Date: Mon, 12 Jun 2000 19:22:49 -0700
From: David Horowitz <Dhorowitz@earthlink.net>
Black Murder Inc.
A book arrived this month that sent a chill into my marrow. The author's face
on the dust jacket was different from the one I remembered. Its hair was
cropped in a severe feminist do, its skin pulled tight from an apparent lift,
its eyes artificially lit to give off a benign sparkle. But I could still see
the menace I knew so well underneath. It was a holograph of the darkest period
in my life.
I first met her in June 1974, in a dorm room at Mills College, an elite
private school for women in Oakland. The meeting had been arranged by Huey
Newton, leader of the Black Panther Party and icon of the New Left. For almost
a year before that I had been working with Newton, developing a school complex
in the East Oakland ghetto. I had named it the Oakland Community Learning
Center and was the head of its "Planning Committee."
The unusual venue of my first meeting with Elaine Brown was the result of the
Panthers' odd disciplinary notions. They were actually Huey's notions because
(as I came to understand later) the Party was an absolutist state where the
leader's word was law. Huey had "sentenced" Elaine to Mills as a kind of exile
and house arrest. "I sent her to Mills," he explained to me, "because she
hates it there."
Elaine was a strikingly attractive woman, light-skinned like Huey, but with a
more fluid verbal style that developed an edge when she was angry. I had been
warned by my friends in the Party that she was also crazy and dangerous. A
festering inner rage erupted constantly and without warning wherever she went.
At such times, the edge in her voice would grow steel-hard and could slice a
target like a machete.
I will never forget standing next to Elaine, as I did months later in growing
horror, as she threatened KQED-TV host Bill Schechner over the telephone. "I
will kill you motherfucker," she promised him in her machete voice, if he went
through with plans to interview the former Panther Chairman, Bobby Seale.
Seale had gone into hiding after Huey expelled him from the Party in August.
As I learned long afterwards, Seale had been whipped -- literally -- and then
personally sodomized by Huey with such violence that he had to have his anus
surgically repaired by a Pacific Heights doctor who was a political supporter
of the Panthers. A Party member told me later, "You have to understand, it had
nothing to do with sex. It was about power." But in the Panther world, as I
also came to learn, nothing was about anything except power.
That day at Mills, however, Elaine used her verbal facility as an instrument
of seduction, softening me with stories of her rough youth in the North Philly
ghetto and her double life at the Philadelphia conservatory of music. Her
narrative dramatized the wounding personal dilemmas imposed by racial and
class injustice, inevitably winning my sympathy and support.
Elaine had the two characteristics necessary for Panther leadership. She could
move easily in the elegant outer world of the Party's wealthy liberal
supporters, but she could also function in the violent world of the street
gang, which was the Party's internal milieu. Elaine was being punished in her
Mills exile by Huey, because even by his standards her temper was explosive
and therefore a liability. Within three months of our meeting, however, his
own out-of-control behavior, had forced him to make her supreme.
The summer of 1974 was disastrous for Newton. Reports had appeared in the
press locating him at the scene of a drive-by shooting at an "after hours"
club. He was indicted for pistol-whipping a middle-aged black tailor named
Preston Callins with a .357 magnum, for brawling with two police officers in
an Oakland bar, and for murdering a 17 year old prostitute named Kathleen
Smith. When the day arrived for his arraignment in this last matter, Huey
failed to show. Assisted by the Panthers' Hollywood supporters, he had fled to
With Huey gone, Elaine took the reins of the Party. I was already shaken by
Huey's flight and by the dark ambiguities that preceded it. As a "politically
conscious" radical, however, I understood the racist character of the media
and the repressive forces that wanted to see the Panthers destroyed. I did not
believe, therefore, all the charges against Huey. Although disturbed by them,
I was unable to draw the obvious conclusion and leave.
My involvement with the Black Panther Party had begun in early 1973. I had
gone to Los Angeles with Peter Collier to raise money for Ramparts, the
flagship magazine of the New Left which he and I co-edited. One of our marks
was Bert Schneider, the producer of Easy Rider, the breakthrough film of the
Sixties which had brought the counter-cultural rebellion into the American
mainstream. Schneider gave Ramparts $5,000, and then turned around and asked
us to meet his friend Huey Newton.
At the time, Newton was engaged in a life and death feud with Black Panther
Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver had fled to Algiers after a shoot-out with Bay Area
police. (Eldridge has since admitted that he ambushed them). Schneider wanted
us to take Eldridge's name off the Ramparts masthead where he was still listed
as "International Editor."
Huey's attraction to the Left had always been his persona as "Minister of
Defense" of the Black Panther Party, his challenge to revolutionary wannabees
to live up to their rhetoric and "pick up the gun." Huey had done just that
in his own celebrated confrontation with the law that had left Officer John
Frey dead with a bullet wound in his back. Everybody in the Left seemed to
believe that Huey had killed Frey, but we also wanted to believe that Huey --
as a victim of racism -- was also innocent. Peter's and my engagement with the
Panthers was more social than political, since Ramparts had helped the Party
become a national franchise. Their military style had left me cold, but now, a
change in the times prompted the two of us, and especially me, to be
interested in the meeting.
By the early 70s, it was clear that the "Movement" had flamed out. As soon as
Nixon signaled the end of the military draft, the "anti-war" demonstrations
stopped and the protestors disappeared, marooning hardcore activists like
myself. I felt a need to do something to fill the vacancy. Huey Newton was
really alone among Movement figures in recognizing the change in the zeitgeist
and making the most of it. In a dramatic announcement, he declared the time
had come to "put away the gun" and, instead, to "serve the people," which
seemed sensible enough to me.
