futility of their resistance finally clear, the defense retired to the U. S. Attorney’s office, where it was agreed that the prosecution would drop its demand for travel restrictions if the defendants would keep the government informed of their whereabouts. This smacked of surrender, but the alternatives were exhausted, so the defense retired to a conference room to lick its wounds, when Tom Hayden and Gerald Lefcourt (an attorney) spotted a man with a transmitter outside the door. When they pursued him, a second man appeared and told him not to say anything. The prosecuting attorney identified the men — who were indeed FBI agents — and insisted that, while they had been relaying information on the defendants’ whereabouts, they carried no recording equipment.

But the incident set the mood for the rest of the day. By the time they left court, the charter members of the Conspiracy had achieved some measure of their own legitimacy. At least they knew when their trial would start (Judge Hoffman had set the date for September 24) and they knew what to expect from the court, the newspapers, and the government. And these were important discoveries, because a knowledge of your environment is the first step toward mastering it.

So they went off to have their picture taken in Grant Park, around the statue of General Logan. And as they got closer to the Hilton, each began to feel again something of the rush which was Chicago last August, and Jerry Rubin waved to the cars along Michigan Avenue, and Tom Hayden, in his new beard and his wrap-around shades with the purple lenses, looked at all the frowning faces on the pedestrians around him, and he hugged Abbie Hoffman and shouted: “It’s us. It’s us.” ❖


Huey Without Tears

Huey P. Newton, 1942-1989

WHEN I FIRST met Huey Newton that July of 1967 in San Francisco, I was as intensely in love as only very young women can be. I was captivated by the soft-spoken, enigmatic, bril­liant writer named Eldridge Cleaver I had met that spring. He had come to speak at the Black Student Conference the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had held on the Fisk campus, and as SNCC’s Campus Program secretary, I had spent many hours in his company. In tandem with our commitment to revolutionary change, my romance with Eldridge had blossomed, and following three months of talking on the telephone and exchanging letters, I went out to see him in California.

SNCC’s chairman Stokely Carmichael had inspired a black power movement that was breathing new life into the floundering civil rights struggle. Those of us in SNCC thought that of all the mili­taristic urban groups espousing black power, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense gave flesh and blood to our revo­lutionary ideas, which had outgrown the civil rights arena. Huey’s face-to-face confrontation with police, in which he had shouted, “Draw your gun, pig, and I’ll draw mine!” gave him heroic stature in those days when police were killing blacks with impunity.

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Eldridge had become the minister of information in the phalanx of black revo­lutionaries organized by Huey Newton into the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Huey had heard Eldridge speak on the radio about his program at the Black House — a cultural center he had started — and had promptly asked him to join the Panthers. But the Panthers were an armed organization, and paroled con­victs were prohibited from possessing weapons, so Eldridge’s affiliation was not publicized. He signed the articles he wrote in their newpaper anonymously as “Minister of Information.”

Eldridge’s prison involvement with the Black Muslims had made him the target of harassment, and when he was finally released on parole in December 1966 he became what prison authorities referred to euphemistically as a “special study” case. He was required to report weekly in person to his parole officer. But as a consequence of his having been arrested that May, along with the 21 armed and uniformed Panthers who had marched into the California state capitol in Sacra­mento protesting a new law to ban the carrying of weapons within city limits, Eldridge had been placed under extreme restrictions. When I arrived, he was not allowed to travel outside of San Francisco and was prohibited from making public statements of any kind.

The Panther’s headquarters were in Oakland, but Eldridge risked violating his parole if he were caught driving across the bridge to Oakland. So the Pan­thers regularly trooped over to his studio apartment on Castro Street.

I always knew when Huey was on his way to see us, because his footsteps on the stairs outside were always twice as fast as anyone else’s. He was invariably in a hurry, and rushed into the room full of excitement over the immediate crisis or project he wanted Eldridge’s help on. He usually spoke rapidly, his high-pitched voice rising and falling in a peculiar cadence.

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Huey was not a tall man, nor especially muscular. But his smooth, reddish-brown skin, his large, deep-set dark eyes, and that rakish devil-may-care expression made him extraordinarily appealing. He was handsome, energetic, charming, and fearless. He had a reputation among Oak­land’s toughest street fighters. In this elite company, he was considered the best. But his volatile aggressiveness was enveloped, at least in the company of women, by a gracious, cultivated exterior that concealed all but a glint of his under­lying ferocity.

