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Huey Newton: Armed and Intellectually Dangerous

Huey Newton, 1942-1989

One night in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a group of white boys drove along­side my drop-top 1963 Chevy Im­pala, called me a nigger, and threw empty beer cans at my ride. I chased them down a darkened street. They stopped and got out the car, smiling like they was going to kick some black ass. I got out, went to the truck, and pulled out my 300 Savage semiautomatic rifle. I fired a couple of rounds with the intent, but not the nerve, to kill. They jumped back in their car and fled.

Sweating and shaking with fear and adrenalin, I got back into my Impala laughing, convinced that Huey Newton was right when he said political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

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Just a year before that incident I had never really thought much about where political power came from. I was into processes or ‘dos, black-and-white shoes, and big cars. But when the media brought Huey along, I immediately dug him because he scared the shit out of redneck peck-a-woods. I came to hate them at an early age. I hated them for attacking children with dogs in the South and for their false generosity in the North. I hated them for denying econom­ic survival to a people who asked for little more. I knew that the last thing white folks really wanted to see was a pissed-off black man heavily armed and intellec­tually dangerous. But as far as African Americans were concerned, Huey and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a name taken from the Lowndes County, Alabama, chapter of the SNCC, came along just at the right time. We had had enough — enough police brutality, enough intimidation, enough racism.

So when I heard that Huey had been gunned down in a possible dope deal in the early morning hours in West Oak­land, I really felt the loss. Sure, he was a wild man, and I won’t try to excuse that. But who wouldn’t be after living for years under constant and intense pressure from The Man’s Thought-Cops Division. They were after him because he was a symbol. Huey, in the days before his madness, represented a revolutionary alternative for those without an ounce of faith in this country’s social, political, and economic order. He was our David taking on a ruthless, big, white giant from the West.

Even those African Americans who disagreed with his tactics sympathized with his goals in the Black Panther Par­ty’s Ten Point Program, which included: an end to robbery by the white man of our black community; an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people; and more bread, housing, educa­tion, clothing, justice, and peace.

The program attracted a lot of people in the ’60s and it seems, especially in light of the Howard Beach and Benson­burst crimes, long overdue today.

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After seeing a poster of Huey and Bob­by Seale decked out in berets and black leather jackets and toting pieces, I went right out and bought my rifle. To quiet my hustler’s instincts, I replaced my back-pocket copy of Iceberg Slim’s The Pimp with a copy of Mao Ze-dong’s Little Red Book.

I enjoyed reading Huey’s articles in the BPP newspaper. He was the first person to persuade me to dull the edge and even­tually conquer my homophobia. He got me to thinking about women’s liberation and liberation struggles in Third World countries. I listened and learned from his sermons of love and internationalism. There was much Huey did and said that I didn’t agree with, but I owe him thanks for forcing me to think about so much.

Because there was no Black Panther Party in my hometown, Lansing, Michi­gan, I didn’t join the BPP. Since we could not be real Panthers, a group of us, high school students, Vietnam vets, and fac­tory workers, got together in 1968 and started a breakfast program for children. I often looked into the faces of those children and wanted to cry.

We didn’t have the resources to open health care centers and legal defense of­fices like the BPP, but we were all sure that when the revolution came, when we seized the power, we’d have all the re­sources we needed.

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But I had real trouble with the Jimi Hendrix aspects of Huey. It was electric and bigger than life. It was the side that reached out to whites to form alliances. For my money, white folks could go straight to hell. I was that angry. I fig­ured that if they did join in our struggle they would eventually sell us out. But looking back now, through the prism of Jesse Jackson’s coalition-building presi­dential campaigns and my own years of experience in the struggle, I see that Huey, like Jimi, was ahead of his time and true to his roots. That’s probably what shook both of them so tragically out of control.

Was Huey P. Newton right when he called on the people to arm themselves? So far, history hasn’t proved anything about Huey’s strategy. The only thing we know for sure is that the BPP’s demands have not been met, which proves that the beast we progressive-minded people struggle against cannot be defeated with one strategy; neither the ballot nor the bullet alone. And no matter what strategy we do decide to use, history has already shown us that there will be casualties, and that’s what Huey was, a casualty of war. Another niggah, from The Man’s point of view, dead of low-intensity warfare. ■

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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

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Fifth Annual Afro-Punk Festival at BAM

BAM’s fifth annual ode to black power and DIY revolution blows out the boom-box with a 20th-anniversary screening of Do the Right Thing (part of a full day of otherwise unexpected Spike Lee programming, like Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads and A Huey P. Newton Story), and refuses to be confined to theater alone: The series will take to the streets with both a Brooklyn block party and a short-term skate park with demonstrations, BMX contests, and live music.

Noteworthy among the doc-centric schedule is Mark Currie and Rachel Wang’s Afro-Saxons, an amusing and lively glimpse into the U.K.’s competitive Afro hairdressing scene. The filmmaking is unrefined and missing context, but the subculture characters and caught moments are fun to watch. There’s braid stylist to the stars, Angela, who had her mother chip her tooth with pliers at a young age so that she could get the gold “A” cap she always wanted, now a trademark of her persona. And Thai couple George and Apple, who, with their hilariously cutthroat approach to competition—combined with their gravity-defying avant-do’s—seem unreal enough to belong in a Christopher Guest mockumentary. But given the film’s racial identity, it’s a shame that their outsider obsession with black hair isn’t explored.

