The best argument for capital punishment is that nothing beats the certainty of being hung in the morning for focusing the mind. But I can say that when you’ve just been sentenced to one to 10 years in the California state pen, you’re only thinking about what you’ll be doing for the next 10 years. That’s what was on my mind on October 16th, 1964, as an elevator took me to a holding tank in the Alameda County Courthouse. But I had no more than put both feet into the barred room when someone tapped me on the shoulder and said:
“I know you. You’re Lenny Glaser. I heard you speak at Merritt College during the Cuban missile crisis. John Thomas told me about you. My name is Huey Newton.”
He knew me by my step-father’s name, which I used at that time. He was a trustee, he had chores to do, but we were able to spend some of the next four days discussing race and revolution.
What fate, what destiny, what chance had thrown us together at that time and place? Huey didn’t give me any details of his case, except that he was there to start 6 months on the county farm. But later research provides ample detail.
He was all of 22, the last of seven children. His later as-told-to book, Revolutionary Suicide, listed burglary and pimping among his endless youthful crimes. But his older brother, Melvin, was a social worker, and he developed himself intellectually so as to be a credit to him. Melvin had been invited to a dinner party and brought Huey along. An older man, Odell Lee, got into a discussion with him and it became an argument. Huey turned away to eat his steak. Lee, insulted, took his arm and turned him around. The ultimate street-fighter thought Lee was going for him. When Lee–s other hand dropped to his hip pocket, Huey slashed at him with the steak-knife.
Simultaneous reading and roistering had turned Huey into a jail-house lawyer. He defended himself at trial, arguing that, as a ghetto youth, he thought he was about to be attacked with a knife, and that therefore he was defending himself when he slashed Lee. He was found guilty of felony assault with a deadly weapon. His family hired a lawyer, who got him a ‘good’ sentence of three years, with 2 1/2 years on probation after the county time.
The October 1962 Cuban missile crisis had found us hard leftists ready. A street corner rally on the 23rd easily convinced politically interested University of California students that the Soviets obviously sent them there to defend Cuba from the US, which had organized the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of the island. No one was plotting to nuke the US. On the 24th we decided to sent speakers to Merritt to capitalize, if you will permit the word, on the interest we knew would be there. I was automatically chosen to go with Brian Shannon of the Young Socialist Alliance, Avacha, a popular Black Jewess, and John Thomas, a Black Maoist from the Progressive Labor Party.
I was then in my youthful glory, with friend and foe alike seeing me as Berkeley’s reigning ‘outside agitator’ street corner orator. The campus never heard anyone like me before. I became a history buff at age seven, and, as a radical of 10 years standing, I really did know a lot about America and the world’s sins and crimes. At 25, I was no older than a lot of grad students at Cal. But I had been ‘soap-boxing’ since I was 16. I started in Manhattan’s Union Square, in its last years as the equivalent of London’s Hyde Park. There is no better training for speech-making than facing an audience of know-it-all hecklers. Whenever I spoke, dozens to hundreds of students would stop to listen, depending on what issues I was dealing with.
Merritt had a racially mixed student body. We attracted about 300 youths, black, white, right and left. Huey and Bobby Seale, later co-founders of the Black Panther Party, came to the rally as supporters of Don Warden, a capitalist Black nationalist. As the best orator, I was allowed lots of time to beat down the white rightists. I knew I won the argument but, as I didn’t return to the school, I didn–t know that we had picked up strength there.
Coming out of capitalist Black nationalism, Huey gravitated to Thomas. Ultimately John went mad and had to be institutionalized, but before that he pulled Huey completely loose from Warden. Maoism, with its slogan, ‘political power comes out of the barrel of a gun,’ naturally appealed to the new revolutionary zealots. But the future founder of the Black Panthers (in 1966) was still far too much the nationalist for PL to recruit him to their racially integrated organization.