Our meeting took place in Huey's penthouse eyrie, 25 floors above Lake
Oakland. The Eldridge faction, which had condemned Huey for "selling out the
armed struggle," had made much of Huey's lavish lifestyle in its intra-party
polemics. But the apartment itself was sparely furnished and I was ready to
accept Schneider's explanation that it was necessary for "security." (A TV
screen allowed Huey to view entrants to the building, 25 floors below). Not
only J. Edgar Hoover's infamous agents but also the disgruntled Cleaver
elements might very well want to see Huey dead. There had been several
killings already. One of Huey's East Coast loyalists, Sam Napier, had been
shot and doused with gasoline, and set on fire.
Somehow, because of Huey's sober pronouncements and his apparent victory in
the intra-party struggle, I regarded this reality as part of the past, and no
longer threatening. Unlike Elaine, Huey was able to keep his street passions
in check in the presence of white intellectuals he intended to make use of. In
all the time I worked with him, I never saw him abuse another individual,
verbally or otherwise. I never saw him angry or heard him utter a threat. I
never saw a gun drawn. When I opposed him on important political issues, as I
did at our very first meeting, I found him respectful of my differences, a
seduction I could not resist. (My partner, Peter, was more cautious and
politically aloof and, as events were to prove, wiser than I.)
After the meeting, I offered to help Huey with the Party's community projects
and to raise money for the Panther school. Huey wanted to buy a Baptist church
facility in the East Oakland ghetto with an auditorium, cafeteria and 35
classrooms. In the next months, I raised more than $100,000 to purchase the
buildings on 61st Avenue and East 14th Street. The $63,000 down payment was
the largest check I had ever seen, let alone signed. The new Oakland Community
Learning Center was administered by the Planning Committee, which was composed
of Panthers whom Huey had specially selected to work with me. Neither Bobby
Seale, nor Elaine Brown, nor any other Panther leaders were among them.
The Learning Center began with more than 100 Panther children. Its instruction
was enriched by educationalists like Herbert Kohl whom I brought in to help. I
took Kohl to see Huey in the penthouse eyrie, but the meeting went badly.
Within days, Huey's spies had reported that Kohl (who was street smart in ways
I was not) was telling people that Huey was using cocaine. When I confronted
Herb, he said: "He's sniffing. He was sniffing when we were up there."
I had not been part of the Sixties drug culture and was so unfamiliar with
cocaine at that time, that I had no idea whether Kohl was right. Huey's runny
nose, his ability to stay alert despite the fifth of Courvoisier he daily
consumed, the sleepless nights at Schneider's Beverly Hills home where (after
Bert and his girlfriend Candice Bergen had gone to bed) Huey talked endlessly
to me about politics and the millions of dollars the Party had squandered on
bail -- all these were tell-tale signs I could not read. I assumed the
innocent possibility that Huey was "sniffing" because he had a cold, which is
what I told Kohl, who probably thought I was shining him on. After the
incident, Huey banished Kohl from the penthouse, but let him continue to help
on the Learning Center.
The Center was operated by a front I had created called the Educational
Opportunities Corporation, a California tax-exempt 501(c)3. It was imperative
-- or so I thought -- to keep the books of the school in order and to file
appropriate tax reports so that hostile authorities would not be given a
pretext to shut us down. This proved to be only another aspect of my
politically induced innocence. Long after I had gone, too, I watched the
Center operate illegally, without filing proper tax reports, and while Huey
and Elaine were diverting large sums of money (received as government grants)
to themselves and their gunmen to keep them in fancy cars and clothes and,
when necessary, out of jail. Unable to conceive such a possibility for a Party
everyone knew was targeted for destruction by J. Edgar Hoover, I engaged the
services of our bookkeeper at Ramparts, Betty Van Patter, to keep the Learning
Virtually my entire relationship with Huey and the Party was through the
activities of the school. In the months following the purchase of the building
on East 14th, it became apparent to me that things were not proceeding as
planned. In particular, it was still exclusively a Party operation.
I had never been enthusiastic about the Party as such, which seemed to me
merely an ideological sect whose time had passed. I had conveyed these views
to Huey at the outset of our relationship and he had pretended to agree. He
had even promised that if we purchased the facility and built an educational
center, it would gradually be turned over to the East Oakland community and
not become just another Party institution.
Six months had gone by, however, and there were only Panthers in attendance.
The impoverished black community around the school remained aloof, as did the
black intellectuals (like Berkeley sociology Professor Troy Duster), whom I
periodically approached to help out with the operation, and who would come up
to the penthouse to see Huey, but afterwards never follow through or come
back. Adding to my dismay was the fact that the school head, Brenda Bay, had
been replaced by Ericka Huggins, a prominent Party figure and in my view an
individual who was mentally unbalanced. (It did not improve my dim view of
Ericka, when I saw her punish a child by commanding the 9 year old to write
1,000 times, "I am privileged to attend the Black Panther Party's Learning
Center because...") My concerns about the school came to a head on May 19,
1974, which was Malcolm X's birthday.
A "Malcolm X Day" celebration was held in the school auditorium, which I
attended. One after another, Bobby Seale, Elaine Brown, and other Panthers
mounted the podium to proclaim the Party as "the only true continuator of the
legacy of Malcolm." Looking around at the familiar faces of the Panthers in
the hall, I felt depressed and even betrayed. Huey had assured me that the
Center would not become the power base for a sect, and had even excluded Bobby
and Elaine from its operation to make me a believer. And yet now I could see
that's all that it was.
At the next Planning Committee meeting in Huey's apartment, I braced myself
and launched into a passionate complaint. On a day that all black Oakland
should have been at the Center, I said, the occasion had been turned into a
sectarian promotion for the Black Panther Party. My outburst was met by a
tense silence from the others at the table. But Huey seemed unfazed and even
to lend some support to what I had said. This duplicitous impression of
yielding was almost a performance art with him.