David Leaf’s outstanding remembrance The Night James Brown Saved Boston documents the 1968 night after MLK was shot, when Mr. Dynamite chilled out the riot-ready masses with a live televised concert. Actual riot: 1974’s Attica presents a livid re-creation of the events that led to New York’s infamous prison revolt (and Dog Day Afternoon‘s quotable chant).

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Radical Chic

A hippie, Ronald Reagan once famously offered, is someone who “acts like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.” It was 1967, Reagan was governor of California, and these threatening creatures were all around him, on campuses and in the streets: men without ties with the kind of hair you were supposed to see only on girls.

That was a long time ago. The sartorial revolution sparked by those hirsute mavericks—their blue jeans, peasant blouses, untucked shirts, sandals, and thrift store get-ups—were in subsequent decades so thoroughly embraced by the general population that these days, for good or ill,
you can’t tell a young Republican from an anarchist on the A train. Take, for example, the figure of Ann Coulter, with her long, swingy hair and tiny skirts. Strip away her politics, keep the sharp tongue, and who are you reminded of? None other than Bernardine Dohrn, onetime leader of the radical Weathermen, likewise famous for her long hair and minis, whose flaming rhetoric and
no-holds-barred style prompted J. Edgar Hoover to dub her the “La Pasionaria
of the lunatic Left.”

You may argue until you are blue—or red—in the face about the degree to which the ideologies of the 1960s have permeated American life, but one thing is clear: The kind of repressive clothes people wore 50 years ago, the little white gloves on women, the compulsory suits and shiny shoes for men, have vanished as quickly as a samizdat leaflet. Even if you’re a hopeless reactionary, you no longer have to support the war or fight to undermine abortion rights in a girdle and garter belt, or spend your days volunteering for the Karl Rove fan club with your neck choking under a tie.

These thoughts, and many more like them, were occasioned by a superb exhibit of photographs of the Black Panther Party by Stephen Shames at the Steven Kasher Gallery at 521 West 23rd Street (through May 26). Here the bravado and bravura of the Panthers shine not just through their steely eyes and deadly serious expressions, but through their tough black boots and leather coats as well.

Whatever you think about their politics, the Panthers exuded a powerful sex appeal that even enraptured the Park Avenue aristocracy (as captured in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic). The beautiful Kathleen Cleaver sports oversized sunglasses, a black miniskirt, and boots, and wields a machine gun (Cleaver is currently a Senior Research Scholar at the Yale Law School); a group of men at a “Free Huey P. Newton” rally (Newton was shot and killed in 1989 in an incident considered drug-related) wear what came to be known as the Panther uniform: a black leather jacket and a beret cocked at an angle.

Not just the beret was borrowed from styles first employed by postwar French bohemia, a nonconformist vibe that made its way from the Left Bank to leftists everywhere. Shames photographed ex-fugitive Angela Davis (now a college professor in California), wrapped in a trench coat worthy of the existentialist chanteuse Juliette Gréco and smoking a cigarette during a break in her 1972 trial, and Panther David Hilliard (also currently teaching college) wears the kind of a navy-and-white striped maritime sweater favored by Jean Genet.

All these fashions—the trench, the leather jacket, the beret, the striped polo—would make their way in the ensuing half-century from the outer shores of bohemia to the Gap. They would join with hippie garb, the deliberately slovenly, offhand mixing of old and new, to create a way of dressing now so ubiquitous it’s the guy in the suit and the lady in the little hat who occasion the stares.

So where does this leave you? How can you make sure people know what your politics are in this bewildering sartorial landscape, where nearly everyone is wearing jeans and a tee, nearly all the time? If you’re really worried that someone will mistake you for the head of the Save Alberto Gonzales committee, maybe your shirt can clear things up. At the young designers market at 268 Mulberry Street (weekends only), Jim Morrison (who was born the year the rocker died) is set up just inside the front door. He calls his business Dangerous Breed and describes his shirts as “political fashion that also looks good” and says the slogans are meant to be thought-provoking, not knee-jerk.

“Now more than ever I think people want shirts that say, ‘Tell me something more; confuse me!’ Not just, you know, ‘Bush equals terrorist,’ ” Morrison says on a recent Saturday afternoon. He’s doing a brisk business in designs that include his famous “Ski Iraq”; his “Saudi Arabia: Sportsman’s Mecca” (a pun?) that offers mountains, pine trees, and a leaping trout; his “Gaza Strip Club XXX”motif; and a hoodie featuring an overall pattern of Apache helicopters that is meant to mock the Louis Vuitton logo.

“Most of our designs come out of the classic imagery of the vacation T-shirt. My background is in international relations and foreign policy, and my partner is a graphic artist, so it’s a good combination,” Morrison, who once ran for State Senate in New Jersey, says. Their first collaboration was a shirt that read: “Jesus hates your SUV.” In the beginning, the T-shirts caused some confusion and a number of shoppers were frankly offended. “They would say, ‘I don’t get it.’ They’d look at ‘Ski Iraq’ and say, ‘That’s bad taste.’ ” Once or twice a day, someone would get in Morrison’s face about his shirts. “I kind of lived for it,” he admits.

Times have changed. Morrison takes out a letter from a military wife, saying how much the guys in her husband’s platoon love the Dangerous Breed shirts she sent over, and he’s just received a big order from the British embassy in Baghdad.

And those out-of-towners, resplendent in their tees and jeans, who used to pick fights? Morrison doesn’t need a Gallup poll to know that many ordinary Americans have turned against the war. “Now these tourists from Orlando or someplace will stop and look at the shirts and think they’re just the awesomest things.”