How did I get locked up? Let Judge Richard Sims of California’s Court of Appeals tell you, in a March 3, 1966 letter to the head of the parole board:
“Re: Leonard B. Glaser …. He was convicted…on March 27, 1964 of possession of marijuana, and … was granted probation. On October 5, 1964 a petition was filed to revoke his probation because he had been creating a disturbance at the University of California and interfered with an officer in the performance of his duties. The hearing was held and it appeared that he was present at Sproul Hall on February 30th (September 30th–LB), and around a police automobile on the campus on October 1st. Subsequently he was involved in some demonstration on October 12th in San Francisco in connection with the arrest of a picket.
The whole record reflects that he is what is superficially termed a “beatnik” type. He admittedly had experimented with the use of dangerous drugs and marijuana but there is nothing to show that he is an addict or purveyor…. The case has persistently bothered me … because, although I do not agree with the defendant’s social and economic views, I do not think he is a felon.”
One night in July 1963, a friend offered me a joint. After smoking it, I put the roach, as we called the butt, in my pocket. Then we tried his new favorite, a legal cough medicine called Romillar, which then contained Dextromethophan Hydro-Bromide. If you took enough it made you quite high.
Forgetting that he had built up to it, my buddy gave me his dose. It hit me with a wack, and I decided to go home. After walking three blocks In my intoxicated state, I realized that I could get into an accident. I sat down on a bus bench. My friend and another pal found me and tried to convince me to go with them. Suddenly a cop car pulled up. As the cop couldn’t smell alcohol, he took me to a Berkeley hospital. A doctor told him I was on Romillar. He left me with the cop while he went out of the room to sign papers to send me to the county hospital. The cop called his sargent to the Berkeley hospital. They searched and found the roach, no bigger than the width of my thumbnail. I woke up in jail, arrested for felony marijuana possession.
My family put up money for a lawyer. Charles Garry, later the lawyer for the Panthers, and then for Jim Jones of the mass suicide at Jonestown, defended me at a preliminary hearing. He did well, but I was held for trial. My folks wanted me to plead guilty, so no more cash was forthcoming, and I defended myself. A jury found me guilty. Sims’ letter gives the legal basics of why I was there for our rendezvous. The campus demos were the 1st actions of the Free Speech Movement, a central event of the American 60s, and the University sent a representative to demand that my probation be revoked. This will be discussed somewhat below, but now we return to Huey.
If you find a noose around your neck, getting it off is the most important thing in the world. Thus the priority for Americas Blacks had to be their own liberation. That inevitably made nationalists out of much of the community. Trotskyists particularly saw militant nationalism as progressive because it meant a break with the Black Democrats, who talked the equality talk, but rarely organized the equality walk.
But we also had international priorities, first defense of Cuba, then getting the GIs out of Vietnam. And we knew that agitation in progressive unions was the only way to mobilize substantial numbers of black workers for the civil rights and anti-war movements. So while Huey and I instantly saw each other as comrades, and our discussion was remarkably relaxed, given our intense personalities and our circumstances, it was soon obvious to me that we had our differences, which I now know stemmed from his lumpen-bohemian existence produced by his personal pathology.
There is no doubt that he learned from me at Merritt, less so in the holding tank. I told Huey that he had to do his Black thing and our common American revolutionary thing. “I’ll stick to being Black, but good bye comrade,” he said with a smile and a handshake as they came to take me to Vacaville.
I rejoiced in Blacks freeing themselves under their own leadership. Nevertheless, I remembered Charlie Mingus’s dismissal of ethnicity, in 1963, at Tim Leary’s home in Newton in greater Boston. As he had come to Boston for a civil rights concert, and I was involved in the struggle on both coasts, we got to talking about racism, Malcolm X, and civil rights. He had no time for nationalism. “People think the white race and the black race are their teams. Those are the colors of their jerseys.” In context, he meant that, whatever the masses thought, everybody did their individual thing.