Bobby Seale and Huey had met at Merritt College in Oakland in a black student organization, part of the bur­geoning “black consciousness” movement that was sweeping college campuses. But unlike many students, neither of them was content to pontificate in relative comfort about the urgent problems facing black communities, to be what Bobby contemptuously referred to as “armchair revolutionaries.” In October 1966, while Bobby and Huey were on the payroll of one of the poverty program projects in Oakland, they founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

They adopted the style and structure of foreign revolutionary organizations, with Huey taking the title of Minister of De­fense, as opposed to President, and Bob­by calling himself Chairman. Bobby Hut­ton, one of the street kids their program was supposed to serve, whom they called “Little Bobby” to distinguish him from Bobby Seale, became their first member and the organization’s treasurer. They modeled the 10-Point Platform and Pro­gram for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense on the Nation of Islam state­ment “What We Want, What We Believe,” that appeared on the back page of every issue of Mohammed Speaks.

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In the wake of the 1965 Watts riot, an organization called the Community Ac­tion Patrol had come into being. Its members, all dressed similarly, drove around the streets of Watts to protect black residents from the type of police abuse that was provoking riots across the country. The image of that group had stuck in Bobby’s and Huey’s minds. Both had been deeply affected by the assassi­nation of Malcolm X and wanted to cre­ate a genuine means for blacks to exercise the self-defense Malcolm had advocated, in particular against the violence perpet­uated by those Huey called “racist dogs”: the police. Oakland’s police, with whom Huey had had his share of run-ins, were renowned in the black neighborhoods for their brutality and arrogance.

The first action they planned was to send out patrols, armed with guns, tape recorders, and law books to follow the police in the streets of Oakland. They consciously sought to destroy the fear the police engendered, confronting them in broad daylight, while openly carrying guns — Huey with a riot shotgun and Bobby with a .45. At the time, California law permitted the open carrying of weap­ons within the city limits, as long as no live round of ammunition was held in the chamber. Huey’s aborted law school ca­reer was sufficient to unlock the secrets hidden within arcane law books.

Huey’s girlfriend at the time, LaVerne, who planned to have a classical music career, did not approve of Huey’s involvement with the Panthers. He was her ac­companist at rehearsals and concerts, and she believed her singing career would be jeopardized if Huey got more involved with the Black Panthers. Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, Bobby Hutton, and other close friends who followed Huey’s lead in forming the party were pulling him in the opposite direction. In those heady days when the Vietnam war was tearing the entire body politic into shreds, its blood­stained reality made social revolution seem like a valid alternative to integra­tion; for many blacks thought that we were trying to get inside a house already on fire.

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I returned to San Francisco again that November, and Eldridge and I got mar­ried. By then, Huey was in the Alameda County Jail, locked in a cell atop the courthouse that sat on the edge of Lake Merritt. In late October 1967, not too long after Che Guevara was killed in Bo­livia, Huey had been jailed for murdering Officer John Frey. Frey had stopped Huey late one evening for a traffic check; and in the ensuing gun battle, Huey’s passenger escaped, Officer Hilliard was wounded, Huey was shot in the stomach, and Frey was killed. Huey was indicted for murder and faced the gas chamber if convicted.

At the time of the shooting, most of the Panthers, including Bobby Seale, were doing time on charges stemming from their arrest in Sacramento. When I got to San Francisco, they no longer had an office; the newspaper had not been published in months; they had no money; and the passage of a law banning the open carrying of weapons had put an end to their patrols. But Huey was facing the gas chamber if nothing was done. So, Eldridge asked me to help him mobilize a defense for Huey. He knew that taking on such a visible role might jeopardize his parole, but, he told me, “Keeping Huey out of the gas chamber is more important than keeping myself out of San Quentin.” By the time of the trial, the support we gathered for Huey had ballooned into a full-fledged “Free Huey” movement.

