Huey P. Newton was born on February 17, 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana. In 1945 his family settled in Oakland, California, where the boy was raised. During his youth, Newton fought frequently; in classrooms he fought with schoolteachers who tried to impose discipline on him, and on the streets he fought with other youngsters to establish a reputation for toughness. He fought, in part, because of derogatory chants that his peers made up from the initial of his middle name (“Huey P. goes wee, wee, wee”), and because of insults centering around his baby-faced good looks. Tongue-tied, with a high-pitched voice that would accompany him into manhood, Newton was not skilled at “capping”—the ghetto ritual of verbal duels. (“Motorcycle, motorcycle, going so fast / You momma’s got a pu**y like a bulldog’s ass.”) Rather, violence was the language with which he grew up feeling most comfortable.
As a teenager and into his twenties, Newton worked as a pimp, strong-armed the weak, pulled off armed robberies, and ran short-change scams. He burglarized homes in the Berkeley hills and commonly loitered near the emergency entrances of hospitals, where he stole valuables from the cars of people rushing in on desperate errands. Later on, Newton discovered a rationale for what had always come to him naturally, when, in his desultory reading, he came across a phrase from the French socialist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: “Property is theft.” The corollary, very much a Sixties construct, followed easily for Newton: “I felt that white people were criminals because they plundered the world…. To take what the white criminals called theirs gave me a feeling of real freedom.”
Sporadically attending Oakland’s Merritt College between crime sprees, Newton took a law course to help him become a more efficient thief. (His proudest hour came when he got sixteen counts of burglary dismissed at a single pretrial hearing.) Newton had inchoate political yearnings and joined the Merritt College Afro-American Association in 1964. At a party one night, he got into an argument with a black man named Odell Lee over an issue involving cultural nationalism. When Lee tugged at Newton’s arm in what he interpreted as a threatening gesture, Newton snatched a steak knife off a nearby table and stabbed Lee in the head. At his trial, Newton’s defense was that Lee had a scar on his face that identified him, to someone who (like Newton) had grown up in the ghetto, as a knife fighter. The fact that the jury did not know this, said Newton, meant that he was not being judged by his peers, and that his conviction and sentence to six months in prison was therefore unconstitutional.
When Newton was paroled in 1965, an increasingly apocalyptic atmosphere had begun to envelope American life. Malcolm X had recently been killed, a ghetto insurrection had occurred in Watts, the Free Speech Movement had erupted at the University of California, and Berkeley’s first large-scale demonstration against the war in Vietnam had spilled over into Oakland.
Returning to Merritt College, Newton linked up with Bobby Seale, whom he had met earlier and who was also interested in the prospects for a more doctrinaire black radicalism that took its cue from Malcolm X.
During this period, Newton read the writings of Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong. Most influentially, he read a book called Negroes with Guns, by Robert Williams, a former president of the NAACP in North Carolina, who had been indicted on kidnapping charges after advocating that blacks arm themselves and had fled the country to continue promoting his ideas from Cuba, China, and Tanzania.
Moreover, Newton was impressed by what he had heard about a Lowndes County, Mississippi group that called itself the Black Panther Party, and by the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana. In the spring of 1966, he amalgamated those names and started what he called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The following year, he would shorten the name to the Black Panther Party (BPP).
To define BPP’s mission, Newton wrote a ten-point program which stated, among other things, that:
A chief BPP priority was to harass police officers under the mask of a “political” program. The “self defense” part of that program involved Panther members appearing in public places heavily armed, as a means of standing up defiantly to “police brutality” and America’s allegedly racist power structure. This—coupled with BPP’s anti-police (“pig”) rhetoric—caught the political fancy of Sixties radicals who considered themselves to be at war with the United States and were beginning to flirt with “revolutionary violence.”
To be sure, Newton was engaging in veritable warfare against the police rather than merely “defending the people” against them. As BPP member Eldridge Cleaver told Reason magazine years later (in 1986): “We [Panthers] would go out and ambush cops, but if we got caught we would blame it on them and claim innocence.”
Whenever possible, Newton and his BPP actively sought out opportunities to spark confrontations with police. On February 21, 1967, for instance, Newton provided an armed escort for Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, during a Bay Area speaking engagement. When newsmen tried to get closer to Shabazz than the Panthers wished to allow, police tried to enforce order with their nightsticks. In response, Newton and the other Panthers loaded shells into their shotguns. After a tense standoff of several minutes, both sides backed off. Newton, however, gloated that the Panthers had “won” as a result of their “superior firepower.” The incident propelled Newton and the Panthers to national prominence.
