This is the second of a four part series on the history, legacy, and continuing relevance of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Founded in 1966 in the spirit of the politics of the late Malcolm X, and highly influenced by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, the Black Panther Party was a Black revolutionary organization. For a time they played the leading role in the Black Liberation struggle in the U.S. and inspired people across the country to take up revolutionary politics. This stood in sharp contrast to much of the civil rights movement which pushed for integration into white supremacist capitalist society. In the previous article in this series we covered the founding of the BPP, and in this issue we will analyze their growth and development in the Bay Area up to the point they began to become a country-wide party with branches in many major cities.
After the founding of the BPP Huey and Bobby knew that without winning the confidence and support of the people, their ideas and Ten-Point Program would amount to little. So they set themselves to organizing in the community. Despite starting off with just a few people, they were aware that the social circumstances at the time provided fertile ground on which to grow the organization and the Black Liberation struggle. At the time (much like today), Black folks faced routine and constant harassment at the hands of the police and high rates of poverty and joblessness due to systematic racism and discrimination. What’s more, the Civil Rights Movement and the uprisings in Black ghettos throughout the country showed that people were yearning for freedom.
In order to win the confidence of the masses of people, and demonstrate their seriousness about serving the people, the Panthers knew they had to go among the people. Before founding the BPP both Huey and Bobby had been a part of a number of “radical” groups that were all talk. They had seen how these groups really sought to appeal only to middle and upper-class Black folks but fundamentally were uninterested in going among the working class and poor Blacks, who constitute the vast majority of the Black population in this country. The majority of middle and upper-class Blacks were primarily focused on integrating into white supremacist society and pursuing the politics of “Black Business” which might enrich a small percentage of the Black population, but leave the vast majority in extreme poverty and desperation.
So, the BPP had seen the limitations of groups that talked about the issues in the Black community without actually practically appealing to and engaging with the majority of Black folks, especially the poor and downtrodden.
This isn’t to say they discounted the importance of discussion and theoretical work. It was through a series of serious studies and conversations over a period of a few months that Bobby and Huey drafted the Party’s Ten-Point Program. However, the Program was drafted specifically with their poor brothers and sisters in mind. They used language and ideas that they knew would appeal to the “brothers and sisters on the block,” and they knew the Program would help to clarify the situation in the U.S. and show a way forward for the Black Liberation struggle.
The Panthers took up Malcolm’s legacy and teachings in many ways. They were particularly inspired by his emphasis on the need for self-defense.
Right after they finished drafting the program and got it printed out, Huey and Bobby went out into the community in Oakland to talk with folks about it. They explained the Program and the Party to Black people in the streets, at bars, and all around Oakland. It took time to clarify things, and sometimes Huey would spend eighteen hours a day just going around and talking with folks. However, these conversations were not fruitless. Huey and Bobby were able to clarify what the Party was about to a lot of people, and folks started joining. The first was little Bobby Hutton, a fifteen year old who was a member of a community program at the North Oakland Anti-Poverty Center where Bobby worked.
From there the Party grew bit by bit. It was slow going for the first few months, but more people joined as they understood the how serious the Panthers were about putting their program into practice and working with the masses of poor and oppressed Black folks. One thing that was of particular importance was the BPP’s insistence on practicing armed self-defense.
Before his death, Malcolm X had repeatedly emphasized the need for Black folks to defend themselves against the constant aggression and violence they face from the white supremacist capitalist power structure, the pigs, and various racist groups like the KKK. Speaking on this subject, Malcolm had said “I don’t even call it violence when it’s in self defense; I call it intelligence.” The Panthers took these words to heart and organized along these lines. They armed themselves, as they had a legally protected right to do, and patrolled the community to watch police officers and ensure that they did not brutalize and kill Black folks. The Panthers didn’t attack the police or white supremacists outright, rather they pursued a policy of self-defense. In this way, they helped to expose the racist and criminal nature of the police who constantly break the laws they swear to uphold, and brutalize Black folks daily.
This approach also helped to clarify to the masses that there was a basis to stand up against the racist oppressors and win victories. The early work of the BPP against police brutality and harassment helped to galvanize Black people in Oakland and led many to join the Party. For example, in his book Seize the Time, Bobby Seale describes one incident in Oakland which clarified to the masses of people that the BPP was serious about putting their Program into action and practicing armed self-defense.