Elaine had a similar talent for seduction when it fitted her agenda. In our
first encounter at Mills, she had strategically brought the Malcolm X incident
into our conversation. In her most disarming manner, she related how Ericka
Huggins had reported to her and other members of the Party, after the meeting,
that "David Horowitz said that the Malcolm X Day celebration was too black."
It was a shrewd gambit, reminding me of my precarious position in the Panther
environment, while at the same time making her appear as a friend and
potential protector. She had her reasons to ingratiate herself with me then,
because she knew that somehow I had Huey's ear, and she wanted desperately to
end her exile. A month later, Huey kicked Bobby out of the Party and her wish
was granted. She became the new "Chairman." A month after that, Huey was gone
When Huey left, all the Panthers whom Huey had assigned to work with me -- all
the members of the Planning Committee except Ericka -- fled too. They left,
suddenly, without warning, in the middle of the night. A week earlier, which
was the last time I saw them, they had worried about Elaine's new ascendance.
When I asked why they were afraid of Elaine, they said "She's crazy." Now they
had disappeared, and I had no way of contacting them to question them further.
Although I had been warned about Elaine's dark side, I had only seen benign
aspects myself. Now, as she took charge of the Party, she revealed another
dimension of her personality that was even more attractive.
Where Huey had pretty much ignored the Learning Center after its creation,
Elaine threw herself into its every detail, from curriculum to hygiene. She
ordered it scrubbed from top to bottom, got proper supplies for the children,
and made the Center's needs a visible priority. Soon, the first real community
event was held on its premises. It was a teen dance attended by 500 youths
from the neighborhood. I could not have asked for a more concrete sign that
things were going to be different. And these efforts were ongoing. Eventually
Elaine's would recruit Oakland dignitaries to the board of the Center, like
Mayor Lionel Wilson and Robert Shetterly the president and chairman of the
Oakland Council for Economic Development. How could I not support her efforts
in behalf of a project that had seemed so worthy and to which I had dedicated
so much effort of my own?
There were other seductive aspects to her leadership as well. The Black
Panther Party -- the most male dominated organization of the Left -- was
suddenly being led by an articulate, take-charge woman. And not just one
woman. Elaine's right and left hands in the Party organization -- Joan Kelley
and Phyllis Jackson -- were also female, as was its treasurer Gwen Goodloe.
With Huey gone under a dark cloud, Elaine and the Center were facing
formidable odds. My social and racial privilege always afforded me a way out
of these difficulties (as my leftist conscience was constantly reproving me).
How could I face myself, if I abandoned their ship now?
I stayed. And when the Party's treasurer, Gwen Goodloe, fled a week later, and
Elaine became desperate over who would manage its finances, I suggested a
solution. Betty Van Patter, who was already doing the books for the Learning
Center, might be of help in handling the general accounts.
This was to be my last act of assistance to the Party. The crises of the fall
had piled on one another in such swift succession, that I was unable to assess
the toll they were taking. But in November, an event occurred that pushed me
over the edge.
There had been a second teen dance, and this time there was a shooting. A
Panther named Deacon was dead. His assailant, a black youth of 16, was in the
county hospital. When I phoned Elaine to ask what had happened, she exploded
in the kind of violent outpouring I had become used to by then, blaming the
disaster on "the police and the CIA." This stock paranoia was really all I
needed to hear. (Years later, I learned from other Panthers that the shooting
had been over drugs, which the Party was dealing from the school.)
When I walked into the school auditorium where Deacon lay in state (there is
really no other term for the scene in front of me), I suddenly saw the real
Party to which I had closed my eyes to for so long. Of course, the children
were there, as were their parents and teachers, but dominating them and
everything else physically and symbolically was the honor guard of Panther
soldiers in black berets, shotguns alarmingly on display. And, added to this
spectacle, mingling with the mourners, there were the unmistakable gangster
types, whose presence had suddenly become apparent to me after Elaine took
over the Party: "Big Bob," Perkins, Aaron, Ricardo, Larry. They were fitted in
shades and Bogarts and pinstripe suits, as though waiting for action on the
set of a B crime movie. In their menacing faces there was no reflection of
political complexity such as Huey was so adept at projecting, or of the
benevolent community efforts like the breakfast for children programs that the
Underneath all the political rhetoric and social uplift, I suddenly realized
was the stark reality of the gang. I remember a voice silently beating my
head, as I sat there during the service, tears streaming down my face: "What
are you doing here, David?" it screamed at me. It was my turn to flee.
Betty did not attend the funeral, and if she had would not have been able to
see what I saw. Moreover, she and I had never had the kind of relationship
that inspired confidences between us. As my employee, she never really
approved of the way Peter and I ran Ramparts. For whatever reasons -- perhaps
a streak of feminist militancy -- she didn't trust me.
Just as a precaution, I had warned Betty even before Deacon's funeral not to
get involved in any part of the Party or its functioning that she didn't feel
comfortable with. But Betty kept her own counsel. In one of our few phone
conversations, I mentioned the shooting at the dance. She did not take my
Later it became obvious that I hadn't really known Betty. I had counted to
some extent on her middle class scruples to keep her from any danger zones she
encountered in Panther territory. But this too was an illusion. She had
passions that prompted her to want a deeper involvement in what she also
perceived as their struggle against oppression.
There was another reason I did not express my growing fears to Betty. The more
fear I had the more I realized that it would not be okay for me to voice such
criticism, having been so close to the operation. To badmouth the Party would
be tantamount to treason. I had a wife and four children, who lived in
neighboring Berkeley, and I would not be able to protect them or myself from
There were other considerations in my silence, too. What I had seen at the
funeral, what I knew from hearsay and from the press were only blips on a
radar screen that was highly personal, dependent on my own experience to read.