On May 2, 1967, some thirty BPP members, armed with rifles and shotguns, marched into the California State Assembly in Sacramento to protest an arms-control bill that was under consideration for Oakland. Though Newton was not among the intruders, the incident brought him and BPP still more publicity.
Embracing the notion of international working-class unity that transcended barriers of color and gender, Newton and BPP allied themselves with various minority and white revolutionary groups. Throughout this process, the Panthers viewed themselves as the vanguard of the revolution.
In October 1967, Newton shot and killed Oakland police officer John Frey. The facts of the case were beyond dispute: Newton was present at the scene of the crime (and had threatened to kill a policeman in the past), the physical and forensic evidence was compelling, and there was even a black eyewitness to the shooting. But Newton’s attorney, Charles Garry, alleged that because the American justice system, from the police through the courts, was thoroughly infested with racism, it would be impossible for a young black man like Newton to get a fair trial anywhere in the country. “The system,” Garry claimed, was responsible for putting so many innocent black males in jeopardy.
During the period of Newton’s trial, BPP formed a coalition with the Peace and Freedom Party, which was composed mostly of young whites who opposed the Vietnam War. Out of this coalition, the “Free Huey” movement was created by leftists sympathetic to Newton’s effort to fight back against a satanic United States. “Free Huey!” became as characteristic a slogan of the Movement as “Bring the Troops Home.”
Newton, meanwhile, underwent an apotheosis. He became, in Eldridge Cleaver’s phrase, “the baddest motherfu**er who ever set foot inside history.” He was the archetypal black fighter in an era on the edge of race war, and his icon was a famous poster showing him sitting on a rattan throne with a menacing scowl on his face, holding a Zulu shield in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Newton’s legend then grew as if by metastasis after he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 2-15 years in prison. In May 1970, the California Appellate Court reversed the conviction (on grounds that the judge had erred by not giving jurors the option of convicting Newton of involuntary manslaughter) and ordered a new trial. After two subsequent trials resulted in hung juries, the Alameda County Superior Court dismissed the charges against Newton, and he returned to Oakland.
During the two-plus years that Newton was incarcerated, hundreds of new recruits joined the Black Panther Party, many responding to no deeper political message than the Panthers’ most famous slogan, “Off the Pig.” New BPP chapters were established all over the United States; many of them—like those in Chicago and Los Angeles—were the result of ghetto street gangs enrolling en bloc. BPP’s leader in Newton’s absence was Eldridge Cleaver, who viewed the Panthers as something akin to the Algerian FLN, an organization capable of sparking and spearheading an armed revolution. It was no longer enough to merely display weapons; under Cleaver’s militarism, it was necessary to use them.
By this time, BPP was positioned solidly at the epicenter of the the Sixties radical movement. In 1969 the Students for a Democratic Society—the leading New Left organization of its time—declared the Panthers to be “the vanguard of the black revolution.” With great admiration, Tom Hayden, the New Left’s Everyman, proclaimed them “America’s Vietcong”—i.e., likening the Panthers to the Communist guerrillas who were killing U.S. forces in Southeast Asia—in what he believed was the coming civil war that would engulf the nation. Newton’s (and the Panthers’) contention that blacks constituted an “internal colony” in America and could only be liberated by armed revolution, became standard rhetoric for the Left.
Encouraged by the enthusiastic support they received from white New Leftists, the Panthers embarked on a course of grim urban warfare against police forces across the country. As Newton lamented to intimates later, the results were all too predictable, as the element of “superior firepower” now belonged wholly to the other side.
But radical myth-makers tried to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat, portraying the Panthers killed in the conflict as not merely dead, but as victims of “genocide.” Thus, in 1969, Newton attorney Charles Garry claimed that 31 (or 29 or 28, depending on what day he was being interviewed) Panthers had been “assassinated” by law-enforcement authorities in the preceding two years. It was true that approximately that many Panthers had indeed been killed, but as Edward Epstein later showed in an incisive New Yorker article, almost all of them had died in the course of criminal activities or in conflicts with other black militants. Of those Panthers who did die at the hands of police, all had provoked the shootouts.
The tenuousness of BPP martyrdom was seen even in the most celebrated claim of innocent victimhood—the death of Chicago Panther Fred Hampton. Garry and the others charged that Hampton had been wantonly murdered in his sleep as part of a police-FBI conspiracy. It was true that he was killed in a crossfire of bullets while sleeping off a drug binge. But it was also true that when the police knocked on the door of the apartment, which also functioned as a storage facility for all manner of Panther weaponry, they were greeted by a blast from Panther Mark Clark’s shotgun, which initiated the shootout.