I had also heard Malcolm at Berkeley on October 11, 1963. After the outdoor talk, I went up close to him to catch the post-speech informal chatter. Two Iranian students I knew approached him. One said “Mister X, we agree with most of your speech. But we are from a Muslim country and we know the Koran and Islam. There is nothing in Islam about color or race.” Malcolm stared at him for about a minute, but didn’t say a word in defense of the Black Muslims’ racist version of Islam, complete with a story about a mad Black scientist who invented mighty Whitey, until his academic handlers led him away.
These two experiences made me see the wisdom in the proverb, ‘tho I give you my gun, I keep my good right eye.’ I was for Black nationalism insofar as it moved people away from the system. But I could see that, even tho it acts as an exit for the Black masses from acceptance of the system, it provides no scientific methodology for fully understanding their enemy, much less defeating it.
I could see that Huey was 1st a Black liberationist, then an internationalist. He was simply too new at revolution to grasp that it meant more than zeal for Black liberation. But if we differed over nationalism in the few hours we were able to talk, nevertheless nothing he said gave me reason to doubt that he would, over time, become a Marxist. On the other hand, nothing he later did–as he rose like a missile, from total obscurity to world-wide attention, or as he fell back to earth and his drug-deal death–came as a shock, given his inability to put internationalism at the epicenter of his radicalism.
Like many a freshly minted radical, he thought he knew more than he knew. Later the Panthers decided that, given the circumstances of Black existence, the unemployed and hustlers, the lumpen, the rag-proletariat, not the workers, would be the motor force of Black liberation. That only served to point them even further away from the unionized Black workers.
Additionally, the Maoist slogan they relished, “political power comes out of a gun,” stands things on their head. Marx read Karl von Clausewitz and accepted his major dictums. For the great military theorist, “war is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means.” And, like the general, Marx understood that the defense in any struggle has the advantage because public opinion instinctually supports defenders against aggressors.
In any more or less democratic society, revolutionaries must be electorally oriented. We must always be seen as defending the people’s rights and always preferring peaceful means to get them. The public must be convinced that it is the ruling class that is utilizing force, its police and/or military apparatus, against the movement. We want the public to focus on the system’s violence, not ours.
Certainly Blacks had the duty to resist Klan and police violence. But the key to success in ending legal segregation was the mobilization of the broad masses in peaceful demonstrations. This is why Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were the central figures of the civil rights struggle, not Malcolm or Huey.
Freudian psychoanalysis also gives us some insight into Huey. In Revolutionary Suicide he describes himself as a school-child:
“We were not taught to fight by our parents, although my father …. told us never to start a fight, but once in it to stand fast until the end …. I remember my reaction to Little Black Sambo. Sambo was, first of all, a coward. When confronted by the tigers, he gave up the presents from his father without a struggle–first the umbrella, then the beautiful crimson, felt-lined shoes, everything until he had nothing left. And afterward, Sambo wanted only to eat pancakes.”
Adult Huey told us this in a denunciation of racist children’s tales. Go past that to this wonderful kid reaction: Ain’t no tiger livin’ ever gonna take nothin’ from this black panther. He explained why he had to beat up every kid on the block:
“Huey P. Newton became Huey ‘pee’ Newton, and when a rhyme came at me like ‘Huey P. goes wee, wee, wee,’ I started throwing hands until it stopped.”
Truely, the boy is father to the man, in this singular case the founder of the Black Panther Party? Huey took its name from the emblem of Alabama’s Loundes County Freedom Organization. That was his unconscious preferring its fierce symbol to its prosaic name. The Oedipal complex is about how a boy age 3-6 unconsciously wants to castrate his father, the rival for his mother. Its a fight the child can’t win. So the boy then fantasizes that his big foe is going to castrate him unless he ‘listens to daddy,’ i. e, internalizes the father’s values, in this case the demand to defend himself to the end. The other kids’ Huey “pee” jibes magnified his infantile penis anxiety but also gave him the way to overcome it: Fight the imagined threat.