Bobby and Huey at the BPP headquarters in West Oakland.
Huey, Bobby, and a few other Panthers were confronted by the police outside of the BPP office in Oakland—which they had opened about a month before. They were in the car, when a pig pulled up and started hassling them over their firearms. Bobby described the incident that followed:
Huey just opened the car door, and this is where Huey got mad. I mean you have to imagine this nigger. He got mad because these dogs were going to carry on and they were bracing up like they were bad. Huey didn’t go for this at all. Huey got very mad. He opened up the door saying, “Who in the hell do you think you are? In the first place, this man (pointing at the pig) came up here and asked me for my license like he was citing me for a ticket or observation of some kind. This police officer is supposed to be carrying out his duty, and here you come talking about our guns.” Huey put his hand around his M-1 rifle and continued, “We have a constitutional right to carry the guns, anyway, and I don’t want to hear it.”
The pigs backed up a couple of steps, and Huey was coming out of the car. Huey had his hand back in the car, getting his M-1, and you know, if you’ve ever seen Huey, he gets growly, but articulate. He came out of the car with his M-1. Huey knows his law so well that he wouldn’t have the M-1 loaded inside the car. When he came out of the car, he dropped a round off into the chamber right away. Clack, clup.
“Who do you think you all are anyway?” Huey said to the pigs. And the other pigs are on the sidewalk harassing all the brothers and sisters who have gathered around: “You people move on down the street!” Huey started interrupting. “You don’t have to move down the street! Don’t go anywhere! These pigs can’t keep you from observing. You have a right to observe an officer carrying out his duty.” And these pigs, they listened to this shit. See, Huey’s citing law and shit. “You have a right to observe an officer carrying out his duty. You have a right to. As long as you stand a reasonable distance away, and you are a reasonable distance. Don’t go anywhere.” […]
The Panthers worked hard to show people ways to stand up against police brutality.
We were sitting in the car, and Huey made us all stay in the car and be quiet. He was out there, the baddest motherfucker in the world, man. Huey and ten pigs. Three or four of them trying to run off kids on bicycles and tell the people they didn’t have the right to stand around, and Huey was going out there, interrupting, “No! Come in the office.” Little kids on bicycles got inside the office. We had a big, wide, clear picture window. Niggers just got all over the front of the window, man. They were leaning on it, kissing the window just to listen to this shit. And they would holler, “Go ‘head on brother,” and “Run it on down. You know where it’s at,” and “I can dig it,” all the while Huey was letting these pigs know where it was at. The brothers observing would see that those pigs were scared of that big gun that a bad black but beautiful nigger had in his hand! Every time Huey would say, “If you shoot at me, swine, I’m shooting back,” niggers would have to holler something like, “Tell it, do it, brother.” That would let Huey know that he was revolutionizing our culture; educating black people to be revolutionaries; that the gun is where it’s at and about and in. A white man two doors down smiled. He was the only one around but he seemed to respect Huey.
Then some people came up after that, after Huey had made this display of going into the office. Other people were standing around and the pigs weren’t even moving anymore. And Huey just daring them to do anything. Huey had an M-1 with him, one of the eight round clips in it. What do you do, man? All you do is back up a nigger like that. You do nothing else but that. Anything that happens, this nigger’s the baddest nigger you ever seen. Because this nigger is telling ten pigs, “I don’t give a damn what you do,” and making us all shut up and be disciplined. And we have our shit ready, sitting in the car. […]
So that was the very major incident that happened with the Black Panther Party in front of the Black Panther Party office. And after that, we really began to patrol pigs then, because we got righteous recruits. I think ten or twelve, maybe thirteen extra members in the Party that day, just came and put applications in. We went down to the poverty office again—I was still working there—and drew up a formal application form for enrollment to get into the Black Panther Party. And from there, what did we do? We just patrolled pigs.
By standing up to the police in an organized and disciplined manner, the Panthers were able to push back against police brutality and inspire people to join the struggle.
This incident clarified in practice what the Panthers were about, and this stood in contrast to many other groups who called themselves revolutionary and claimed to look out for Black people, but actually didn’t do much other than talk amongst themselves. Given how the pigs terrorized the community daily, standing up to them in this fashion also inspir-ed folks. The vast majority of poor Black people in this country have a real objective interest in com-ing together to struggle for the revolutionary over-throw of this racist capital-ist government. However, many people were so beaten down that they felt hopeless. They had seen time and time again how the white supremacist capitalist power structure in this country systematic-ally disenfranchises Black folks, how it chews them up and spits them out.