Notwithstanding these facts, Garry’s assertions were given credibility by the establishment press, which by this time had ceased to maintain a critical distance from the radical worldview. The appeal of Newton and the Panthers spread from the New Left into the pop culture itself as they gained the support of personalities as various as Marlon Brando, Jean Genet, and Yale president Kingman Brewster, and were invited to fundraisers such as the famous get-together at Leonard Bernstein’s Manhattan townhouse.
When Newton returned to Oakland after his two-year stay in prison, he found Panther leadership decimated — despite the many new recruits the organization had gained. Cleaver, for one, had fled to Cuba and then to Algeria in 1968 to avoid a trial on charges stemming from a shootout with Oakland police. And Bobby Seale was under indictment in New Haven, Connecticut for the torture-murder of a Panther named Alex Rackley, who was falsely believed to be an informer.
Newton also discovered, to his delight, that his myth had grown to almost unmanageable proportions during the time he was in prison; many locals now viewed him as a sort of demigod. “It was amazing,” Newton later said of those first days back on the streets. “If I had a piece of bubble gum in my mouth and started to blow a bubble, two or three people would come running up and say that it was the biggest bubble they’d ever seen in their lives.”
Immediately upon hitting the streets again, Newton made some grandstand gestures to reinforce his reputation as “the baddest,” such as offering to send a contingent of Panther volunteers to help the North Vietnamese in their struggle against the United States. But his attention was more focused on the internecine struggle within his party itself.
Two days after Newton’s release, Jonathan Jackson was scheduled to take hostages at a Marin County courthouse in an operation designed to win freedom for his older brother, the celebrated prisoner-revolutionary George Jackson. Cleaver had promised Panther assistance for the operation from his command post abroad, but Newton regarded the operation as suicidal and withdrew from it. Jonathan Jackson was killed by law authorities in the abortive courthouse raid, and some radicals blamed Newton.
In 1971 Newton traveled to China and met the Premier, Chou En-Lai. When he returned to the U.S., he ordered all BPP chapters across the country to close their offices and consolidate their efforts by relocating to Oakland. He revamped the organization, saying it was time to “put away the gun” and, quoting Mao, to “serve the people.” When Newton denounced “the military option” and equated it with “infantile leftism,” some who had long supported him wondered if he had been “turned” in prison. Yet for most, it was clear that Newton’s “moderation” was: (a) primarily a way of regaining control over his party from Cleaver and his henchmen, whose actions had brought down the wrath of the power structure on the organization and forced the Panthers to spend much of the small fortune they had gathered in Newton’s absence on bail; and (b) a concession to Newton’s realization that the Sixties radical movement was in decline and would not culminate in revolution.
Significant conflict was ignited when Newton expelled militants like Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a Cleaver supporter who ran BPP’s Los Angeles chapter, and announced that the Panthers would now concentrate on “survival programs” that would remake the Oakland ghetto. A struggle with the Cleaverites ensued, resembling a turf war of the mob. Sam Napier, a Newton loyalist and the publisher of the Black Panther Party paper, was killed in New York, his body doused in gasoline and set on fire. In retribution, Geronimo Pratt’s pregnant wife was stabbed and killed in Los Angeles. It was a development that both shocked and thrilled the Left, which self-aggrandizingly compared the bloody conflict to the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky.
A whole literature would later be created by New Left veterans, claiming that such things happened because Newton and the Panthers had been driven mad by the FBI and its COINTELPRO surveillance and dirty tricks. In fact, a mountain of diggings from the Freedom of Information Act files produced only a molehill of evidence to sustain the assertion. It was true that the FBI was on the case and attempted to exacerbate the tension between Cleaver’s “international” faction and Newton through a series of letters that were inflammatory fabrications. Yet it was also true that these were rather mild and ineffectual gestures given the threat the Panthers represented—348 arrests for murder, armed robbery, rape, and burglary in 1969 alone. When FBI agents saw what violent people they were dealing with—saw in particular that the Panthers would kill each other and rival blacks virtually without compunction—they had second thoughts. Division Five of the FBI rejected the idea of putting forged papers of accusation in one Panther’s car, for instance, because “It could result in a Panther murder of one of their [own] leaders.”
As part of their new emphasis on “serv[ing] the people,” the Panthers initiated a “Free Breakfasts for Children” program in a number of U.S. cities. Notably, these “free breakfasts” were not merely charitable, but also political, endeavors. The serving of meals was often accompanied by question-and-answer recitation drills for the young recipients, drills that characterized the police as “pigs,” and described “the capitalists” as “the pigs who control the country” and “steal from the poor.”