Years later, that’s what made him say that “all the way through school,” meaning college, “my baby face made people think I was younger than I was. I resented being treated like a baby, and to show them I was as ‘bad’ as they were, I would fight at the drop of a hat. As soon as I saw a dude rearing up, I struck him before he struck me.” That’s what made him slash Odell Lee, who meant him no harm.
His book tells how he got thrown into solitary in the Courthouse, in the county jail at Santa Rita, later yet in prison at San Luis Obispo. Sometimes it was for fighting the system for good reasons, sometimes out of unbridled aggression against the system converting itself into monkish self-torture in solitary, sometime it was for fighting other cons. He made an unreal, or should we say, very revealing charge about the guys in San Luis Obispo:
“(V)ery important, 80 per cent of the prisoners were homosexual, and homosexuals are docile and subservient; they tend to obey prison regulations….As a matter of fact, many guards were themselves homosexuals.”
Too be sure, there were a few flaming swishes, and a goodly number of young gunsels fucked them in the absence of women. That hardly qualifies them as being gay. And most of the ol’ timey bank robbers and murderers were stone heterosexuals. As homosexuality was illegal, I abstained because the authorities would use charges of it to hold me longer in the joint. But I saw that, aside from a sprinkling of lovers’ quarrels getting violent, which happens everywhere, homosexuality was a live and let live part of our circumstances, rather than a deadening negative. And Huey’s 100% fantasy about gay guards would be of more interest to psychiatrists than political scientists, but for the fact that he became a central Black figure of the 60s and 70s.
As I’ve done time in all three, I can assure you that, while none of those ‘joints’ were user-friendly, he was more their problem than they were his. The 1st thing 99 out of 100 cons learn is how to stay out of the hole. He unconsc iously projected his natural homosexuality onto his fellows, then won his superego’s approval by reacting violently to them, i. e., to his own repressed homosexuality.
The racism of that day’s America turned his private pathology towards nationalist resistance. Another aspect of that America brought me and Thomas and Marxism to his school. Later yet the flaws in his radicalism, due to his ferocious character, propelled him out of politics. Given his unconscious wiring, Huey was destined to die violently, in 1989, over crack, not for a political reason, as he said he would, in Revolutionary Suicide.
Because he was the 1st person to speak to me after my sentence, I could never forget his 1st words. And because of his “baby face,” as handsome as any movie star’s, and his lithe body, I can never forget, and never want to forget, that perfect black panther, whatever his faults.
In any case, the UCB administrators thought they threw me out of the civil rights battle. How could they possibly know that they threw this bunny back into the political briar patch, where, by chance, he landed on history’s baddest tar baby?
Frequently, there are interesting tidbits that spinoff from a meeting with historic figures. You get one now as the fit end to my Huey episode. On the 4th day in the Oakland tank, I was taken downstairs for the ride to the penitentiary. At one point on the road to Vacaville, the northern entry into California–s penal system, the driver and another cop left me for few minutes in the locked prison car, handcuffed, sitting in back, along side a big older country Black, with emerald green eyes.
He had been in the next tank. He couldn’t see us, but could hear, or thought he could hear, some of our discussion. When he recognized my voice he proclaimed that “Some guy has been telling Black people what to think. A buddy of mine was in there with him, and when he gets to the joint, and points him out, I’m going to wup his ass good.”
I kept my mouth shut, ready defend myself when he came at me. Two days later, I ran into him and his friend. I guess his pal explained to ol’ green eyes that Huey and I were having a friendly rap, because he said nothing. Anyway, there I was, A86455 stamped into my prison shoes, doing 10.
LENNI BRENNER is editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis, and a contributor to CounterPunch’s new book The Politics of Anti-Semitism (AK Press). Brenner will be one of the featured speakers, along with Alex Cockburn and Jeffrey Blankfort, at the CounterPunch forum on the book in Berkeley on October 19. He can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com.