In the spring of 1968 a small, motivated group of African Americans active in the Garfield High School and University of Washington black student unions connected with the fledgling Black Panther Party while attending the funeral of Bobby Hutton in Oakland, California.
The young, unarmed BPP member was tear gassed and shot to death by police. Having traveled south to San Francisco State University for the second annual West Coast Black Student Union Conference, the Seattleites changed their plans when they learned about the memorial services for Hutton.
A week later party co-founder Bobby Seale was in Seattle helping set up the first chapter of the BPP outside of California. Within the first month after opening their headquarters on 34th Avenue and Union Street more than 300 black men and women had joined the party.
Now, nearly 37 years later, Seale is coming back to Seattle to participate in the first regional Black Panther Party forum and reunion on May 13-14 at Seattle University and Garfield Community Center.
"The Black Panther Party was necessary then, and organizing factors are necessary now," asserted former Seattle Chapter BPP lieutenant of information Ron Johnson, who joined in 1974. Johnson, along with his fellow BPP members Aaron Dixon and Leon 'Valentine' Hobbs, are spearheading the activist-driven Seattle reunion. "We're just trying to instill in the young people the principles we lived by then. It wasn't black-on-black violence and poor people against poor people. We had principles of unity, bringing people together."
Power to the people
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s moved against racist and oppressive federal and state-supported laws, and the momentum helped launch the politically progressive social and environmental movements of the 1960s, especially in the major cities along the West Coast. In Seattle, the BPP members wasted little time in addressing the serious issues of poverty, hunger, and police brutality that were rippling through their Emerald City neighborhoods at the time.
Wearing their distinguished and street-savvy black leather jackets over powder- blue shirts topped off with black berets, the Seattle Panthers organized armed patrols of their communities as well as the police force. This strong, public assertion of their right to arm themselves was, for the most part, portrayed as a negative social element in the media, both then and now.
"Schools and the majority of the media do not teach youth about the party's survival programs," Johnson noted. "The only thing they hear about is that we wielded guns and we brought about terror in the community. That's a projection the system has imparted about us. We figure it's only right that we give historical context and give definition [during the reunion and forum] to what really went on so the youth can have both sides of the story."
While the guns had a tendency to nab a lot of dirty-laundry headlines, they did serve a purpose. During the late 1960s, black students at Rainier Beach High School suffered attacks and threats at the hands and mouths of the white students, but the school's staff had refused to intervene.
In the winter of 1968, 13 armed BPP members entered Rainier Beach High to protect the black students. During the action there were 30-40 police in front of the school.
This militant side eventually made a positive impact on the way the community and its officers interacted with the local African American population. Unprovoked, racist threats and applications of force, some of it deadly, began to subside.
"I'm not going to lie to you and tell you we weren't scared. They were trying to kill us, and we had people that were dying, but we were not going to allow them to just kill us and not do anything about it," recalled Dixon, who noted that more than 35 BPP members were killed before the party ceased to exist in 1978. "We wanted to defend ourselves. The weapons were just tools for us to survive and to teach people that they did have a right to defend themselves."
In today's post-9/11 Dixon feels a different approach toward gaining political and social power is now needed. Ultimately it was one of the philosophy's lying at the heart of the late 1960s to early 1970s armed patrols.
"The guns are not something that's needed now because we're so outgunned," stated Dixon. "Technologically there's no way that we could stand up, and I don't think it's about that anyway. We used to say that the spirit of the people is stronger than the man's technology."
Johnson and Dixon assert the militant nature was only one part of the BPP. In Seattle, and across the nation, the BPP launched a series of grassroots "survival programs" aimed at feeding the needy, providing healthcare, offering free legal aid, and mounting literacy and political studies classes for their membership. For example, in 1969 the BPP established the first free breakfast program for school children while opening the first free medical clinic in the northwest that same year. Initially named after Sidney Miller, the clinic was later rededicated as the Carolyn Downs Medical Clinic, which is still in operation today.
"The thing is we had a can-do mentality. We received a political education. We understood what our direction was. We we're can-do," said Hobbs, Seattle's BPP medical clinic coordinator. "We loved each other. We loved our community, and we always said, can-do. When we said we wanted to feed 200 kids at a particular church in the morning, can-do! It will get done.
"We were a black political organization for the black community, but we banded with all races of people. We fought for all races of people."
Public enemy No. 1
Strong, proud, and effective, the BPP garnered the attention of J. Edgar Hoover's notoriously nefarious FBI. Coordinated, illegal pressure was levied against the BPP under the fed's extensive and covert COINTELPRO operations. These FBI counterintelligence programs were designed to neutralize domestic political dissidents through various means of infiltration into anti-war movements and political organizations such as the Black Panther Party.
"The forces which are most anxious to weaken our internal security are not always easy to identify," Hoover asserted at the time of his agency's domestic subterfuge. "They utilize cleverly camouflaged movements, such as peace groups and civil rights groups to achieve their sinister purposes ... It is important to learn to know the enemies of the American way of life."
From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, COINTELPRO was broadly targeting radical political organizations, including the BPP. During this time period the FBI conducted more than 2,000 COINTELPRO operations before being officially discontinued in the early 1970s.
"There was a lot of attrition that took place," Dixon remembered. "Every time an office got raided, somebody got to thinking, 'maybe I'm not ready to die,' and people would leave."
During the summer of 1968, the Seattle office suffered such a raid. Dixon was arrested for possession of a stolen typewriter, a police action that resulted in a three-day riot. Four years later, after Dixon and Hobbs moved to the party's central headquarters in Oakland, California, cheap rock-cocaine hit the streets in massive quantities. Many attribute this upswing in the underground drug market to various COINTELPRO operations.
"I can remember. It was raining cocaine," asserted Dixon, who noted that prior to 1972 cocaine was used as a social drug snorted primarily by the rich and affluent. "[The feds] had a psychological profile on our leadership. Through COINTELPRO they devised ways to pit organizations against organizations, leaders in the party against leaders in the party, and the influx of cocaine into the community. All of these things attributed to the demise of the party."
Each one, teach one
"The reason why we're having this event is to pass on and share," Dixon said. "Because of the abrupt way that we ended, we were not able to pass on [our knowledge] to younger people."
Dixon, Johnson, and Hobbs say the upcoming regional BPP conference, which covers the party's historical Oregon and Washington districts, is being watched by BPP alumni across the nation. The trio feels one of the primary reasons for this attention stems from the fact that they've made it a priority to engage the local community, especially the youth.
"[Our principles] might be put toward another situation, another form of struggle,"Johnson observed . "The same things that we did to deal with hunger can be used now. The same things we did to deal with a lack of housing can be used now. We see these same problems rising up today."
With the economy grinding along under the burden of two active wars and a national debt racked up to historically high levels, the similarities between today's climate and the politically charged times of nearly 40 years ago bear eerie similarities.
"What's interesting is, in 1968 and 1969, we created these survival programs because all the money was being drained for the war in Vietnam, which is the same thing now," Dixon observed. "All the money that should be going to our communities is going to the war in Iraq. It's the same scenario."[[In-content Ad]]