This momentum led to the rebirth of the organization Huey had started, but now with the abbreviated name the Black Panther Party. No longer a squad of armed men, it became a multipurpose black liberation movement advocating “Power to the People” that took the Leave-It-to-Beaver mentality of white America by surprise, and projected a brand new black image as ferocious and fearless as Huey Newton. Even though he remained behind bars, Huey became a living symbol of the transformation of black America. He was more a legend than a leader. The tumultuous insistence that blacks’ rights be respected, Huey’s need to defend himself, and the Panthers’ political platform of self-defense all com­bined into a powerful message for change.

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Aside from a few brief visits in the county jail, I never saw Huey Newton again. In September 1968 he was convict­ed in a compromise verdict of voluntary manslaughter and sent off to San Luis Obispo to serve his sentence. By then Eldridge was fighting to stay out of pris­on on bail; he, along with five other Pan­thers, faced charges stemming from an­other shoot-out with the Oakland police, in which “Little Bobby” was killed, days after Martin Luther King’s assassination. He lost the court battle and left the coun­try a fugitive. We were reunited in Algeria the following year. In 1971 Huey expelled us from the Black Panther Party by transatlantic telephone call, setting in motion the “split” in the party, one of those violent internal struggles over the the direction of the organization provoked by the FBI’s counterintelligence program. There was no further communication un­til I got a call from him last year. He said he wanted to talk. We agreed to get to­gether. He seemed to have attempted a reconciliation of sorts with some of the people who had loved and fought for him but whom he had perplexed and infuriat­ed by the string of bizarre and brutal episodes that had become his life. But the attempt fizzled.

His murder, like Abbie Hoffman’s sui­cide, gave me a deep sadness. Their deaths, in a sense, serve as an epitaph to the ’60s. Their passion and flamboyance, brilliance and vision defined our era, en­hanced our lives, and changed history — ­but could never calm the insatiable de­mons within that took them away. ■

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1989 Village Voice obituary - remembrance of Huey Newton by Kathleen Cleaver

1989 Village Voice obituary - remembrance of Huey Newton by Kathleen Cleaver


The Black Panthers: Pictures at a Revolution

Like many American icons — P.T. Barnum, Andy Warhol, Ronald Reagan — the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense got its start through a bit of flimflam. Huey Newton, an ex-con and self-taught radical intellectual, and Bobby Seale, foreman of an Oakland, California, anti-poverty youth program, founded the party in October 1966. The fledgling organization needed cash to build membership, and Newton hit upon the idea of selling copies of Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book at a San Francisco protest against the Vietnam War. By buying the books in wholesale lots from a Chinese bookstore, the budding revolutionaries realized a 400 percent profit. “That was our first fundraiser,” Seale said later. “We had not even read this book.”

College student Stephen Shames photographed Seale hawking the tiny volume — “Get your ‘Red Book’! One dollar! The thoughts of Chairman Mao Tse-tung!” — and the two have remained colleagues ever since, most recently collaborating on Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers, a fiftieth-anniversary collection of photographs, graphics, and reminiscences.

Seale (born 1936) and Newton (1942–89) used their big markup on the Communist bestseller to rent office space, install telephones, and buy shotguns, which they used to “police the police.” The Panthers’ initial program consisted of following members of the overwhelmingly white Oakland police force around predominantly black neighborhoods to guard against police brutality. As Newton told an interviewer in 1968, “In America, black people are treated very much like the Vietnamese people or any other colonized people because we’re used, we’re brutalized by the police in our community.”

Kathleen Cleaver (in dark jacket) at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968; as she told an interviewer at the time, “All of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this because it’s natural, because the reason for it you might say is like a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful.” (More recently she added, “That clip has taken on a life of its own on the internet. I keep getting messages from kids: ‘I saw that. That’s so cool.’ ”)
Kathleen Cleaver (in dark jacket) at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968; as she told an interviewer at the time, “All of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this because it’s natural, because the reason for it you might say is like a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful.” (More recently she added, “That clip has taken on a life of its own on the internet. I keep getting messages from kids: ‘I saw that. That’s so cool.’ ”)

A number of Shames’s photos in Power to the People feature heavily armed, sharply dressed Panthers standing outside party offices or government buildings, where they had gone to demand equal rights. As Seale remembers in the book, “I saw Huey one day. He didn’t know what he had on. A sporty leather jacket, black slacks, nice blue shirt. He’s walking down the street. I say, ‘Hold it, Huey,’ just like a director.” That street encounter, plus a movie Seale saw featuring the black berets worn by French resistance fighters in World War II, resulted in a party uniform that added a stylish swagger to the Panthers’ revolutionary front.