In 1974, Newton enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz to complete the education that had been interrupted ten years earlier by the stabbing incident at Merritt College. Lax requirements—part of the “alternative” educational philosophy of the campus—made his passage through college considerably easier. Indeed, Newton was known to hand in research papers that varied so dramatically in terms of their style and quality, that they unquestionably had been written by someone other than himself. And on those comparatively infrequent occasions when he actually attended his classes, Newton would commonly arrive in a limousine, donning a white pimp suit and slouch hat, surrounded by bodyguards and women attired like prostitutes—a spectacle that, according to one of his professors, both embarrassed and frightened onlookers on campus. Newton eventually graduated, but his degree was widely perceived to be a “courtesy” BA.
During his student days at UC Santa Cruz, Newton was invited to lead a seminar on racism at Yale along with famed psychiatrist Erik Erikson (the proceedings were later published in book form). When Newton’s autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide—largely written by Santa Cruz sociologist Herman Blake—was published in 1973, a lengthy New York Times review by Murray Kempton showed how seriously this aspect of Newton’s persona was taken. “Here is the only visible American who has managed to arrive at the Platonic conception of himself,” wrote Kempton, who then compared Newton to Gandhi and Martin Luther.
Fueled by new financial contributions which such praise made possible, the “survival programs” that Newton had established in Oakland began to flourish. In addition to the aforementioned Free Breakfasts for Children program, for instance, there was also the George Jackson Free Medical Clinic and the Oakland Community Learning Center (the flagship of the new BPP strategy). A $150,000 former church complex in the East Oakland ghetto, this Community Learning Center featured a six-grade elementary school replete with a black headmistress and little black children in uniforms. Some observers were bothered by the regimentation and the propaganda in the teaching. But for most, it was a worthy model of black self-help. Aided by radical educational theorists such as Herbert Kohl, the school credentialed instructors through the UC-affiliated “University Without Walls.” It featured a jazz band and an orchestra funded by the United Air Lines Foundation and an assortment of community-service programs.
“Each One Teach One” was the new Panther slogan. The Party no longer seemed to believe that power grew out of the barrel of a gun, but rather, that it grew from community organizing, which had been an emphasis of white radicals before an apocalyptic note entered the New Left (at least partly because of Newton himself) in the mid-Sixties. An indication of what the new Panthers were all about was Bobby Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland in 1973. Seale lost, but he gave the city’s white power structure an electoral scare and seemed to point the way to a new black politics that might remake the city.
Meanwhile, however, the erratic, almost megalomaniacal, quality that had begun to manifest itself in Newton since his release from prison, grew more pronounced. For example, he began carrying a swagger stick and insisting on being called “Servant,” a shortened version of the new title he had taken, “Supreme Servant of the People.” He consumed large quantities of cocaine and drank Courvoisier by the bottle. And he told the architect designing the new building for the Panther school that he wanted a bunker-like office in the center.
That particular decision was comprehensible only in terms of another agenda, foreshadowed by the fact that Newton was now surrounding himself with a praetorian guard he called “The Squad”—individuals such as a taciturn six-foot-eight-inch, four-hundred-pound former criminal named Robert Heard, who accompanied Newton everywhere, and a black gunslinger named Larry Henson. These men formed the foundation of a new criminal enterprise.
Their criminal activity began with a boycott of black-owned liquor stores, which Newton accused of having “exploited the people.” The boycott had to be enforced, often by force, and it was only a short step from this to extorting protection money. And once that money flowed, it was another short step to strong-arming after-hours clubs, the pimps with their stables of prostitutes, and the dope dealers who worked the ghetto. During the space of a few months, there were several unsolved murders that Newton was said to be involved in. The two most notable victims were the Ward brothers, reputed to be the most powerful pimps in the Bay Area. Afterward, BPP took over the operation of Jimmy Ward’s Lamppost, an Oakland bar and hangout that was owned by a family survivor.
Even while launching the Panther school and “survival programs,” in other words, Newton was conceiving a parallel strategy to take over the vice in Oakland. “At first he presented this as the ‘mass line,'” remembers a Panther who eventually fled because of the criminal activity. “His position was [that] you couldn’t really stop evils in the black community, but you could at least control them, make them ‘serve the people.’ That was the mass line, but there was a bottom line too—he just liked doing it. It was in his nature.”
