Around five o’clock on the morning of October 28, 1967, in the desolate district between San Francisco Bay and the Oakland estuary that the Oakland police call Beat l0l A, a 25-year-old black militant named Huey P. Newton was stopped and questioned by a white police officer named John Frey Jr. An hour later Huey P. Newton was under arrest at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, where he had gone for emergency treatment of a gunshot wound in his stomach, and a few weeks later he was indicted by the Alameda County grand jury on charges of murdering officer John Frey, wounding another officer, and kidnapping a bystander. He is now awaiting trial in the Alameda County jail.
Who is Huey P. Newton?
To understand how that had happened, you must first consider Huey Newton, who he is. He comes from an Oakland family, and for a while lie went to Merritt College, In October of 1966 he and a friend named Bobby Seale organized what they called the Black Panther Party. They borrowed the name from the emblem used by the Freedom Party in Lowndes County. Ala., and. from the beginning, they defined themselves as a revolutionary political group. The Oakland police know the Panthers, and have a list of the 20 or so cars they drive. I am telling you neither that Huey Newton killed John Frey nor that he did not kill John Frey, for in the context of revolutionary politics Huey Newton’s guilt or innocence is irrelevant. I am telling you only how Huey Newton happened to be in the Alameda County jail, and why rallies were held in his name, demonstrations organized whenever he appeared in court. LET’s SPRING HUEY, the buttons said (50 cents each), and here and there on the courthouse steps, among the Black Panthers with their berets and sunglasses, the chants would go up: Get your M-31. ‘Cause babv we gonna have some fun, BOOM, BOOM. BOOM, BOOM.” “Fight on, brother,” a woman would add in the spirit of a good-natured amen. “Bang, bang.”
It was at the night rallies, of course, that the big names came out. James Forman came, and told the Panthers and their black and white admirers that whereas the retaliation they were to extract in the case of his own death should be only 10 war factories. 15 power plants, 30 police stations, one southern governor, two mayors and 50 cops, “for Huey Newton the sky’s the limit.” Rap Brown came, “The only thing that’s gonna free Huey Newton,” he told them, “is gunpowder,” Stokely Carmichael came, and he told them this: “Huey Newton laid down his life for us.”
But of course Huey Newton had not yet laid down his life at all, he was just sitting there in the Alameda County jail waiting to be tried, and I wondered if the direction these rallies were taking ever made him uneasy, ever made him suspect that in many ways he was more useful to the revolution behind bars than on the street. It was the fact of him being behind bars, after all, that attracted attention, that enabled Huey Newton to give, as he was giving the day I saw him at press conferences.
There was a Los Angeles Times man there that morning, and a radio newscaster, and we all signed the police register and sat around a scarred pine table and waited for Mr. Newton. When he came in, he seemed an extremely likable young man, engaging, direct, and 1 did not get the sense that he had intended to become a political martyr. He smiled at us all and waited for the tape recorder, and then he smoked and talked, running the words together because he had said them so many times before, “the American capitalistic materialistic system” and “so-called free enterprise” and “the fight for the liberation of black people throughout the world.”
His lawyer was Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers’ Minister of Information were there too. Huey Newton was also still the Minister of Defense. Eldridge Cleaver wore a black sweater and one gold earring and spoke in an almost inaudible drawl and was allowed to see Huey Newton because he had press credentials, from Ramparts. Actually his interest was in getting “statements” from Huey Newton, “messages” for the faithful, and every now and then he would signal Huey Newton and say something like, “There are a lot of people interested in the Executive Mandate Number Three you’ve issued to the Black Panther Party. Huey, Care to comment on that?”
And Huey Newton, like a bright child with a good memory, would comment, “Yes, Mandate Number Three is this demand from the Black Panther Party speaking for the black community. Within the mandate we admonish the racist police force,” I kept wishing that he would talk about himself, hoping to break through the wall of rhetoric, but he seemed to be one of those who played it safe and remained general.
I seemed to be listening to one of those educational fun-fair machines, where pressing a button elicits great thoughts on selected subjects, I heard Huey P. Newton speak about racism, cultural nationalism, and white radicalism.
Racism “The Black Panther Part is against racism,” Huey P. Newton.
Cultural Nationalism “The Black Panther Party believes that the only culture worth holding onto is revolutionary culture,” Huey P. Newton.
White Radicalism Police Occupation of the Ghetto, The European vs. The African. “The European started to be sick when he denied his sexual nature,” Huey Newton said, and his lawyer interrupted then, bringing it back to first principles. “Isn’t it true, though, Huey,” he said, “that racism got its start for economic reasons?”
There was a window between where we sat and the sheriff’s deputies at the jail desk, and I had the sense that we were acting out some dumb show for them behind the glass. The small room was hot and the fluorescent light hurt my eyes and I still did not know to what extent Huey Newton understood the nature of the role in which he had been cast. As It happened I had always appreciated the logic of the Panther position, based as it is on the notion that political power begins with the barrel of a gun, which is exactly what guns had been specified in an early memorandum from Huey P. Newton.
In the politics of revolution everyone is expendable, but I doubted that Huey Newton’s political sophistication extended to seeing himself that way; the value of a Scottsboro boy is easier to see if you are not yourself the Scottsboro boy. “Is there anything else you want to ask Huey?” the lawyer said. There did not seem to be. The lawyer adjusted his tape recorder.” I’ve had a request, Huey,” he said.” from a high school student, a reporter on his school paper. and he wanted a statement from you, and he’s going to call me tonight. Care to give me a message for him? Huey Newton regarded the microphone. There was a moment in which he seemed not to remember what button had been pushed, and then he brightened. “I would like to point out.” he said, and I could see how the memory disks have clicked, high school, student, youth, message to youth, “That America is becoming a very young nation.”
Below is an interview between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton. Cleaver was with the press and took a visit to the Alameda County Jail when Newton was in jail. Cleaver conducted an interview with Newton to get to know more about him and his experience with the Black Panther Party and hear his side of the story.
Q: Tell us something about yourself. Huey, I mean your life before the Panthers.
A: Before the Black Panther Party my life was very similar to that of most black people in the country.
Q: Well, your family, some incidents you remember, the influences that shaped you . . . A. Living in America shaped me.
Q: Well, yes. but more specifically—
A: It reminds me of a quote from James Baldwin: “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant slate of rage.” (Interview with Eldridge Cleaver)