Peppered throughout the book are streetwise graphics by Emory Douglas, the Panthers’ Minister of Culture, who designed the party’s newspaper. The June 27, 1970, issue of The Black Panther features “Warning to America,” a drawing of an African-American woman hefting an automatic rifle under the headline, “We are armed, and we are conscious of our situation, and we are determined to change it, and we are unafraid.” (Shames’s photos, a selection of Douglas’s graphics, and copies of The Black Panther are on display at Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea through October 29.)

One of Emory Douglas’s variations on his visual epitaph for Fred Hampton (1970). Douglas would sometimes change the color schemes in different editions of Panther newspapers and posters.
One of Emory Douglas’s variations on his visual epitaph for Fred Hampton (1970). Douglas would sometimes change the color schemes in different editions of Panther newspapers and posters.

Shames includes an excerpt from Newton’s autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide: “I constantly felt uncomfortable and ashamed of being black,” he wrote. “During those long years in Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience…. All they did was try to rob me of the sense of my own uniqueness and worth, and in the process nearly killed my urge to inquire.” Newton was functionally illiterate after graduating from school, and taught himself to read as an adult by working through Plato’s Republic; he went on to study law with Edwin Meese, who eventually became President Reagan’s retrograde attorney general.

Meese later observed, “I was teaching law, criminal law, for police officers and people who wanted to be police officers and one of the students in my class was Huey Newton. He later wrote in his book that he was taking these law enforcement courses because he wanted ‘to know as much as the pigs knew.’ ” Meese recalled, “In the middle of the course, one day he asked if he could ride to the courthouse with me…. Well, it turned out actually he was on trial. He had stabbed someone with a steak knife at a barbecue some months before.” After serving a year for assault with a deadly weapon, Newton returned to Meese’s class while on parole, and earned an A.

Newton schooled the party members in both constitutional and local California law, making sure they carried law books containing the relevant statutes whenever they went on armed patrols. Power to the People exposes the pretzel logic that still governs America’s racial divide, pointing out that in 1967, Reagan, at that time the governor of California, signed a very strict gun-control law after the Panthers began toting rifles and pistols in public. Seale notes in the book, “The NRA wanted us arrested for carrying guns back in those days. Yes, they did.” Shames adds, “The National Rifle Association did not utter a peep of Second Amendment protest. Can you imagine what they would say if President Obama proposed a [similar law] today?”

But while stories about armed black men marching through California’s state assembly building were making nationwide headlines, the Panthers were also creating programs based on Newton’s and Seale’s ten-point platform demanding job opportunities, better public education, increased access to healthcare, prison and judicial reform, and other improvements in the lives of black citizens. The Panthers struck a balance between Malcolm X’s black separatism and Martin Luther King’s pacifism (they admired both leaders greatly). As Seale puts it in the book, “I can understand the difference between a white left radical who stands up for my constitutional rights and some goddamn racist Ku Klux Klan who wants to murder me.”

Emory Douglas: “Warning to America.”
Emory Douglas: “Warning to America.”

Shames (who is white) documented numerous multiracial “Free Huey” rallies when the Panther co-founder was on trial in 1968 for the killing of a police officer. (After Newton was convicted, two drunken Oakland police officers fired shots through the plate glass window of the Panthers’ office; they were later dismissed from the force. One of Shames’s iconic photos captures the bullet holes rending a poster of Newton sitting in a wicker chair holding a spear and gun. One can only imagine the reaction of the two former cops when the conviction was reversed on appeal and, after two subsequent hung juries, Newton was released in 1970.) Shames also photographed a massive funeral for party member George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, a collection of letters condemning brutality and racism in the prison system. Jackson was killed during a 1971 prison break.