By 1974, the fault lines in Newton’s character had begun to open up in jagged fissures. During the day, when he was with the whites who had set up the school, Newton was all intellectuality—he spoke about Plato’s Republic and Hegel and Marx. Later, by contrast, he took on his after-dark identity, getting into his sleek Mark IV with members of The Squad and hitting the streets of the Oakland ghetto. Dressed in a cape and fedora and twirling a cane, he was ready once again to be “the baddest motherfu**er who ever set foot inside history.” He beat people up, often while his bodyguards held them. He had his henchmen draw their weapons and block the exits of bars while he engaged in Castroite rants about politics or began to chant, “I am the Supreme Servant! I am the Supreme Servant!”
It was bizarre behavior. One of the things it seemed intended to destroy was the myth of revolutionary sanctity that had come to weigh heavily on him. There was a desire to plumb his own depths, not just privately but in front of his supporters. Either this, or a desire to rub their noses in his reality. Newton told one Panther, for instance, that he had indeed killed John Prey. He could not have admitted this to his white supporters, for whom his innocence in the Prey affair was a cornerstone of belief. But even with them he sometimes tried to reveal his hidden surfaces. “You know,” he once said to a white radical who was raising money for the school, “I swore to myself that if I couldn’t make it as a revolutionary I would make it as a bank robber.” The white tried to deny the possibility. “No,” Huey answered, “there are things about me you don’t know.” There was a look in his eye that invited further inquiry, but the radical turned down the invitation.
Newton estimated that the Panthers had raised over $7 million for their school from white liberals and leftists in the period 1967-1974. The Oakland political power structure was likewise ready to deal with the Panthers after Bobby Seale’s campaign for mayor, and to make large city grants to the school. The state was ready as well. But Newton was no longer interested in incremental steps toward the revolution; he was interested only in his gangster life.
By 1974, Newton’s violence capriciously turned inward, toward enforcing Party “discipline.” There were public humiliations, beatings, and tortures inflicted on BPP members whose commitment to the Supreme Servant was suspect. One of his many female lovers in the Party, Elaine Brown, would later reveal that one of Newton’s preferred methods of punishing errant members was stomping: “The floor was rumbling, as though a platoon of pneumatic drills were breaking through its foundation. Blood was everywhere. [The victim’s] face disappeared.”
Many of the Panther rank-and-file who had been selflessly involved in the school and the self-help programs became frightened by the spectacle of Newton’s violence and slipped away. Even Bobby Seale was not immune. Jealous of the celebrity Seale had achieved during the mayoralty campaign, Newton began to denigrate him publicly, and then, in one traumatic outburst, he beat him up as members of The Squad stood by. Seale promptly left town in the middle of the night with none of his belongings, so terrified that he went into hiding and did not surface for almost a year—and then as far from Oakland as he could get on the East Coast.
Newton had now fully inhabited the unrestrained, unhinged persona that had always fascinated him—beyond logic and freed from moral considerations by what he saw as the sinfulness of the society into which he had been born. One Rockefeller heiress who had made a large donation to the Panther school was invited to Newton’s penthouse headquarters, where Newton told her that before dedicating himself to “serve the people” he had pursued salvation in sex, making love seven times in one day, but had quit, as he said, because “I didn’t find salvation, I only skinned my penis.”
But in fact, he had now resumed the quest, holding alcohol-and-drug-fueled orgies in the inner sanctum of his apartment, compulsively womanizing among Party cadres as well as Party groupies white and black, despite the evident pain these episodes caused his wife, Gwen. When he was clean and sober he talked to white supporters about the difficulties of “holding it all together.” They assumed that he was talking about the enterprise of the organization. But in fact he was talking about the enterprise of the self.
On June 30, 1974, Newton got into an argument with two off-duty plainclothes policemen in an Oakland bar called The Fox. Unable to carry a gun because of the conditions of his parole, Newton screamed at the massive Robert Heard, “Shoot the motherfu**ers!” Heard started to go for his briefcase, but the officers drew their weapons and took it from him, finding a loaded .38 and $1,000 in cash inside.
Six days later, Newton, high on cocaine, was cruising the streets of Oakland with Heard when a seventeen-year-old prostitute named Kathleen Smith called out, “Hey, baby,” from a street corner. Instructing Heard to stop the car, Newton jumped out, pulled a silver pistol from his shirt, and shot the girl in the jaw. Then he drove to Marin, stopping on the San Rafael Bridge to drop his gun into the bay. He hid out briefly at the Zen Center in Marin before going to film producer Bert Schneider’s house in Hollywood, where he spent days snorting cocaine, issuing commands for someone to “get me some pussy,” and stating with a mixture of anguish and bemusement that this was the first nonpolitical murder he had ever committed.
