Oakland is the birth place of what is arguably the largest revolutionary organization in the United States during the second half of the 20th century: The Black Panther Party (BPP). Within two years of their formation the Black Panthers grew to 5,000 active members and 31 chapters across the country. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover labeled them as “the biggest threat to internal security in the US.” Eventually the Panthers would become one of the primary targets of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and were disintegrated by counter-insurgency attacks.
In October of 1966, Oakland City College (now Merritt College) students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale decided to form a new revolutionary organization after gaining experience in Black Power political organizing in the Revolutionary Action Movement and the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center. Originally named The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the Panthers were concerned with countering the para-military style presence of the Oakland Police Department within Black neighborhoods as well as lifting these neighborhoods out of extreme poverty. Newton and Seale wrote the founding document and manifesto of the BPP, their Ten Point Program.
The original Panthers were well versed in their legal rights and made it a point to assert them, most notably in the form of unconcealed shotguns and other firearms while patrolling their neighborhoods and during political rallies. In one of their most notorious actions a delegation of about 30 armed Panthers entered the state capital building in Sacramento on May 2, 1967 in order to demonstrate their opposition to the Mulford Act which made it illegal to carry guns in public, a measure taken to counter the popularity of the Black Panther’s neighborhood patrols.
On April 6, 1968, the OPD attempted to pull over some of the founding members of the BPP while driving in Oakland. Amongst them was Lil’ Bobby Hutton, who joined the BPP at 16, making him the youngest member of the organization. Another panther, Eldrige Cleaver, and Lil’ Bobby Hutton escaped into a nearby basement while more than 50 pigs rained bullets into the building. After teargas was launched into the house both Cleaver and Hutton came out into the police floodlights. Pigs shot Lil’ Bobby twelve times even though he had taken his shirt off to show that he was unarmed. This execution took place the day before a scheduled rally in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had also been shot a few days earlier. Regardless, the MLK memorial took place at De Fremery Park in West Oakland, which was renamed Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park.
The BPP emphasized autonomy for their community and implemented programs for survival while working towards revolution. Perhaps the most popular of these was their Oakland Free Breakfast Program. According to BPP member David Hillard, “The breakfast program provided a free, hot, and nutritionally balanced breakfast for any child who attended the program.”
By 1969 there were hundreds of BPP breakfast programs around the country. A top government official was forced to admit, “The Panthers are feeding more kids than we are.” They also distributed free food, published a newspaper, and operated clinics where diseases and illnesses that were primarily present in the Black community were tested for and treated.
The BPP quickly spread across the US with chapters stretching from Atlanta to Chicago, from Dallas to Memphis; bringing to the Black Power movement an organizational structure. The politics of the BPP changed as the organization grew: initially an explicitly Black nationalist group the Panthers started to move closer to revolutionary socialism while forming cross-racial alliances. Pig departments responded to the threat of Panthers with deadly force such as the execution of Fred Hampton, 21, who was gunned down while sleeping in his Chicago home. The FBI used COINTELPRO to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.” Decades later it was revealed that the conflicts which led to the fractionalization of the Panthers were fueled by people working for the FBI. The BPP ultimately disintegrated under the covert yet steady hammer of COINTELPRO as members became careless and paranoid, fled the US to seek political asylum in other countries, and waged sectarian wars against each other.
Today the legacy of the Panthers is still very much alive, especially among Black communities and the radical Left in Oakland. There are still political prisoners including radical Panther journalist on death row, Mumia Abu-Jamal; two of the Angola 3 Prisoners, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace—still in solitary confinement after being kept in isola- tion for 36 years in Louisiana. Most recently, cases were filed against eight Black community activists, some of whom were Panthers, for the shooting of a police officer in San Francisco in 1971. After more than four years of a legal battle, all charges against them were dropped in August 2011.
Unfortunately the strong legacy of the Panthers has also had a demobilizing effect in Oakland where many ex-Panthers have joined non-profits, ran for political office or started commercial enterprises using their previous revolutionary careers as selling points. Despite their exemplary militancy, the over-fetishization of the Panthers prevents a collective recounting and critique of their shortcomings, such as their authoritarian and hierarchical organizational structure, and prevents the rebels of today from effectively fighting into the future while both learning and breaking from the past.