Black Panther Legacy Tour


“See the bulletholes,” David Hilliard says, pointing up to the roof line of the modest cream frame house. “This house looked like Swiss cheese, there were so many bulletholes. When the new owner remodelled it, he left three of them. And on the front steps there, that’s where Li’l Bobby Hutton died. Seventeen years old. The cops shot him nineteen times. Of course the police say like they always say - they think he’s got a gun. Bobby ain’t got no gun.”

We’re standing on a side street in West Oakland, a gritty port city of half a million people across the Bay from San Francisco. The site of an April 1968 shootout between the police and the Black Panthers, the street is now a stop on the Black Panther Legacy Tour conducted by Hilliard, a co-founder of the Party (and one of its few senior survivors), who dresses in the original Panther uniform of black beret, black T-shirt, black leather jacket and sunglasses. In their heyday the Panthers were famous for openly carrying shotguns and rifles. Today, Hilliard’s only weapon is the red-and-white megaphone he uses to lecture his audience, which this week consists of a group of mostly African-American students from Stamford University.

The group met up an hour earlier at De Fremery Park, a large grassy open space at the heart of Oakland’s black ghetto. Hilliard has spent his life in this neighbourhood. The park is where his old school friend Huey Newton recruited him for a new political movement.

“We were teenage alcoholics, all of us,” says Hilliard, as we clamber on to the students’ coach. Now in his late sixties, a grizzled veteran with a gravel voice, he remembers when “we used to hang out right here every day drinking wine. All my friends were pimps. That’s where my focus was before Huey came knocking at my door and changed my life.”

Newton’s idea was to form a kind of political street gang to confront Oakland’s notoriously racist police. After he found an obscure clause in California law that permitted individuals to carry loaded guns in public, the Panthers “patrolled the police”, showing up with their guns to monitor the police stopping or arresting people. It was a legal but revolutionary image that captured the imagination of radical young blacks and whites alike at the height of “the Sixties”.

And what about the uniform, one of the students asks? Who came up with that? “We based it on what Che Guevara wore. But the black leather jacket - a black leather jacket was cool!” Hilliard says, making the students laugh. “You know what I’m saying. Black folks ain’t even gonna look at you if you ain’t looking sharp.”

Once everyone is on board, Hilliard directs the coach driver around the broad, empty streets. On a bright February morning in 2012, the rows of neat clapboard bungalows look comfortably middle-class, but there was dead-end poverty and violence here forty years ago and plenty remains (though the demographics have changed with many blacks moving out). Gradually, it becomes clear that this is not so much a conventional tour as a virtuoso performance by Hilliard, one man and his memories.”We were just young kids who stepped up to the freedom struggle and did the best we could,” he says. “We paid a heavy price. When people talk about Martin Luther King, I remind them he had one life. They killed 27 of us. And there were all the others in exile and in prison for decades. Some of them still are.”

We pass the old family homes of Hilliard and Newton and the site of the Panthers first storefront office, now the ‘It’s All Good Bakery’. “We paid the first six months’ rent by selling copies of ‘Mao’s Little Red Book’ to kids at UC Berkeley”. Merritt College, the community college where Newton and the Party’s other co-founder, Bobby Seale, met is just up the street, and Seale’s old house opposite. The surprise is how close all the tour’s stops are to one another, street corners where local kids went from childhood games to becoming drop-outs and petty crooks (Newton was a burglar and street brawler) before they taught themselves to be revolutionaries.

“Why aren’t these places on the historic registry” Hilliard demands, his voice rising in anger. “That’s Huey Newton’s house! That’s Bobby Seale’s house! You go to Atlanta, you know Martin Luther King’s house is going to be an historic site. Why is there nothing here? Nobody gave as much blood as we did.”

Though he doesn’t say so, Hilliard knows the answer. The Black Panthers were, and remain, a highly controversial group. Hilliard’s tour emphasises their constructive activities, their 10-point political manifesto, their community programs like the free breakfast program and the free clinic they organised. But critics claim they had a criminal, violent side. As one middle-class black activist who tried to work with the Panthers said, “When you deal with a lot of street people, they always have another agenda.”