The Panthers were perpetually in the crosshairs of local and federal authorities. A December 1970 copy of the party newspaper features a portrait of Chicago leader Fred Hampton surrounded by black chevrons, with party slogans in red — “You can jail a revolutionary but you can’t jail the revolution” — along with an epitaph of sorts: “Born August 30, 1948, Murdered by Fascist Pigs December 4, 1969.” None of the officers who raided Hampton’s apartment at 4:45 a.m. were charged with murder for shooting the unarmed Panther leader multiple times in the head, but his family and that of another victim won a massive $1.85 million settlement from the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government in a wrongful-death suit, in part because it emerged that Hampton had been drugged by an agent provocateur directed by FBI COINTELPRO operatives.

Even non–party members were harassed. Power to the People recounts how the FBI tailed the man who’d volunteered to do the plumbing at the George Jackson People’s Free Medical Clinic. “God, they wasted millions of dollars following innocent people around,” Dr. Tolbert Small remembers. The Panthers’ medical facilities were some of the first in the nation to routinely screen patients for sickle cell anemia, and they provided free STD screening for local youths as well. Shames also photographed members distributing free food and clothing in poor neighborhoods. One shot captures party member Leonard Colar, big as a linebacker and natty in a double-breasted overcoat, escorting an elderly woman on a grocery shopping trip, as part of the Panthers’ SAFE Club that accompanied seniors to cash checks and buy food in high-crime areas.

The book’s oral histories (which elide time periods by mixing quotes from the deceased with current conversations) point out that the Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program provided a template for school breakfast and lunch programs today, and that the Panthers’ police patrols eventually evolved into civilian-review boards and what we now consider community policing. And for all their machismo, the Panthers were open to women in their ranks. A former leader, Ericka Huggins, notes in the book, “Part of the legacy of the Black Panther Party is that we were not afraid to look at race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. All of it. Huey wrote in support of the woman’s movement and the gay liberation movement. Who the heck — what black man, what white man, what any man was talking like that in 1970?”

Eldridge Cleaver in the Panther office the day it was shot up by two Oakland police officers, September 29, 1968.
Eldridge Cleaver in the Panther office the day it was shot up by two Oakland police officers, September 29, 1968.

Shames often composed portraits to include telling background details. A photograph of Eldridge Cleaver, taken in 1968 when he was running for president representing the Peace and Freedom Party, is dominated by a huge banner behind the Panthers’ Minister of Information’s head, reading, “Don’t Vote for Shit.” (The electorate took him at his word: He received 0.05 percent of the vote.) And despite the perils of their endeavor, the party founders retained a sense of humor. Toward the end of the book, Shames includes a four-frame sequence in which Newton and Seale stare at the lens with steely gravitas, glare at each other, and then begin cracking up before the camera pulls back as they double over with laughter.

The book closes with a litany of current concerns that echo the Panthers’ original ten-point program: a justice system that remains stacked against the poor, galloping wealth inequality, shadowy oligarchs pouring money into the electoral process, a tax system that favors the wealthiest 1 percent of citizens, racial disparities in employment and education, banks that redline minorities out of homeownership. And of course, the continued killings of unarmed black men and youths by police, which has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Panthers were canny in their ability to turn protest into publicity, forcing issues that too many Americans wanted to ignore — police brutality, institutionalized racism — beyond the pages of the party’s own newspaper and into the mainstream media. It has fallen to BLM to update the imagery of outrage by using social media via instantaneous cellphone uploads — so different from the laborious process of shooting and developing film in Shames’s day.

Panthers line up at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968.
Panthers line up at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968.

One double-page photo (taken in Brooklyn circa 1970–71) captures a rubble-strewn lot hard against a crumbling brick wall spray-painted with the phrase “THE MOON BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE!!!” Is this a cry against the millions spent in 1969 to land a man on the moon even as some American children went to bed hungry, or a joyful outburst that finally there was something all Americans could share equally?

Outmanned and outgunned, the Panthers stood their ground, and paid a fearsome price, but they remained steadfast in the belief that Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is the birthright of all Americans. That wasn’t true for slaves when those words were written in 1776, and they remain unattainable for many of their descendants — and for too many of the 99 percent of any color. Seale and Shames remind us that progress has been made but that true equality can still feel as distant as the lunar surface.

Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers
By Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale
256 pp., Abrams, $40
‘Power to the People: The Black Panthers in Photographs by Stephen Shames and Graphics by Emory Douglas’
Steven Kasher Gallery
515 West 26th Street, 212-966-3978 Through October 29
Bobby Seale & Stephen Shames talk + book signing
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Boulevard, Thursday, October 27, 6:30 p.m.