As Kathleen Smith hovered between life and death in a coma that prevented her from making identifications, Newton came back to Oakland. Not long after having shot the young prostitute, who ultimately died of her gunshot wound, Newton summoned his tailor, a middle-aged black named Preston Callins, to his Lakeshore apartment for a fitting. Callins showed Newton some fabric, and Newton, chugging Courvoisier, became abusive. Callins said, “Oh, baby, don’t feel that way.” As the tailor told police later on, Newton, at that moment, jumped up and said, “Nobody calls me no damn baby,” and began pistol-whipping him with a .357 magnum. By the time Callins managed to escape from the apartment, he had four depressed skull fractures requiring neurosurgery.
Shortly after Callins reported this incident to law enforcement, police officers raided Newton’s apartment to investigate and found a gun. Being a convicted felon with a weapon was a technicality that would later haunt Newton in a way that more serious charges would not. At this point, Newton took off for Cuba (where he would remain for approximately 3 years) via Mexico, with the help of his Hollywood coterie. Charles Garry told a news conference that Newton had fled because some local pimps had put out a contract on him. For confirmation, Garry played a portion a phone conversation in which Oakland police chief Charles Gain had warned Newton about the plot. It was a revealing alibi, exposing the falsity of Garry’s previous claims that the police had set out systematically to destroy Newton. But the recorded call was even more revealing in what it concealed through editing. Garry’s implication was that the pimps wanted to get rid of Newton because he was cleaning up their act; actually it was because he was muscling in on it.
Newton’s absence gave the Party some breathing space. There was still enough momentum from the survival programs, especially the school, to give the Panthers cachet. Elaine Brown—smart, articulate, ambitious, ruthless, and fiercely loyal to Newton—became BPP’s chairman. Over the next two and a half years, Brown followed the path suggested by the “Seale for Mayor” campaign and turned the Panthers into a significant power in Oakland through electoral politics. The organization was instrumental in the campaigns of Lionel Wilson, the city’s first black mayor (who joined the board of the Panther school after his election), and John George, the county’s first black supervisor.
Brown herself ran for city council in 1976 and came close to being elected. Following her defeat, she was appointed to Oakland’s Economic Development Council, where she took her seat beside the heads of the city’s largest corporations. While continuing to maintain the Panthers’ radical credentials by periodically denouncing the “COINTELPRO repression,” she joined forces with Governor Jerry Brown’s administration in Sacramento, going to the 1976 Democratic National Convention as a (Jerry) Brown delegate, and used the clout which this association gave her to increase the Panther role in local politics.
It all might have worked out if it had not been for Newton, who was never happy in Cuba. Trained as a plumber, he was less interested in working than in running the Black Panther Party through almost daily phone calls to Elaine Brown.
In 1974 came a monumental turning point in BPP history. A 42-year-old white woman named Betty Van Patter, who had recently been hired to keep the financial books for the Panther Learning Center, found some irregularities in those books and informed Brown. Van Patter was unaware that the Panthers were in fact using the Learning Center as a vehicle by which to embezzle millions of dollars in California education funds. Nor did she know that the Center also served as the pretext for a Panther shakedown operation of “after-hours” clubs whose owners were required to “donate” weekly sums, on pain of death if they refused. On Newton’s orders, Brown oversaw the Panthers’ kidnap (on December 13, 1974), rape, and murder of Mrs. Van Patter. On January 13, 1975, the victim’s corpse, with the head caved in, was found floating in San Francisco Bay.
Newton returned to the United States in the spring of 1977. Though he knew he would have to face charges for the killing of Kathleen Smith, he was optimistic about his chances for acquittal. Indeed, he was well aware that the aftershocks of Watergate had put the FBI on the defensive and would lend credibility to defense attorney Charles Garry’s propaganda vis a vis America’s allegedly racist justice system. When he arrived in the U.S., Newton was given a hero’s welcome by the local Left.
But instead of dealing with his problems in the courts, Newton tried to settle them in the streets. A little more than a month after his return to Oakland, a Panther hit squad attempted to kill Crystal Gray, a prostitute who had witnessed the murder of Kathleen Smith. It was a botched operation, one Panther gunman dying from a bullet wound in the process. But it was big news in the Bay Area, marking the first time that a portrait of the Panthers as a gangster operation made a convincing appearance in the papers.