I had begun to know the Panther reality, at least enough to have a healthy
fear of Elaine. But how could I convey this knowledge to someone who had not
been privy to the same things I had? How could I do it in such a way that they
would believe me and not endanger me? Before fleeing, my Panther friends had
tried to warn me about Huey through similar signs, and I had failed to
understand. My ignorance was dangerous to them and to myself.
Finally, only the police had ever accused the Panthers of actual crimes.
Everyone I knew and respected on the left -- and beyond the left -- regarded
the police allegations against the Panthers as malicious libels by a racist
power structure bent on holding down and eliminating militant black
leadership. It was one of the most powerful liberal myths of the times.1
One Friday night, a month or so after Deacon's funeral, a black man walked
into the Berkeley Square, a neighborhood bar that Betty frequented, and handed
her a note. Betty, who seemed to know the messenger, read the note and left
shortly afterwards. She was never seen alive again.
On the following Monday, I received an anxious phone call from Tammy Van
Patter, Betty's 18 year old daughter, who had also worked for me at Ramparts.
She told me her mother was missing and asked for my help. I phoned Elaine, but
got Joan Kelley instead. Joan told me that Elaine had had a fight with Betty
on Thursday and fired her. (Later, Elaine lied to investigating police,
telling them she had fired Betty the previous Friday and hadn't seen her for a
week before she disappeared.)
When Elaine returned my call, she immediately launched into a tirade against
Betty, calling her an "idiot" who believed in astrology, and who "wanted to
know too much." She said that Betty was employed by a bookkeeping firm with
offices in the Philippines, and was probably working for the C.I.A. Then
Elaine turned on me for recommending that Betty be hired in the first place.
She noted that I was "bawling" at Deacon's funeral and had not "come around
for a long time." Perhaps I was scared by the dangers the Party faced. Why was
I so concerned about this white woman who was crazy, when all those brothers
had been gunned down by the police? White people didn't seem to care that much
when it was black people dying.
A week later, when Betty still had not turned up, I called Elaine one more
time, and was subjected to another torrent of abuse culminating in a threat
only thinly veiled: "If you were run over by a car or something, David, I
would be very upset, because people would say I did it."
I was visited in my home by the Berkeley police. They told me they were
convinced the Panthers had taken Betty hostage and had probably already killed
her. From her daughter Tammy I learned that the very small circle of Betty's
friends and acquaintances had all been questioned since her disappearance, and
none had seen her for sometime. She had left her credit cards and birth
control pills at home, and thus could not have been going on an unexpected
trip when she left the Berkeley Square with the mysterious messenger. Just to
the rendezvous to which she had been summoned.
Betty was found on January 13, 1975, 5 weeks after she had disappeared, when
her water-logged body washed up on the western shore of San Francisco Bay. Her
head had been bashed in by a blunt instrument and police estimated that she
had been in the water for seventeen days. She was 42 years old.
By this time, everything I knew about Betty's disappearance had led me to the
conclusion that the Panthers had killed her. Everything I knew about the Party
and the way it worked led me to believe that Elaine Brown had given the order
to have her killed.
Betty's murder shattered my life and changed it forever. While I sank into a
long period of depression and remorse, however, Elaine's star began to rise in
Oakland's political firmament. A white woman who worked for the Black Panther
Party had been murdered, but -- despite our rhetoric about police conspiracies
and racist oppression -- there seemed to be no consequences for Elaine or her
The press made nothing of it. When Peter Collier approached Marilyn Baker, a
Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for Channel 5 with the story, she said she
"wouldn't touch it unless a black reporter did it first." Betty's friends in
the Bay Area progressive community, who generally were alert to every
injustice, even in lands so remote they could not locate them on a map, kept
their silence about this one in their own backyard. Peter also went to the
police who told him: "You guys have been cutting our balls off for the last
ten years. You destroy the police and then you expect them to solve the
murders of your friends."
While the investigation of Betty's death continued, Elaine ran for the Oakland
City Council and garnered 44% of the vote. The following year, under her
leadership, the Party provided the political machine that elected Oakland's
first black mayor, Lionel Wilson. Elaine herself secured the endorsement of
Governor Jerry Brown and was a Jerry Brown delegate to the Democratic
Convention in 1976. (Before making his run, Brown phoned Elaine to find out
what kind of support the Party could provide him.) Tony Cline, a Panther
lawyer and confidante of Elaine, was also a college roommate of the Governor
and became a member of his cabinet. Using her leverage in Sacramento, Elaine
was able to get approval for an extension of the Grove-Shafter Freeway, which
had been blocked by environmentalists. On the basis of this achievement, she
began negotiations with the head of Oakland's Council for Economic Development
to control 10,000 new city jobs that the freeway would create.
In all these successes, the Learning Center was her showpiece. Capitalizing on
liberal concerns for Oakland's inner city poor, she obtained contributions and
grants for the school, and bought herself a red Mercedes. The Party's
political influence climbed to its zenith. It was an all-American nightmare.
While Elaine's power grew to alarming proportions, I intensified my private
investigations into the Panther reality that had previously eluded me. I had
to confront my blindness and understand the events that had led to such an
irreversible crossroads in my life. I interrogated everyone I could trust who
had been around the Panthers about the dark side of their operations, seeking
answers to the questions of Betty's death.
I discovered the existence of the Panther "Squad" -- an enforcer group that
Huey had organized inside the Party to maintain discipline and carry out
criminal activities in the East Oakland community. I learned of beatings,
arson, extortion and murders. The Learning Center itself had been used as the
pretext for a shakedown operation of "after hours" clubs which were required
to "donate" weekly sums and whose owners were gunned down when they refused.