But, when Huey stood up to the pigs in this manner, turned the law around against them, and backed them down like that, it filled people with hope. Bobby’s account of the incident highlights how the community members cheered Huey on as he told the pigs off, and their presence was key, because even more than Huey’s firm insistence on his right to armed self-defense, the pigs were intimidated by the presence of so many people unified against them. They knew full well that while ten of them could take down one man with a gun, they wouldn’t stand a chance against the power of the unified resistance of the people.
When Huey invited the people into the Panthers’ office in the middle of the confrontation, he was well aware that he was educating the people right then and there. Not just by his own stand against the police, but also by convincing them that they didn’t have to comply with unjust and unlawful orders from the pigs. He was involving them in the struggle too, getting them to stand up to the pigs. And, as Bobby mentions, this was a powerful example. This incident convinced many people, right then and there, that they needed to join the BPP and get involved in the struggle for Black Liberation.
This incident, the ongoing work patrolling the police, and various other efforts in the community spread the word of the Panthers throughout the area. As the Party grew, people around the area began to come to them with issues that they faced. They understood that the BPP was serious about struggling for Black Liberation, and getting organized to fight back against the white supremacist capitalist power structure.
For example, in 1967, the family of Denzil Dowell reached out to the BPP. They lived in the city of Richmond, CA which is a few miles north of Oakland. Denzil had been killed by the police in what appeared to be an execution which the police department was working to cover up. Prior to his death the pigs had been threatening Denzil for weeks, saying that they were going to “get him.” The official story was that he was caught robbing a store, and the pigs shot him once as he ran away because he was trying to climb a fence. But the true story was even worse than killing someone in cold blood just for running away.
The Dowell family called on the BPP because they wanted to publicize the contradictions in the police’s account of the killing of their son and shed light on how Black people are subjected to routine killings at the hands of the pigs. They explained to the Party how the the police report claimed Denzil had been shot once but the coroner’s office said that Denzil had been shot nine or ten times. They then took the Panthers to the spot where Denzil was killed and showed them the bullet holes in the wall where the police had shot him, showing how that they had fired many more than the nine or ten rounds that hit Denzil.
Huey speaking at a protest in 1966 in Richmond, CA against the police murder of Denzil Dowell.
The family demonstrated that the pigs’ justification for killing Denzil—their claim that he was trying to jump a fence to get away—was also a fabrication. The bullet holes and the blood stains were over twenty feet from the fence. Closer to the fence was a second blood stain, where the police had dragged Denzil during the last seconds of his life to make it seem like he was about to jump a fence when they murdered him.
Right then and there, during the middle of the Panthers’ investigation Black folks from Richmond starting coming out their homes to see what was going on. As Bobby Seale put it:
“We were investigating, and a lot of black people in the black community there came out. They had noticed us Panthers, with our guns and everything. I guess there were ten or twelve of us who went out there together and went through the whole process of investigation, of looking over what had happen-ed, and listening to the information that people were giving that contradicted all the crap that the pigs and newspapers had run down. And the people were looking.
We were standing on the corner there in North Richmond. There were about 150 people around, some in cars, some standing across the street. Some younger brothers, fifteen, sixteen, some twenty years old, were asking us about the guns, and we were explaining to them about the Black Panther Party. All of a sudden, some sister hollers out, “Uh, oh…here come the cops.”
When the sister hollered, Huey jacked a round off into the chamber of his eighteen-inch shotgun with a loud click and clack. When he did that, I unhitched the strap that held the hammer down on my .45, and it clacked too. People started moving back. Some of them went across the street. Some got down and Huey stepped to the curb. I followed Huey and stepped to the curb, a few feet down from him. The pigs were surprised all of a sudden. They looked and noticed who was ready and standing tall for them. The pigs kept driving, drove right on off—in fact they speeded on up and drove away. Then the people moved on back, and some of them jumped around across the street, figuring there was going to be a shoot-out, but we just stood tall, ready to defend ourselves. We were educating the people that we would die here for them. This was the position we always took with brother Huey P. Newton.
