Breakfast With Chairman Bobby: Local Panther History Revisited

The once controversial, much criminally prosecuted, and often violently repressed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense has achieved belated respectability fifty-one years after its birth in Oakland, CA.

New books, films, and commemorative conferences have provided its founding generation with a 21st century platform for cross-generational exchanges and burnishing of personal and political legacies (some much contested).

Nobody has been more active on the Panther nostalgia circuit than Bobby Seale, the author of two books about the Party and a popular collection of barbecue recipes. The avuncular 81-year old African-American community elder returned to Richmond, CA, for two Black History Month events, more than five decades after assisting young people in this East Bay city as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Gone was the black leather jacket and Panther beret of Seale’s militant youth; instead, our garrulous guest sported the brown corduroy jacket, blue oxford shirt, and neatly-knotted tie of a retired college lecturer.

Seale (aka “Chairman Bobby”) co-founded the BPP in 1966, along with his Merritt College classmate Huey P. Newton. The U.S. air force veteran and former aerospace worker became a Sixties’ icon in his own right and one of the era’s most famous political prisoners.

While enduring a four-year jail term for contempt of court, imposed by the infamous Judge Julius Hoffman during the 1969 trial of anti-war protestors known as “the Chicago Eight,” Seale also faced federal prosecution for alleged complicity in the murder of a New Haven, CT. Panther member suspected of being a police informant.

The jury deadlocked in that case and charges against Seale were eventually dropped. Two years after his release from jail, the Panther leader  embraced electoral politics. As chronicled in Stanley Nelson’s 2015 documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Seale ran a surprisingly strongly race against the incumbent mayor of Oakland, finishing second in a field of nine candidates.

In 1974, Seale left the BPP, after falling-out with the increasingly dictatorial and unhinged Huey Newton. The party was, by then, a shadow of its former self due to state repression, police infiltration, internal factionalism, and a deeply destructive leadership cult. Its explosive growth in the late Sixties, from a handful of Bay Area members to 5,000 in nearly fifty chapters around the country, became an increasingly distant memory. By Seale’s count, in 1969 alone, 28 Panther supporters died and 69 were wounded in police raids and ambushes. He estimates that 12 police officers died during these same confrontations.

Richmond Roots

Chairman Bobby’s Richmond homecoming had a carefully staged symmetry, a bit redolent with historical irony. His first audience of the day was residents of the Pullman Point Apartments, where a Chevron-funded philanthropy called For Richmond, has organized a modern-day children’s breakfast program and other much needed services As mothers, grandmothers, and children (young and older) gathered for an early morning repast, Seale tried to set the record straight about himself and the Panthers.

“A lot of people think I was just some guy out on the street with guns,” he said, recalling a long list of enemies, like California Governor Ronald Reagan and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who denounced him as a thug, hooligan, or national security threat. Rebutting those characterizations, Seale described the Party’s focus on “realistic, practical programs” that fed children before school, provided free medical care, and sought police accountability. Panther organizing in East Bay communities was designed, he said, “to unite the people and get them registered to vote.”

The Party registered hundreds of new voters to insure that African-Americans could sign petitions, vote on ballot measures, and serve on what were then often all-white juries. In four cities—Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley—the BPP gathered signatures to trigger a citywide vote on “community control of the police.” The Party newspaper also proposed that predominantly black North Richmond become an independent city so its residents could “control their own school system, and have the power to tax businesses in the area, like Standard Oil,” the city’s largest employer (known today as Chevron).

Under the Panthers’ plan for civilian oversight, elected police review boards would investigate officer-involved shootings, reports of unnecessary force, and other allegations of official misconduct. Then and now, such probes tend to be handled by internal affairs units or local prosecutors with close police department ties. Only in Berkeley did this cutting edge scheme make it onto the ballot.

In Richmond, it took another forty-seven years for the city to refashion its under-resourced Police Commission into a more pro-active Citizens Police Review Commission. This appointed body is now required to investigate every officer-involved civilian fatality or serious injury (that results in hospitalization for more than three days), even without a triggering complaint.  It’s currently in the process of hiring a professional investigator, who can subpoena officers and question them under oath. As part of on-going RPD reform, internal affairs probes are now conducted by a civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability. It’s located within city hall rather than the department, a rare arrangement in America today.

Open Carry, Sixties-Style

As Seale recalled last week, the BPP’s first local organizing in Richmond involved policing complaints. Denzil Dowell, a twenty-two-year-old North Richmond construction worker, was fatally shot by a deputy sheriff who believed he was a burglary suspect. In a sequence of events still familiar in major US cities half a century later, Dowell’s death was soon found to be “justifiable homicide.”

Seale knew the victim’s family, from his prior work in the neighborhood. “I believe the police murdered my son,” his mother told him. Seizing the time, the Panthers organized a protest rally attended by four hundred North Richmond residents and signed up many as new members. Fifteen BPP activists stood guard in their signature black berets and leather jackets. They were armed with twelve-gauge shotguns, M1 rifles, and assorted hand guns.

This dramatic display of what today would be called “open carry” got the attention of state legislators in Sacramento. A bill to restrict public

gun-toting (still legal at the time) was hurriedly introduced. During a now-famous lobbying visit to the State Capitol in May, 1967, the Panthers were packing again when they protested this new form of gun control. Seale and his comrades were arrested but made national headlines with the dramatic form of political theater first premiered in the East Bay.

In its Richmond heyday, the BPP fed twenty-five to forty-five kids a day in a lower-budget breakfast program not funded by Big Oil.  Panther volunteers did testing, door-to-door, for sickle cell anemia and hypertension. They gave away hundreds of free shoes to people in need an also started a “liberation school” that held classes on Saturdays, because, as Panther archivist Bill Jennings recalls, “African American history was just not taught in Contra Costa County public schools. Although it emphasized black empowerment, Seale described the BPP as a “populist movement” committed to “crossing all racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

As a multi-racial progressive movement has gained city hall influence in Richmond, Panther history has won official recognition. In 2009, our visitor noted, the city council expressed its gratitude to “Mr. Seale, his organization, and all the Black Panthers who…emerged from Richmond to activate, unite, organize, educate, mobilize, rally and increase awareness and hope for a better future for all the residents of our city.”

That local appreciation was expressed again in person by the crowd of 350, which gave Seale a standing ovation after his hour-long speech at a second Black History Month event sponsored by For Richmond. Chairman Bobby opened his talk with the observation that it’s “time once again to struggle and stand up for what you believe in.” He concluded, as expected, with the famous Panther salute, “Power to the People!” But, in between, he reminded his listeners that “the methodology of grassroots community organizing” remains the key to gaining political power in Richmond or any other place else where it hasn’t been well shared in the past.

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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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