I learned about the personalities in the Squad, and about their involvement in
the killing. One of them, Robert Heard, was known as "Big Bob" in the Party
because he was 6'8" and weighed 400 pounds. Big Bob told friends, whom I
talked to, that the Squad had killed Betty and more than a dozen other people,
in the brief period between 1972 and 1976. The other victims were all black,
and included the Vice President of the Black Student Union at Grove Street
College, whose misfortune was to have inadvertently insulted a member of the
Betty's children commissioned Hal Lipset, a private eye with connections to
the Left (and to the Panthers themselves, who had employed him during Huey's
trials) to investigate the case. Lipset confirmed the police conclusion that
the Panthers had killed Betty. They also tried to get the case against the
Panthers re-opened, but with no success.
Then, in the summer of 1977, unable to stomach exile any longer, Huey suddenly
returned from Cuba. He was given a welcome by the local Left, culminating in a
ceremony and "citizenship award" presented by Assemblyman Tom Bates, husband
of Berkeley's radical mayor, Loni Hancock.
But not everyone was ready to turn a blind eye to the Panther reality. The
minute Huey stepped off the plane, Alameda Country prosecutors began preparing
to try him for the murder of Kathleen Smith, the 17 year old prostitute he had
killed 3 years earlier.
Huey made preparations too. One day before the preliminary trial hearings were
to begin in Oakland, 3 Panther gunmen tried to break into a house in the
nearby city of Richmond, where they expected to find the prosecution's chief
eye-witness, Crystal Gray. It was the wrong house. (Gray lived in an apartment
in the back). The owner, a black bookkeeper, picked up her .38 and fired at
the intruders. A gun battle ensued in which one Panther was killed and
another, named Flores Forbes, was wounded.
Forbes fled the scene to seek the assistance of another Panther, named Nelson
Malloy, who was not a Squad member and had only just joined the Party. Fearing
that the innocent Malloy might link him to the assassination attempt, Huey
ordered a hit team to follow Malloy and Forbes to Las Vegas, where they had
fled. The assassins found them and shot Malloy in the head and buried him in a
shallow roadside grave in the Nevada desert. Miraculously he was discovered by
tourists who heard his moans and rescued him, although he remained paralyzed
from the neck down for the rest of his life.
Shortly after the Richmond incident, Elaine herself was gone. The Squad had
never really accommodated itself to being ruled by a woman. When Huey
returned, tensions between Elaine and the Squad reached a head, and Huey came
down on the side of his gunmen. Elaine left for Los Angeles, never to return.
The botched assassination attempt on the prosecution witness, together with
the headlines about Malloy's burial in the desert, destroyed the alliances
that Elaine had so carefully built. Lionel Wilson, the head of Clorox and the
other Oakland dignitaries resigned from the Learning Center board. With its
power diminished and its sinister reality in part revealed, the Panther Party
had been de-clawed. I began to breathe more easily.
But I was still unable to write or make public what I had come to know about
the Party and its role in Betty's murder. I had given some of the information
a courageous story for the magazine New Times. It was called "The Party's
Over" and helped speed the Panther decline. But I could not be a witness
myself. I was no longer worried about being denounced as a racist or
government agent by my friends on the Left if I accused the Panthers of
murdering Betty. (Such a possibility would seem far more plausible after the
recent events). Nor would I have cared so much now about attacks from the
Left. During the five years since Betty's death, my own politics had begun to
change. But there remained a residue of physical fear.
Huey was alive in Oakland, and armed, and obviously crazy, and dangerous. I
now realized how powerless the "law" in fact was. Huey seemed untouchable. He
had managed to beat his murder rap with the help of testimony by friends ready
to perjure themselves for the cause. The pistol-whipping case had been
dropped, too. After being threatened and bribed, the tailor Preston Callins
retracted his charges. For me, caution seemed to be the prudent course.
Then, in 1980, an event took place that provided me with an occasion to
relieve myself of a portion of my burden. It provided a story that was
parallel in many respects to what I had been through. It would afford me the
opportunity to speak about things that had been unspeakable until now.
In May 1980, Fay Stender, an attorney who had defended Black Panther George
Jackson, took her own life in Hong Kong. She had withdrawn to this remote city
away from family and friends, in order to kill herself after a member of
Jackson's prison gang had shot and paralyzed her the year before. She had
stayed alive just long enough to act as a witness for the prosecution in the
trial of her assailant.
In writing "Requiem for A Radical," which recounted the details of her life
and death, Peter Collier and I were able to lift a part of the veil that had
obscured the criminal underside of the Black Panther Party. We described the
army of thugs that had been trained in the Santa Cruz Mountains to free
Jackson from his San Quentin cell. We described the "killing fields" in those
same mountains where the Panthers had buried the corpses of Fred Bennett and
others who had violated their Party codes. We were also able to write honestly
about Jackson himself, whom the Left had made into a romantic legend and who,
like Huey, was a criminal psychopath. Obscured by the love letters Jackson had
written in Soledad Brother, which Fay Stender had edited, was the murderer who
had boasted of killing a dozen men in prison and whose revolutionary plan was
to poison the water system of Chicago where he had grown up.
When our story appeared in New West Magazine, I learned through mutual friends
that Bert Schneider, Huey's Hollywood patron, was unhappy with the account
Peter and I had written. Although I sensed that Bert was aware of the Party's
criminal activities, including Betty's murder, I was not as afraid of him as I
was of Huey, and I decided to go and see him. I did so on a principle I had
learned from the Godfather movies, that you should get near to your enemies
and find out what they have in mind for you. The Fay Stender story was not a
direct hit on Huey or Bert and their reactions might tell me something I
needed to know. Perhaps the past was not as alive for them as I imagined.
Perhaps I did not have so much to fear.