Seize the Seat

Thirty-two-year-old Ras Baraka’s run for city councilman at large in Newark is a rhythmic blend of a mission that mirrors the title of Bobby Seale’s autobiography, an enlightened understanding of the established power structure both macro and micro, and a campaign slogan straight from a classic hip-hop CD.

On May 14, Newark residents will have a chance to use one of their four votes for council at-large posts to harmonize with Baraka’s rhythm by utilizing the ballot as a drumroll to signify a changing of the political guard. On that day, Baraka will face four incumbents and at least one well-connected challenger whose song of agenda follows a similar score.

Behind the carjacking headlines, the troubled relationships with police, and socioeconomic conditions endemic to an urban center beats the heart of a majority African American population tracing its roots to the great northern migration of the early 20th century, when Newark was a booming industrial city.

Baraka’s family was among these southern Black migrants who came seeking the promise of economic opportunity in the North. It was a promise that went largely unfulfilled and was revoked when Newark’s industry fizzled. But now increasing development has fostered an economic renaissance in Newark that includes proposed waterfront development and a sports arena complex.

“[Newark] is experiencing development now through the renaissance,” says Baraka. “They see that Newark is the communication and transportation hub of New Jersey. It’s so close to New York and every other place, so they’re willing to develop downtown Newark and the areas immediately around downtown Newark; they just don’t want to do it for the people that live here.”

It is within this framework that Baraka’s struggle to make sure that working people get their just due emerges. When development dollars pour in, he wants to ensure that someone is seated at the table of power whose interests do not supersede those of the people.

“The thing we’re trying to do,” Baraka says, “is make sure that when this renaissance comes and billions of dollars come into the city, the people who’ve been living and dying here for 60, 70 years, and some longer, have a say-so in what’s developed, how it’s developed, and they benefit from that.”

Baraka’s roots also extend to the cornerstones of Newark’s activist community. The son of revolutionary Black Arts movement pioneers Amina and Amiri Baraka, he is a published poet and performer in his own right. His work has appeared on multi-platinum albums such as the Grammy-winning Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Baraka grew up witnessing firsthand the promise of the Black Nationalist movement. Unfortunately for many, the movement was yet another promise left unfulfilled.

Baraka talks of the resolutions of the Gary convention in 1972, when a national Black agenda was set, alliances forged, and a plan of action mapped out for Black political empowerment. “All this stuff they came up with, the people betrayed it. From the Congressional Black Caucus to Jesse Jackson and all those people—they didn’t do the stuff they was supposed to do. You know why? Because it became about them individually and that’s what it’s about now.

“You got to look at people’s character. A fatal mistake that happened in the beginning, when Black Power turned into Black politics, a fatal mistake was made that people who were qualified to represent us were not prepared and the people who were prepared to represent us wasn’t qualified.

“Look at [former Newark mayor] Kenneth Gibson. He wasn’t no community leader. He didn’t come from the ranks of the people. He was just prepared and the mistake that they made is that they thought the Black skin was it and because this Negro jumped up and he was prepared to run, they pushed him to run.”

To Baraka, Newark’s Black political establishment is in a situation akin to the final scene of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “It’s like now it’s even hard to decipher or determine them between people who you thought were your open enemies,” he says, “because they have done or are doing the same things these people [our open enemies] do to us.

People are confused. It’s hard for me to organize in this city because people are confused,” he continues. “They’ve been confused for 30 years by politicians who’ve tricked them, lied to them, who have said that they was going to do all this stuff for Black people and have done nothing; they’ve done nothing but lie.”

For that reason Baraka has taken up the torch of the struggle, not content to wait for the Black political establishment to pass the baton. “They don’t want to get out,” says Baraka. “You know what their thing is: Wait your turn. And the problem is, people were waiting their turn. We’re taking what we want.”

In 1994 Baraka ran for mayor, and in 1998 he ran for the same office that he is currently seeking. He sees this campaign as different from his priors. This year, as his campaign slogan promises, it’s time to “Take It Personal.” Says Baraka: “We’re more informed. We’re a lot smarter. We understand what we’re doing. We know exactly what we have to do to win and who we’re up against.”