Bobby speaking at the same 1966 protest in Richmond, CA.
This incident shows clearly how the police in this country view a gathering of Black people as a threat to the power structure. The pigs didn’t know that the Panthers were there with the Dowell family investigating the murder of Denzil, they just saw a bunch of folks congregating and pulled up to harass them. However, the Panthers’ response scared them off. Much like in the previous incident quoted above, it wasn’t just the presence of the Panthers, but also the large crowd of Black people that intimidated the police. As an oppressive and reactionary force, the police are perfectly capable of intimidating and harassing individuals and small groups. But when a large group of the oppressed and exploited masses get together and get organized, the police are forced to back down, at least temporarily.
While some people were initially quick to run off when the pigs rolled up, other stood their ground, and even those who ran off saw that the organized efforts of the Panthers and their willingness to practice armed self-defense scared the police away. This helped to further clarify what the Black Panther Party was about: They were organized, disciplined, and serious about serving the people. When the police came by, the Panthers didn’t go off half-cocked and start a shoot out. Instead they stood their ground and were prepared to defend themselves and the people, including by force if necessary.
From this incident and subsequent conversations the BPP organized a series of rallies in Richmond to expose what had happened to Denzil and to rally the community against police brutality. Denzil’s death was not the only instance of police brutality or even police killings; these things were routine events in Richmond. For example, a few months before Denzil was killed two other Black men had been killed by the police.
They were shot all over their bodies, including in their armpits which showed that they had been holding their hands up at the time they were gunned down.
The Panthers used these rallies to draw attention to the systematic nature of police brutality and white supremacist oppression in the area, and to help to organize the people for armed self-defense. These events were a huge success.
Hundreds of people came out, learned about the Panthers, and started getting organized. The BPP talked about their Ten-Point Program, the nature of the white supremacist capitalist power structure in this country, and the need for Black folks to get organized and practice armed self-defense.
During the first rally, the Panthers managed to drive off the police, and at the second one they worked with the people of Richmond to preemptively shut down the whole street and prevent the police from disturbing the rally. This stands in sharp contrast to many groups today who set up “marshals” at their rallies and welcome police “escorts.” These marshals do the work of the pigs for them, they keep the protesters “in line,” prevent them from blocking traffic and the like. Needless to say, the Panthers took a different approach, and it resonated with the people.
When the Panthers had first shown up and started to investi-gate the murder of Denzil, people were nervous when the police showed up, and many had split when they saw the squad car. But by the time of the second rally in Richmond, the people were militant and organized and they had a better idea about the BPP and what they stood for. They worked closely with the Panthers to coordinate the rally and block traffic so the police couldn’t come through. They also had Denzil’s brothers and other community members speak about police brutality and the situation for Black folks in Richmond. Throughout the rally many people applied to join the Party, over 300 according to Bobby Seale.
With all of these developments and the influxes into the BPP, the Panthers started to get some attention from law enforce-ment, politicians, and other reactionaries. This went be-yond harassment at the hands of the police, it also brought them to the attention of the FBI and state legislatures. While the white supremacist capitalists who run this country had been more than happy to let the Klan and other racist groups use guns to terrorize Black folks for years, once the Panthers started putting armed self-defense into practice, these pigs were quick to move against them.
One form this took was the Mulford Act. This was originally a bill proposed by California Republican assemblyman Don Mulford in 1967. The bill aimed at restricting the ability of citizens to openly carry firearms in public. It was specifically aimed at the Panthers’ community patrols. The bill received broad bipartisan support in the California assembly, and even the NRA endorsed it. It was eventually signed into law by then-California Governer Ronald Reagan.
At the time this was one of the strictest gun control laws in the country, and it is significant that so many different groups in the racist power structure got together to support it. It indicated that the capitalist pigs who run this country were really concerned about the Panthers. Those who supported the bill used lots of coded language to conceal the racist nature of the Mulford Act, which aimed to limit Black people’s ability to defend themselves against racist attacks.
Panthers protesting outside the California Statehouse.
For example, Reagan stated that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” and claimed that that the Mulford Act “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.” While stopping short of explicitly racist language (the development of the Civil Rights and Black Power movement had made it political suicide to throw around the racial slurs the way most politicians had done just a decade prior), these statements were aimed at framing those who advocated for armed self-defense as dangerous and up to “no good.”