Bert had an estate on a hill above Benedict Canyon. I called my name through
the security gate and was admitted into the main house. Bert appeared, wearing
a bathrobe, and in a quiet rage. He was angrier than I had ever seen him. "You
endangered my life" he hissed at me.
I didn't have the slightest idea what he was talking about. He directed me to
a passage in our text about Jackson's attempted escape from San Quentin prison
(an episode in which the Panther and his comrades slit the throats of three
prison guards they had tied up, before Jackson himself was killed): "The
abortive escape left a thicket of unanswered questions behind....Had Jackson
been set up? If so, was it by the Cleaver faction of the Black Panther Party?
Or by Newton, fearful of Jackson's charismatic competition?"
A book about Jackson had described Bert as being in close contact with Huey
during the escape attempt. But even with that in mind, I still could not
understand why Bert was so agitated. I was already focussing, however, on
something else Bert had said that had far greater significance for me. In
defending his reaction to the article he had admitted "Huey isn't as angry as
I am." It was the opening I was looking for. I told him I would like to see
Huey, and a lunch was arranged.
When I arrived at Norman's, the North Berkeley restaurant that Huey had
chosen, he was already there, sunk into one of the vinyl divans, his eyes
liverish and his skin pallid, drunker than I had ever seen him. He was so
drunk, in fact, that when the lunch was over he asked me to drive him back to
the two-story house that Bert had bought for him in the Oakland Hills. When he
invited me in, I was a little nervous but decided to go anyway. The decor --
piled carpets, leather couches and glass-topped end tables -- was familiar.
Only the African decorative masks that had been mounted on the beige walls
seemed a new touch.
As we sat down in Huey's living room, our lunch conversation continued. Huey
told me about a project he had dreamed up to produce Porgy and Bess as a
musical set in contemporary Harlem, starring Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger. It
was a bizarre idea but not out of character for Huey, whose final fight with
Bobby Seale had begun with a quarrel over who should play the lead role in a
film Huey wanted to make. Huey even showed me the treatment he had prepared in
braille for Stevie Wonder, while complaining that the people around the singer
had badmouthed him and killed the deal. When he said this his face contorted
in a grimace that was truly demonic.
Then, just as suddenly, he relaxed and fell into a distant silence. After a
minute, he looked directly at me and said: "Elaine killed Betty." And then,
just as abruptly, he added a caveat whose cynical bravado was also typical, as
though he was teaching me, once again, how the world really worked: "But if
you write that, I'll deny it."
Until that moment I had thought Elaine was solely responsible for the order to
kill Betty. But now I realized that Huey had collaborated with her and
probably given the order himself. He might have said, "David, I'm sorry about
Betty. It should never have happened, but I was in Cuba and couldn't stop it."
But he didn't. He chose instead to point a finger at Elaine, as the one alone
responsible. It had a false ring. It was uncharacteristically disloyal. Why
point the finger at anyone in particular, unless he could indeed have
prevented it and didn't?
I went home and began contacting several ex-Panthers, who were living on the
East Coast. I asked them how Elaine, as a woman, had been able to run the
Party and control the Squad. The answer was the same in each case: Elaine had
not really run the Party while Huey was in Cuba. Huey had run it. He was in
daily contact with Elaine by phone. The Squad stayed loyal to Elaine out of
fear of Huey.
Having gotten this far, I turned to the actual decision to kill Betty. The
same sources told me that the fate of Betty had been debated for a week.
Elaine had provided Huey with the reasons for killing Betty; Huey had made the
In 1989, fourteen years after Betty disappeared, Huey was gunned down by a
drug dealer he had burned. It was a few blocks away from where Huey had killed
the 17 year old prostitute Kathleen Smith. It was not justice. He should have
died sooner; he should have suffered more. But if I had learned anything
through all this, it was not to expect justice in this world, and to be
grateful for that which did occur, however belated and insufficient.
Huey's death allowed Peter and me to write his story and to describe the
Panther reality I had uncovered. (We called it "Baddest" and published it as a
new chapter in the paperback edition of our book Destructive Generation.) By
now, we had become identified with the political Right (although "Libertarian
irregulars" would better describe our second thoughts). What we wrote about
the Panthers' crimes, therefore, was either dismissed or simply ignored by an
intellectual culture that was still dominated by the political Left. Even
though Huey's final days had tainted the Panthers' legacy, their glories were
still fondly recalled in all the Sixties nostalgia that continued to appear on
public television, in the historical monographs of politically correct
academics and even in the pages of the popular press. The Panther crime wave
was of no importance to anyone outside the small circle of their abandoned
Then, in an irony of fate, Elaine Brown emerged from obscurity early this year
to reopen the vexed questions of the Panther legacy. She had been living in a
kind of semi-retirement with a wealthy French industrialist in Paris. Now she
was back in America seeking to capitalize on the collective failure of memory
with a self-promoting autobiography called A Taste of Power. It was published
by a major New York publisher, with all the fanfare of a major New York
With her usual adroitness, Elaine had managed to sugarcoat her career as a
political gangster by presenting herself as a feminist heroine and victim.
"What Elaine Brown writes is so astonishing," croons novelist Alice Walker
from the dust jacket of the book, "at times it is even difficult to believe
she survived it. And yet she did, bringing us that amazing light of the black
woman's magical resilience, in the gloominess of our bitter despair." "A
stunning picture of a black woman's coming of age in America," concurs the
Kirkus Reviews. "Put it on the shelf beside The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
To the Los Angeles Times' Carolyn See, it is "beautiful,
touching,..astonishing... Movie makers, where are you?" (In fact, Suzanne
DePasse, producer of Lonesome Dove, who appears to have been the guiding
spirit behind the book is planning a major motion picture of Elaine's life.)
Time's review invokes Che Guevara's claim that "the true revolutionary is
guided by great feelings of love," and comments: "In the end, Brown discovers,
love is the most demanding political act of all."