Our next stop is the scene of the April 1968 shootout. By the time that took place, Huey Newton was in jail and facing the gas chamber for killing a white cop in another shootout whose details remain obscure to this day. Helped by Eldridge Cleaver’s talent for publicity, the “Free Huey” movement turned a revolutionary splinter group, as the Panthers then were, into an international phenomenon, the undisputed stars among US black militants at the height of Black Power, and the darlings of white supporters like Jane Fonda and Leonard Bernstein whose “radical chic” was satirised by Tom Wolfe.

“Huey was still in jail when Martin Luther King was assassinated,” Hilliard recalls. “Eldridge wanted revenge for that. I said this is not cool, this is against Huey’s orders, but I was overruled. We had a convoy of twelve cars. Guns of course were in all the cars- that was the whole point. We get to the corner here and Eldridge says, I gotta urinate. Now the police come cruising by, all these fool cars are lined up, what do you think happened? Next thing you know, there’s shooting everywhere. Everybody running. I jumped in the window of a house, which was Mrs Allen’s house. She was a relative of mine so she wasn’t too surprised. She said, what’s going on? I said, Mrs Allen I have no idea. I was on my way home when all this shooting started so I jumped in here. “

Hilliard stayed trapped for an hour and a half while the police shot at the house next door where Cleaver and Hutton were hiding. The siege ended in a botched surrender that encompassed Hutton’s death, the first of many Panthers across America to die at the hands of local police departments. The FBI singled out the party as enemies of the state and ran a secret COINTELPRO campaign to subvert them. J. Edgar Hoover himself became obsessed with them, calling the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”.

“I don’t belabour this stuff because it’s so emotionally painful,” Hilliard says as we get back on the bus again. In those heady times, when the “long, hot summers” brought black rioting in major US cities and young whites were marching against the Vietnam War or turning on, tuning in and dropping out into the “counterculture”, revolutionary expectations ran high on both sides. Like most Panther defenders, Hilliard blames the decline and fall of the party on the resulting and undoubted state repression, ignoring the Panthers’ often unabashedly violent rhetoric and excusing instances where Panthers shot at cops as mistakes or indiscipline.

Newton was released from jail in 1970 (he eventually beat the murder charge following three trials and two hung juries). After that, the Panthers’ internal demons got full rein. An increasingly drug-addled and paranoid Newton fell out first with Cleaver - in exile in Algeria since the April 1968 shootout - then with Seale, Hilliard and others. By the late 1970s, the party was falling apart in a welter of fratricidal murders, extortions and brutal beatings.

We have come to the last stop - another narrow side street, another row of frame houses with steep wooden steps in front and chainlink fences. On the night of 22nd August 1989, Huey Newton, by now a 47-year-old hopeless crack addict, was shot to death on the sidewalk by a young drug dealer named Tyrone Robinson. Robinson thought killing a once-famous figure would help him become a “shot caller” for his own street gang. In effect, Robinson was Huey Newton a generation later on, except that where Newton and his fellow Panthers at least tried to turn crime into resistance and revolution, in Robinson’s world there were only drugs and gangs.

“Bam bam shot him in the head and he’s dead. Nothing more you can get out of that,” Hilliard says. “Huey died a sad and demoralised death, no doubt about it. He’d had a deal with Spike Lee to film his life story and it fell through and he went out that night to make himself feel better. That’s what drug addicts do.” To Hilliard, who was also a practising addict-alcoholic at the time, “the only reason Huey’s dead and I’m alive to tell these stories is I’d gotten sober a few months earlier.”

Back at the park, the tour over, Hilliard sells copies of his autobiography ‘This Side of Glory’ before the students depart for Stamford, leaving the rest of us to say goodbye on the kerb. We thank Hilliard and watch as he walks away across the park. Forty years ago, the same figure dressed in the same way in the same place would have had half the Oakland Police Force and the FBI on his tail. Now he’s just an old man on his way home for an afternoon nap because “doing these tours takes it out of me. One of the students today asked me how I felt. No one ever asked me that before, but how would you feel? This is not just history to me. These are people I knew. Bobby Hutton was my partner, he lived with me, I taught him, we did everything together. Huey Newton was my best friend from when we were kids. What would you say about it all?”

FACT FILE

To book a tour you need to be at least 8 people, at $25 per person, and provide your own transport. However, Hilliard tries to accommodate individuals by adding them to scheduled tours. Contact David Hilliard: davidhilliard66@gmail.com; or hpnfdn@blackpanther.org


dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014