Soon thereafter, Elaine Brown left town, having been beaten by Newton after he resolved a conflict between her and bodyguard Larry Henson in the latter’s favor. (Brown would not return to Oakland until Newton was safely dead.)
Late in 1978, a bizarre story surfaced about a thirty-year-old black woman, the mother of three, who had been standing at a street-corner phone booth when a Cadillac pulled up and Newton’s immense bodyguard got out and forced her into the back seat of the car at gunpoint. According to the woman, Newton then opened her blouse and began kissing her breasts. When the woman tried to push him away, he grabbed her arm and put out a cigarette on her flesh. Then, after forcing her to fondle him, he pulled down her slacks and performed cunnilingus on her for several minutes. Afterward, Newton rifled her purse and took her money before telling Heard to pull over and let her out. He threatened to kill the woman if she went to the police, and then drove off.
In 1978 Newton enrolled in the UC Santa Cruz “History of Consciousness” program, which was created especially for him by historian Page Smith. Well known for his disdain of graduate education, Smith regarded Newton’s presence in the program as an opportunity to prove its irrelevance. A Santa Cruz professor who watched the subsequent charade carries the enduring memory of Newton sitting in a lecture class given for him alone, with his wife, Gwen, filing her fingernails and his immense bodyguard, Robert Heard, half asleep.
Professor Smith was impressed, however, with Newton’s primal myth. (“He taught himself to read in prison using Plato as a text,” Smith later told a journalist. “That was a kind of marvelous symbolic event, in that Plato marks the transition from a pre-literate to a literate culture, so it almost was as though Newton was picking up on that and that for him had some kind of symbolic significance in terms of breaking out of his illiteracy into literacy.”) Smith’s rhapsodic vision of Newton captured precisely what Newton and the Panthers had indeed been for the Left in their glory days: noble savages.
Smith encouraged Newton to write a thesis on the FBI’s “war” against the Panthers. Newton complied, producing a thin dissertation titled War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America. With this political tract, depicting the Panthers as victims of government persecution, Newton received a Ph.D. in 1980 and thereafter encouraged people to address him as “Dr. Newton.”
Before long, however, an Oakland Tribune series by reporters Pearl Stewart and Lance Williams documented the misappropriation of city grants to the Panther school as living expenses for Newton’s bodyguards Heard and Henson. (After the story appeared, Stewart’s car was fire-bombed.)
Even more damaging, a white supporter, guilt-ridden over the death of Betty Van Patter, disclosed the existence of the Panthers’ still-secret Squad to journalist Kate Coleman, who wrote a devastating feature called “The Party’s Over” for the magazine New Times. When the story appeared, Coleman went into hiding in Japan, but her revelations helped finish the Panthers’ career as a vanguard of the Left.
But they did not finish Newton himself. Even after all the mayhem had been reported, California’s liberal superintendent of education, Wilson Riles, authorized grants to the Panther school totaling $600,000, and radical Berkeley state assemblyman Tom Bates arranged for Newton to receive a Citizen’s Award in Sacramento. With the aid of top-flight legal counsel paid for by Bert Schneider, Newton’s two trials for killing the prostitute ended in hung juries before being dropped by the prosecution.
Moreover, Newton managed to pay off Preston Callins, thus persuading the tailor to recant the statement he had given police immediately after his beating.
But Newton did not escape entirely. He was convicted of possessing the illegal gun that police had found in his apartment after the 1974 Callins beating. He then turned to the appeals process in the hope that he could beat it, but even as he did so he began to have the sense— after five trials for murder in which he had largely beaten the rap—that he had become ensnared finally in the network of deceit he had created.
In 1980 Newton hired for the Panther school a new principal, who quickly discovered that Newton was embezzling its funds to pay for his bodyguards. When the principal took his story to the authorities, the machinery of the legal process was cranked up once again. This time prosecutors were sure they could get Newton. There would be no witnesses to intimidate or buy off, and there was a paper trail that could not be erased or discredited.
Newton was now a man without a party. The school, which had been his best fundraising device, closed its doors. As Newton’s legal troubles consumed more and more of his life, the Party members who had believed in the survival programs disappeared one by one. Even big Bob Heard left after serving six months in jail on a gun charge that Newton had incurred but for which Heard was made to take the fall. Soon there were no Panthers left—just Newton, his wife Gwen, and Larry Henson, the last member of the Squad.