A New York Times Magazine profile of Elaine ("A Black Panther's Long
Journey"), treated her as a new feminist heroine and prompted View and Style
sections of newspapers in major cities across the nation to follow suit.
Elaine, who reportedly received a $450,000 advance from Pantheon Books, has
been touring the book circuit, doing radio and television shows from coast to
coast, including a segment of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, where she appeared
on a panel chaired by Charlayne Hunter Gault as an authority on black America.
("I hate this country," she later told the Los Angeles Times. "There's a point
at which you're black in this country, poor, a woman, and you realize how
powerless you are." In contrast, Elaine once told me privately: "The poorest
black in Oakland is richer than 90% of the world's population.") At Cody's
Books in Berkeley, two hundred radical nostalgists came to hear her, flanked
by her "bodyguard," Huey's old gunman, Flores Forbes.
I read the book and, jaded though I was, still was amazed by this reception.
The only accurate review seemed to come from the Bloods and Crips who flocked
as fans to her Los Angeles appearance. A Taste of Power is, in its bloody
prose, and despite the falsehoods designed to protect the guilty, the
self-revelation of a sociopath, of the Elaine I knew.
"I felt justified in trying to slap the life out of her," -- this is the way
Elaine introduces an incident in which she attempted to retrieve some poems
from a radical lawyer named Elaine Wenders. The poems had been written by
Johnny Spain, a Panther who participated in George Jackson's bloody attempt to
escape from San Quentin. Elaine describes how she entered Wenders' office,
flanked by Joan Kelley and another female lieutenant, slapped Wenders' face
and proceeded to tear the room apart, emptying desk-drawers and files onto the
floor, slapping the terrified and now weeping lawyer again, and finally
issuing an ultimatum: "I gave her twenty-four hours to deliver the poems to
me, lest her office be blown off the map."
Because Wenders worked in the office of Charles Garry, Huey's personal
attorney, Elaine's thuggery produced some mild repercussions. She was called
to the penthouse for a "reprimand" by Huey, who laughingly told her she was a
"terrorist." The reprimand apparently still stings and Elaine even now feels
compelled to justify the violence that others considered impolitic: "It is
impossible to summarize the biological response to an act of will in a life of
submission. It would be to capture the deliciousness of chocolate, the
arousing aroma of a man or a perfume, the feel of water to the dry throat.
What I had begun to experience was the sensation of personal freedom, like the
tremor before orgasm. The Black Panther Party had awakened that thirst in me.
And it had given me the power to satisfy it."
The thirst for violence is a prominent feature of this self-portrait: "It is a
sensuous thing to know that at one's will an enemy can be struck down," Elaine
continues. In another passage she gives one of many instances of the pleasure.
Here, it is a revenge exacted, after she becomes head of the Party, on a
former Panther lover named Steve, who had beaten her years before.
Steve is lured to a meeting where he finds himself looking down the barrel of
a shotgun. While Elaine's enforcer, Larry Henson, holds Steve at gunpoint,
Elaine unleashes four members of the Squad, including the 400 pound Robert
Heard, on her victim: "Four men were upon him now...Steve struggled for
survival under the many feet stomping him....Their punishment became
unmerciful. When he tried to protect his body by taking the fetal position,
his head became the object of their feet. The floor was rumbling, as though a
platoon of pneumatic drills were breaking through its foundation. Blood was
everywhere. Steve's face disappeared."
The taste for violence is as pervasive in Elaine's account, as is the appetite
to justify it in the name of the revolutionary cause. She describes the scene
in Huey's apartment just after he had pistol-whipped the middle-aged black
tailor Preston Callins with a .357 Magnum. (Callins required brain surgery to
repair the damage): "Callins's blood now stained the penthouse ceilings and
carpets and walls and plants, and [Huey's wife's] clothes, even the fluffy
blue-and-white towels in the bathroom." This is Elaine's reaction to the
scene: "While I noted Huey's irreverent attitude about the whole affair, it
occurred to me how little I, too, actually cared about Callins. He was neither
a man nor a victim to me. I had come to believe everything would balance out
in the revolutionary end. I also knew that being concerned about Callins was
too costly, particularly in terms of my position in the Party. Yes, I thought,
Elaine deals with Betty's murder in these pages, too. "I had fired Betty Van
Patter shortly after hiring her. She had come to work for the Party at the
behest of David Horowitz, who had been editor of Ramparts magazine and a
onetime close friend of Eldridge Cleaver. He was also nominally on the board
of our school...She was having trouble finding work because of her arrest
record...." This is false on every significant count. Betty had no arrest
record that Elaine or I knew about. I was one of three legal incorporators of
the Learning Center and, as I have already described, the head of its Planning
Committee. Finally, I had met Eldridge Cleaver only once, in my capacity as a
fledgling editor at Ramparts. (Elaine's purpose in establishing this
particular falsehood is clearly to link Betty to a possible plot: "I began
wondering where Betty Van Patter might have really come from....I began
re-evaluating Horowitz and his old Eldridge alliance...")
Elaine continues: "Immediately Betty began asking Norma, and every other
Panther with whom she had contact, about the sources of our cash, or the exact
nature of this or that expenditure. Her job was to order and balance our books
and records, not to investigate them. I ordered her to cease her
interrogations. She continued. I knew that I had made a mistake in hiring
her....Moreover, I had learned after hiring her that Betty's arrest record was
a prison record -- on charges related to drug trafficking. Her prison record
would weaken our position in any appearance we might have to make before a
government body inquiring into our finances. Given her actions and her record,
she was not, to say the least, an asset. I fired Betty without notice."
Betty had no prison record for drug trafficking or anything else.
"While it was true that I had come to dislike Betty Van Patter," Elaine
concludes, "I had fired her, not killed her."
