The art of Emory Douglas: Reinterpreting the History and the Legacy of the Black Panther Party
The Black Panther Party’s Repression in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago
As the party increasingly became an internationalist organization, its repression enhanced. The year 1969 represented the climax of such extreme attempts to defeat the Black Panther Party, coincidental with Republican Richard M. Nixon’s presidency. The latter took, in fact, almost a personal interest in the government’s prosecution and surveillance of the BPP.
In Los Angeles, the FBI employed the new anti─riot squad, called Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), to mine the headquarters of the Panthers. But the most invasive attack on the the BPP was the use of the COINTELPRO against the organization: its aim was that of exacerbating the already hostile relationship between the BPP and another nationalist group, called the United Slave (US), lead by Ron Karenga. The conflict between the US and the BPP can be traced back to a war over political influence in southern California.
The BPP had, in fact, opened a chapter of the party in Los Angeles which was quickly gathering adhesion among young black people. Karenga was the leader of the Los Angeles chapter ofthe African nationalist organization: the latter was based upon the promotion of black history and culture but it offered no fundamental criticism of the America’s economic system.
The US leader had studied African anthropology and had achieved fluency in Arabic and Kiswahili. He thought that the lack of political agency on the part of Black people in America was due to cultural deficiencies. For this reason, he pushed his philosophy to the reclamation of the African identity and cultural reconstruction. To this end, US members adopted the philosophy, religion and ideology of Kawaida␀–translated as “total way of life” which consisted of returning to the African roots and cultural habits.
The group preached what Newton called Cultural␀Nationalism, a rhetoric that he believed to be more interested in personal profit than in political revolution, and that he opposed to a Revolutionary␀Nationalism. According to the latter theory, to prevent racial and political iniquities to take place, capitalism should be wiped out and its defeat could occur only through socialism. Newton took issue with Karenga’s idea of reaching political freedom by means of the advocacy of the African culture and thought that such an approach was wrong.
The clash between the two organizations was, then, mainly ideological and consisted of two different ways of producing the revolution. COINTELPRO manipulated such antagonism and exacerbated it. Violence had started in 1969, when Oakland headquarters initiated to get rid of part of its membership, to increase the political education for its members and to focus on community’s services. On 29 December 1969 the FBI office of Los Angeles informed the Bureau that it was planning to send a letter, as if written by the US members, to the BPP asserting that the US organization was aware of the panther’s complot against its leader. On 17 January 1969 two members of the BPP of the Los Angeles chapter, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins, were murdered by US members. An involvement of the FBI is very likely, as a black informer testified that the murderers were infiltrators of the investigative organization. Furthermore, according to another testimony, the FBI provided Ron Karenga and his organization money, weapons and drugs in order to further fuel the clash with the BPP.
21 Panthers of the New York City chapter of the party, led by the enigmatic chief David Hilliard, were instead attacked through a mass trial that accused them of conspiracy and of terrorism. The conspiracies they were charged with ─ which consisted in attacks on specific institutions or on the big large malls, the symbol of the capitalistic era ─ were two: “the January conspiracy” and “the Easter conspiracy”. According to the witnesses – who were, moreover, FBI’s infiltrators – for the first attack the Panthers had planned to use dynamite against the Board of Education of Queens and some police stations, while for the second one, the targets were the police district 42 and five big malls. The infiltrator, Gene Roberts, who was the main witness during the whole trial, had to admit that none of the planned terroristic actions had been carried out and that during the days preceding the supposed attacks nobody had even talked about it.
All the 21 Panthers were, then, acquitted. After the trial, though, all 21 Panthers were expelled by Newton because they had signed an “open letter” addressed to the Weatherman group – a faction of the Students for a Democratic Society whose goal was to create a clandestine revolutionary party for the overthrow of the US government – where they criticized the Oakland leadership for failing to support the underground organization. Besides, just after the letter appeared, two panthers of the above mentioned group jumped bail and fled to Algeria to join the International Section, led by Eldrigde Cleaver. Not being present at the trial, the two Panthers made the party lose $150,000 in bail money raised by the supporters of the organization. Meanwhile, the New York headquarters had been subdued and the party was declining nationwide.
The attack to the Chicago headquarters of the party was, probably, the most ferocious of all: the measures adopted by the FBI aimed at damaging the charismatic leader, Fred Hampton. First of all, the COINTELPRO used the powerful black gang, called the Blackstone Rangers, against Hampton and all the Panthers of Chicago. But the latter strategy was not as successful as expected. The FBI then resorted to a more direct form of attack and on 4 December 1969 14 policemen, in plain clothes, broke into a little flat hired by the BPP with a search warrant for illegal detention of guns. In a few minutes, Fred Hampton, head of the panthers of Chicago and Mark Clark, chief of the BPP of Peoria, were killed. Two policemen were injured. The other Panthers who were in the same flat where the two leaders were killed, were arrested and charged with several accuses, attempted murder included.
According to a public statement of the district attorney, the policemen had been attacked by the panthers before they could explain the reason of their raid. They had then answered with fire just for self─defense, the attorney explained, so justifying the murders.
The version of the facts provided soon aroused suspects among Afro─Americans, who went to the assaulted flat to see what had happened with their own eyes. People found the mattress where Hampton slept completely blood─drenched. This suggested that the black leader had been killed while sleeping, in his bed. The doubts pushed the Attorney General to charge a Federal Grant Jury with the investigation of the real facts. The results proved that the Panthers had not been involved in the shootout, but the proofs were not enough to accuse the police of an illegal behavior. An independent commission was then nominated from the Chicago courthouse to investigate the case, on behalf of some Afro─American organizations, this time.
Once the results were published, most part of the whole story was clearer: what was certain was that most of the bullets had been shot by the policemen from the outside or inside the apartment and only one was shot by one of the panther; so the task of the raid was that of killing the BPP's members. Mark Clark had barely got up from his bed when he was shot, while Hampton was killed in his sleep. Furthermore, the latter not only was shot in his bed but had also been drugged, probably by an infiltrator, as Hampton’s rejection of drugs was well─known. As late as 1973 the truth was revealed and the role of FBI and its infiltrator was known. By then, thanks to the investigation of the Commission of Inquiry into the Black Panthers and Law Enforcement Official, it was clear that a governmental conspiracy had deprived the Panthers' of their civil rights.
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