Then Gwen left him, taking off without warning and resurfacing in Chicago as the wife of a building contractor. This was the biggest blow of all. She had been a rock of support for Newton for over a decade, pulling up her roots and following his fugitive course to Cuba, taking the hits with him, bearing his abusive moods, nursing him through the dryouts, and watching the painful crumbling of the edifice he had built. For months after her departure, the physical signs of Newton’s devastation were impossible to conceal. He began to spend more and more time in the seedy underside of West Oakland, where he had spent his youth. He turned to crack, which would cost him even the ability to plan new schemes.
Bob Trivers, a UC Santa Cruz instructor who had befriended Newton, watched the fall. He watched Newton, a heavy cocaine user for the past decade, go on drug binges that became ever-longer and more destructive. He watched him go through periods of “cleaning out” from drugs and alcohol that involved self-discipline and fasting for weeks, ordeals that became increasingly difficult for him. It seemed that Newton realized that his life was behind him now.
There were times when Newton seemed struck by remorse. Trivers was with him once when one of the women who were constantly after him showed up late at night at his home and Newton, after slapping her and getting rid of her, remarked reflectively, “You know, I’ve killed more men than women.” Beneath the flippant comment was an invitation to explore the object of the prostitute Kathleen Smith. Trivers said something about her. Newton looked at him and noted, “You’re like a white lawyer friend of mine. He thinks I did it but forgives me anyhow.” They talked delicately about the subject until Newton seemed to rule it out of bounds: “Look, the statute of limitations on murder never runs out.”
In the spring of 1987, Newton was convicted of the 1974 gun-possession charge and was sent to Jamestown Prison Camp for a year. When he got out, there were periodic reports that he was “getting it together.” He said that he was going to run for mayor of Oakland. He claimed that he was working with Richard Pryor on a film of his life. But the schemes were built to fall through. He was chronically broke. The law was always catching up with him on some charge, nickeling and diming him to death. He was arrested several times on drunk-driving charges and put on probation. Parole conditions related to the weapons charge allowed the police to search him or his car or his apartment without a warrant. His hired gun, Larry Henson, became more crucial than ever as his violent prosthetic. But when Newton was finally unable to come up with money, Henson left him too.
Bert Schneider’s estate in Hollywood was one of the few remaining places where Newton got to feel important, as he had in the past. Yet even here he seemed out of joint. On one visit in 1988, Schneider’s secretary was working in an office on the property when Newton wandered in, completely naked and obviously coked up, his eyes glazed and his face mottled from debauch. Barely acknowledging the startled woman’s presence, Newton rambled incoherently for several minutes about life’s unfairness. Then he suddenly paused and shook his head, almost as if coming to. “What I keep wondering,” he said, looking at the secretary as if for the first time, “is why somebody hasn’t put a bullet into my head yet.”
The gears of the legal system continued to grind. In June 1988, Newton was ordered to face trial on charges of embezzling the money earmarked for the Panther school. A month later, on July 12, he was rejailed for six weeks for using drugs and driving under the influence, violations of his parole. Six months after that, he was arrested and sent to San Quentin for six months after being found in a motel with a hooker named Roxanne Raspberry, basing rock cocaine. While in San Quentin, Newton pleaded no contest on one count of embezzling funds from the school and was ordered to pay restitution.
When Newton got out of prison, early in 1989, he hit the streets again. Some people pitied him, but he did not pity himself. He said to one friend, “I’m glad I don’t have an organization. I like being a lone entity.”
Bob Trivers, who spent time with Newton during this period, remembers an experience that for him was pure fear but for Newton the stuff of life. Recalls Trivers:
“We went into a part of Oakland that didn’t have paved streets. It was the sort of neighborhood where a white boy like myself wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds. We got to this crack house. Huey got a little bit of stuff, but didn’t have any money. The dealer reached behind a washing machine and pulled out a gun and stuck it into his belt. The argument got louder and louder. Huey wasn’t scared, but the guy with the gun was, and that scared me.”
Chronically out of money, Newton spent his last days stalking dope, either cadging it or, when that failed, “jacking” the small-time dealers awed by his reputation. (“Don’t you know who I am? I’m Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party!”) He talked constantly about death, which he called the “Big Boss.”
On August 22, 1989, a destitute, perpetually stoned Newton was murdered by a black drug dealer whom he had failed to pay. As his body was laid to rest amid eulogies by Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale, and others who had conspired with Newton and learned to fear him, the 2,000 or so Bay Area radicals and Oakland blacks who had come to mourn him shouted, “Huey Is Free!”
NOTE: Most of this profile is excerpted and adapted from “Baddest: The Life and Times of Huey P. Newton” (Chapter 5 of Destructive Generation, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, 1989.)
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