What’s more, Reagan’s statements argue that “honest citizens” have no need to defend themselves from the police, thus implying that those who get killed by pigs deserved to die. Politicians and other reactionary pigs continue to spout similar nonsense today. However, at the time the Panthers were an established organization with a growing membership and so they developed a plan to push back against the Mulford Act. They knew that the white supremacist capitalist power structure would continue to misrepresent and slander their party. While they had some success in the Bay Area, and the people from the poor Black communities saw through the lies put forward by the politicians and other pigs, the Panthers knew they had to get their message out on a national scale. When they did receive coverage in the press, it was almost all lies, and full of attempts to frame them as “racists” who hated white people, gun nuts who were going to shoot up white neighborhoods, or petty thugs and criminals.
The leadership of the Party developed a plan to simultaneously protest the Mulford Act and get national media attention that would clarify what they stood for. They knew that the Mulford Act was going to be discussed on the floor of the assembly at the state Capitol in Sacramento. So they sent thirty Panthers up to Sacramento to the Capitol to observe the assembly and speak to the media. Huey, Bobby, Eldrige Cleaver, and other leaders drafted a statement known as Executive Mandate Number One that Bobby was to read to the media while the TV cameras rolled. This way, they could get their message out to the public, and at least partially avoid distortion at the hands of the press who are part of the white supremacist capitalist power structure.
Little Bobby Hutton (left) and Bobby Seale in the State House after reading Executive Mandate Number One. They are followed by a bunch of reporters who had never before seen anything like this protest in their lives.
The Mandate stated:
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense calls upon the American people in general and the black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California Legislature which is now considering legislation aim-ed at keeping the black people disarmed and power-less at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder, and repression of black people.
At the same time that the American government is waging a racist war of genocide in Vietnam, the concentration camps in which Japanese Americans were interned during World War II are being renovated and expanded. Since America has historically reserved the most barbaric treatment for non-white people, we are forced to conclude that these concentration camps are being prepared for black people who are determined to gain their freedom by any means necessary. The enslavement of black people from the very beginning of this country, the genocide practiced on the American Indians and the confining of the survivors on reservations, the savage lynching of thousands of black men and women, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now the cowardly massacre in Vietnam, all testify to the fact that toward people of color the racist power structure of America has but one policy: repression, genocide, terror, and the big stick.
Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetrated against black people. All of these efforts have been answered by more repression, deceit, and hypocrisy. As the aggression of the racist American government escalates in Vietnam, the police agencies of America escalate the repression of black people throughout the ghettoes of America. Vicious police dogs, cattle prods, and increased patrols have become familiar sights in black communities. City Hall turns a deaf ear to the pleas of black people for relief from this increasing terror.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense believes that the time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late. The pending Mulford Act brings the hour of doom one step nearer. A people who have suffered so much for so long at the hands of a racist society, must draw the line somewhere.
We believe that the black communities of America must rise up as one man to halt the progression of a trend that leads inevitably to their total destruction.
The media framed the Panthers as invaders, Black racists, and worse. It’s likely that they will use similar tactics against revolutionary groups in this country again.
This statement, and the protest at the Capitol ran made news across the country, and spread awareness of the Black Panther Party from coast to coast. The police eventually arrested a number of those who marched into the Capitol on trumped up charges, but even these arrests could not curb the impact that the protest and statement had. The Mandate’s clear cut analysis of the situation in the U.S. and the systematic racism in this country galvanized Black folks across the country to get involved with the Panthers. New branches of the Party quickly sprouted up in major cities across the country.
Many folks were sick and tired of the non-violent approach taken by the Civil Rights Movement, and had no desire to passively let themselves be beaten down by the white supremacist capitalist power structure. They wanted to get organized and fight back.
The national media focus on the Panthers showed them that there was group out there that had taken up the spirit of Malcolm X and was serious about fighting for Black Liberation by any means necessary.
At the same time, the growth of the party, the national spotlight, and its spread to new cities brought about new contradictions. Among these was a greater effort by the U.S. government to disrupt and destroy the Panthers. This included the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), raids by police departments, frame-ups of key leaders on phony charges, and “vigilante” attacks against Panthers by pigs and members of white supremacist groups. In the next article in this series we will discuss the spread of the Black Panther Party across the country and the related challenges that they faced.