Date: Mon, 25 Jan 1999 22:46:56 -0600 (CST)
Black Panthers Push Community Plans
By Michelle Locke, Associated Press, Sunday, January 24, 1999; 12:21 p.m. EST
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Thirty years ago, David Hilliard walked the streets of West Oakland with a black leather jacket on his back and an M-1 carbine in his hands.
These days, the former Black Panther chief of staff makes the trip as a candidate for City Council -- no gun in his grip, less hair on his head, but the same rallying cry:
Power to the people.
"This is the beginning of trying to really restructure and to rebuild another movement," he says.
Hilliard is part of a political flashback of sorts. His campaign is being managed by Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale and was inspired by the comeback of another '70s icon, governor-turned-mayor Jerry Brown.
But Hilliard says the old Black Panther goals of better housing and schools are still relevant.
"I want to resurrect our dreams," he says.
For Hilliard, the dream began as a young man growing up in down-at-the-heels neighborhoods in West Oakland.
"This is where we started," he says while leading a bus tour through streets lined with shabby Victorians.
Stop No. 12 on the Black Panther Legacy Tour is the street corner where Bobby Hutton was fatally shot by police in April 1968 after a protracted gun battle.
Stop No. 11 is the church where the Black Panthers began serving free breakfasts to poor children.
Raising his voice above the engine's rumble, Hilliard says both sites are key to understanding "probably the most misunderstood organization in the history of the civil rights movement. You know about our imagery and about the guns ... but you don't know about the (community) programs."
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by Seale and Huey Newton, who met as students at Oakland's Merritt Junior College and were working at a city anti-poverty center.
Seale, joining Hilliard at the microphone for the bus tour, remembers hatching the party's founding manifesto, the Ten Point Program, late one night. Seale pecked out the program at a typewriter while Newton burrowed through law books for the court ruling the party would later use as the legal basis for shadowing Oakland police.
The anti-poverty center, now home to the Ebony Lady Salon, overlooks another party landmark, an intersection where the Panthers demanded a signal light to help schoolchildren cross -- and instigated armed traffic patrols to speed up city response.
For Seale and Hilliard, the tour provides bittersweet remembrances of things past.
Seale recalls cooking up pots of chili for the young revolutionaries. "I was not only the chairman of the Black Panther Party -- I was the cook of the Black Panther Party," he says.
He confesses with a grin that the Panthers, who paid the rent by selling Mao Tse-Tung's Little Red Book at a sizable mark-up, sold thousands of copies "before we actually read the book."
"Stop right along here," Seale orders the bus driver halfway down one block when he recognizes the site of a long-ago confrontation with police. Pulled over by a cruiser, Newton refused to surrender his gun on grounds he had a constitutional right to carry an unconcealed weapon.
"The cop is getting ready to pull his gun and Huey says, 'If you pull it out, I'll blow your brains out,"' Seale says, his raspy voice holding listeners spellbound. "The people are coming out on the steps. Some little old lady comes out and says, `Don't y'all shoot the police.' I said, `Ma'am, we ain't gonna shoot him as long as he don't draw his gun."'
That incident ended peacefully. But bloodier confrontations took the lives of police and Panthers.
Emily Stoper, a 30-year Oakland resident and political science professor at California State University-Hayward, remembers the early days as "scary parading with guns." But she later worked with Panthers on "very moderate kinds of coalition politics."
Hilliard says community service was always on the Panther agenda, with the breakfast programs growing to encompass clothing, medical care and testing for sickle cell anemia. He describes the guns as a violent reaction to violent times.
"When America grew up, so did the Panthers," he says.
The Black Panther Party collapsed in the late 1970s, brought down by deaths, defections and infighting. Newton was shot to death in 1989 by a young drug dealer.
Stop No. 15 is the sidewalk where Newton fell, marked by the stylized outline of a fallen body and the faded word "pig" -- a slogan blaming police for Newton's death.
"Huey Newton was not murdered by the pigs," Hilliard says bluntly. "Huey Newton was killed by a drug dealer.
"You got to understand, he was a sick man. He had a disease and that disease is called drug addiction," says Hilliard, who has fought his own addictions. Now a trim 56, Hilliard says he hasn't touched booze for 12 years.
When he announced for council, Hilliard said the Panthers laid the foundation for a liberal like Brown to win in Oakland and joked, "Jerry is talking like a Panther these days." Brown says it's too early to endorse anyone for the 2000 City Council election.
But Hilliard has at least one political veteran on his side with Seale, who ran for Oakland mayor in 1973 and has worked for former Panther Bobby Rush, a congressman running for Chicago mayor this year.
Stoper thinks the political climate may be right for revisiting some of the racial and social issues first raised in the angry '60s.
"Race seems to go on and off the political agenda in this country," she says. "When it's off, people forget about it and they don't discuss issues and there isn't much effective dialogue so you get a kind of buildup of misunderstanding.
"It may come on the agenda for a while now. In some ways there'll be more irritation, but there'll also be more understanding."
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press