Among Baraka’s opponents are Donald Tucker, a longtime political player who was first elected to an at-large council seat in 1974, and Ron Rice Jr., son of a state senator, who is running on a platform similar to Baraka’s. But to Baraka, the real challenge is the powerful behind-the-scenes forces—”multinational corporations, big developers, finance capitalists, basically people who look at you and see an enemy.”

Of course, one person cannot guarantee the reversal of the political misfortunes that Newark has faced, and Baraka doesn’t see his election as the solution to the city’s problems. “No one individual can change the whole system,” he says. “It will be a concerted effort between the people and the elected officials that represent them.”

Currently in Newark, access to city government is limited, if not restricted, and residents have little say in policy changes that affect their lives. Baraka speaks of community planning occurring without the community having a voice in the process; city council meetings are held in executive session. After 10 years of fighting on the streets of Newark, he feels that it is his time to infiltrate and work from the inside.

Ultimately, Baraka is running to continue the “protracted struggle” that was begun by the civil rights movement. The time has come, he says, for the next generation to do its part. Although as the son of artist-activists Baraka had a stronger foundation than most, it is because of his own sense of duty that he has decided to get into the trenches, and he urges others to do so.

“Our generation has to further that struggle. [The movement leaders] didn’t just fail. They was murdered. King didn’t quit. He was killed on a balcony in Memphis, gunned down. Malcolm ain’t say, ‘Fuck these people, I’m out.’ He was shot in his chest at the Audubon Ballroom. That’s what happened.

“It is our time to push for the struggle for democracy. . . . We have a responsibility to forward the struggle or force the ideas, and ourselves, into history and onto the pages of history right now. We have to stop reading about historical events and make history ourselves.”

For Baraka, the objective is clear. “Seize power for the people. That’s what it’s about. It’s not grand or huge or some academic diatribe. It’s simple as hell.”


Join the Good-Fight Club

Banned for seven years by the Iranian government, Dariush Mehrjui’s The Lady screens for the first time in the U.S. at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which showcased several films by the director in 1998. The Lady is one of the highlights of a festival that’s jammed with first-rate fiction films and documentaries, most of them too political and harrowing for commercial theatrical release.

Unlike the better-known Iranian directors Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Mehrjui makes films about women—specifically about female guilt and masochism. In The Lady—as in Leila, his 1998 feminist masterwork—Mehrjui deals with self-sacrifice, and here, in particular, with the inescapable perversity of the quest for purity in an impure world. Suffering under a double whammy of religious guilt, a wealthy Muslim woman who was educated abroad in Catholic schools withdraws from her adoring husband. Blaming the failure of their marriage on her coldness, he goes off on a trip with his girlfriend. Left alone in their isolated palatial country house, the wife is inconsolable until she goes to the rescue of a destitute couple. She gives them shelter, and in no time, they and their relatives take over the entire house, strewing every room with unwashed dishes, food, and shitty diapers. Then they proceed to rob her blind. Mehrjui’s black comic vision of the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the lumpen is something like a cross between Buñuel and Chekhov, but the psychological complexity of the central character is what makes the film extraordinary.

There’s also a Buñuelian edge to the opening-night film, Randa Chahal Sabbag’s A Civilized People. Following the advice frequently given to first-time directors—make a film about what you know—Sabbag sets her debut feature during the 20-year civil war in Lebanon, which she experienced firsthand as an adult. The film evokes the insane conditions of living in a battle zone where cease-fires are declared almost as often as people are killed by car bombs or sniper fire, and a stolen refrigerator becomes both a running gag and a cause that drives rival guerrilla groups to fight to the death.

The film is so sophisticated and unsparing that it almost made me forgive the flip, badly reasoned joke with which it begins. Two inept terrorists tie a wad of dynamite to a kitten, light the fuse, and push the struggling animal toward their chosen target. But the kitten hangs onto the legs of its torturers and they’re all blown up together. There follows a title card that reads: “No animals were killed during the making of this film, but 270,000 people died during the war in Lebanon.” You don’t have to be an animal-rights activist to realize that filmmaking and war are like apples and oranges. Nor to understand that cruelty toward animals is often the first sign of what the film deplores: the erosion of empathy and of the value of life. Having made this preemptive strike against what she presumes is the Pavlovian sentimentality of the audience, Sabbag relies on a Romeo and Juliet romance between a Christian girl and a Muslim boy to give the film a conventionally tragic denouement.

Among the documentaries are two extremely subtle films about the American system of justice: Lelah Khadivi’s 900 Women and Jens Meurer’s Public Enemy. Produced by Jonathan Stack, who codirected The Farm (the Oscar-winning doc about the inmates of Angola, Louisiana’s maximum-security prison), 900 Women is set inside The Farm‘s sister institution, Louisiana’s only prison for women. At one point, Mary Reilly, the 67-year-old lifer who is the film’s most amazing and heroic figure, meets with the warden to ask that the prison turn a half-acre of its grounds into a cemetery for the women who will inevitably die while incarcerated, herself included. Reilly’s patience in the face of the warden’s condescension says everything about her rehabilitation. When the warden says it would be depressing for him to see a cemetery from his windows, she quietly counters that it would give the inmates a feeling of closure to be able to tend the graves of their friends and that women who’ve had trouble with men all their lives don’t want to buried alongside a bunch of male strangers in the common cemetery at Angola.

Financed by European TV, Jens Meurer’s Public Enemy is a thoughtful, moving primer about the Black Panther Party. The film has punchy archival footage of Panther rallies and police brutality, but the heart of the matter lies in extended informal interviews with four former Panthers: Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver, the musician Nile Rodgers, and Jamal Joseph (the youngest and sweetest of New York’s Panther 21), now a poet and filmmaker. Joseph talks unguardedly about his depression and drug addiction after the Panther Party fell apart as a result of what Noam Chomsky terms the FBI’s practice of “outright political assassination,” which left 29 dead. The terrible thing, Joseph explains, was to come to terms with the fact that despite the sacrifice of so many lives, conditions in the black community weren’t any better; they were, in fact, worse. All four Panthers are troubled by questions about whether the Panthers made a difference in the course of the civil rights struggle. Seale uses humor as a defense, clowning his way through spirited chants of “Off the Pig” until he breaks down at the grave of Bobby Hutton, the youngest Panther and the first to be killed by the police. “Someone said, ‘That’s Bobby Seale,’ and the police shot him 10 or 12 times. . . . I guess it must’ve been worth it in the ’60s when we died in the streets.”

Robinson Devor’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel The Woman Chaser teeters between pulp psychodrama and a parody thereof. You might say the same of the novel, but the film is a more labored exercise in noirish style. Patrick Warburton (once Elaine’s boyfriend on Seinfeld) plays Richard Hudson, a used-car salesman who decides to make his life more meaningful by directing a movie. Warburton looks like a beefier Oliver Stone, which gives an extra frisson to the scenes where he’s hunkered down over his editing equipment or banging his leading lady to get her in the mood for some emoting. She’s one of a half-dozen faded, brain-dead bottle blonds whom Hudson beds in The Woman Chaser—ranging from his horny teenage stepsister to an alcoholic Salvation Army granny—but the film isn’t sexy or even lewd, merely grotesque. In the oedipal pièce de résistance, Richard strips off his shirt and dances a pas de deux with his mom, a former ballet dancer who still tiptoes around in a tutu. As Warburton propels his decidedly earthbound body through a series of grande jetés, you have to admire his guts, while wondering what kind of film his director thought he was making. At various times, The Woman Chaser suggests Ben Hecht’s The Spectre of the Rose, a Curtis Harrington mood piece, and various underground flicks from Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour to Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract.

Devor has the film noir conventions down cold—the low-angled close-ups, the high-contrast lighting—but the effect of printing black and white on color stock is too slick and prettified for the cheesy world of car lots and dank stucco houses. The Woman Chaser looks less like a ’50s noir (or even a neo-noir) than a noir-styled TV commercial; the queasiness it makes you feel is more like acid reflux than existential nausea. The cast is largely made up of small-time TV actors with faces like one-liners. The most amazing visage belongs to Joe Durrenberger, who plays a former army sergeant hired to manage Richard’s dealership. Durrenberger looks like a cartoon that was started by one artist and finished by another. The irresolvable contradiction between his flat-top hair and the bulbous curve of his cheeks is the most memorable thing in the movie.