Yet, the very structure of Elaine's defense is self-incriminating. The
accurate recollections that Betty, who was indeed scrupulous, had made normal
bookkeeping inquiries that Elaine found suspicious and dangerous, provides a
plausible motive to silence her. The assertions that Betty was a criminal,
possibly involved in a Cleaver plot, are false and can only be intended to
indict the victim. Why deflect guilt to the victim or anyone else, unless one
is guilty oneself?
Violence was not restricted to the Panthers' dealings with their enemies, but
was an integral part of the Party's internal life as well. In what must be one
of the sickest aspects of the entire Panther story, this Party of liberators
enforced discipline on the black "brothers and sisters" inside the
organization with bull-whips, the very symbol of the slave past. In a scene
that combines both the absurdity and pathology of the Party's daily routine,
Elaine describes her own punishment under the Panther lash. She is ordered to
strip to the waist by Chairman Bobby Seale and then subjected to ten strokes
because she had missed an editorial deadline on the Black Panther newspaper.
A Taste of Power inadvertently provides another service by describing how the
Panthers originally grew out of criminal street gangs, and how the gang
mentality remained the core of the Party's sense of itself even during the
heyday of its political glory. Elaine writes with authority, having come into
the Party through the Slausons, a forerunner of the Bloods and the Crips. The
Slausons were enrolled en masse in the Party in 1967 by their leader, gangster
Al "Bunchy" Carter, the "Mayor of Watts." Carter's enforcer, Frank Diggs, is
one of Elaine's first Party heroes: "Frank Diggs, Captain Franco, was
reputedly leader of the Panther underground. He had spent twelve years in Sing
Sing Prison in New York on robbery and murder charges." Captain Franco
describes to Elaine and Ericka Huggins his revolutionary philosophy: "Other
than making love to a Sister, downing a pig is the greatest feeling in the
world. Have you ever seen a pig shot with a .45 automatic, Sister
Elaine?...Well, it's a magnificent sight." To the newly initiated Panther,
this is revolutionary truth: "In time, I began to see the dark reality of the
revolution according to Franco, the revolution that was not some mystical
battle of glory in some distant land of time. At the deepest level, there was
blood, nothing but blood, unsanitized by political polemic. That was where
Franco worked, in the vanguard of the vanguard..."
The Panthers were -- just as the police and other Panther detractors said at
the time -- a criminal army at war with society and with its thin blue line of
civic protectors. When Elaine took over the Party, even she was "stunned by
the magnitude of the party's weaponry....There were literally thousands of
weapons. There were large numbers of AR-18 short automatic rifles,. 308 scoped
rifles, 30-30 Winchesters, .375 magnum and other big-game rifles, .30 caliber
Garands, M-15s and M-16s and other assorted automatic and semi-automatic
rifles, Thompson submachine guns, M-59 Santa Fe Troopers, Boys .55 caliber
anti-tank guns, M-60 fully automatic machine guns, innumerable shotguns, and
M-79 grenade launchers....There were caches of crossbows and arrows, grenades
and miscellaneous explosive materials and devices."
I remember vividly an episode in the mid-70s, when one of the Panther arms
caches, a house on 29th Street in East Oakland, was raided by the police and
1,000 weapons including machine guns, grenade launchers and anti-tank guns
were uncovered. Party attorney Charles Garry held a press conference at which
he claimed that the weapons were planted by the police and that the 29th
Street house was a dormitory for teachers at the Panther school (which it
also, in fact, was). Then Garry denounced the police raid as just one more
repressive act in the ongoing government conspiracy to discredit the Panthers
and destroy militant black leadership. Of course, all right thinking
progressives rallied to the Panthers' support.
And right thinking progressives are still rallying. How to explain the
spectacle attending the reception of Elaine's book? After all, this is not
pre-glasnost Russia, where crimes were made to disappear into a politically
controlled void. The story of the Panthers' crimes is not unknown. But it is
either uninteresting or unbelievable to a progressive culture that still
regards white racism as the primary cause of all ills in black America, and
militant thugs like the Panthers as mere victims of politically inspired
The existence of a Murder Incorporated in the heart of the American Left is
something the Left really doesn't want to know or think about. Such knowledge
would refute its most cherished self-understandings and beliefs. It would
undermine the sense of righteous indignation that is the crucial starting
point of a progressive attitude. It would explode the myths on which the
In the last two decades, for example, a vast literature has been produced on
the "repression of the Panthers" by the F.B.I. The "Cointelpro" program to
destabilize militant organizations and J. Edgar Hoover's infamous memo about
the dangers of a "black messiah" are more familiar to today's college students
probably than the operations of the K.G.B. or the text of Magna Carta. In A
Taste of Power, Elaine Brown constantly invokes the F.B.I. specter (as she did
while leader of the Party) to justify Panther outrages and make them
"understandable" as the hyper-reflexes of a necessary paranoia, produced by
the pervasive government threat. A variation of this myth is the basic
underpinning of the radical mind-set. Like Oliver Stone's fantasies of
military-industrial conspiracy, it justifies the radical's limitless rage
against America itself.
On the other hand, even in authoritative accounts, like William O'Reilly's
Racial Matters, the actual "Cointelpro" program, never amounted to much more
than a series of inept attempts to discredit and divide the Panthers by
writing forged letters in their leaders' names. (According to O'Reilly's
documents, FBI agents even suspended their campaign when they realized how
murderous the Panthers actually were, and that their own intelligence pranks
might cause real deaths.)
Familiarity with the Panthers' reality, suggests a far different question from
the only one that progressives have asked -- Why so much surveillance of the
Panthers? -- namely: Why so little? Why had the FBI failed to apprehend the
guilty not only in Betty's murder but in more than a dozen others? Why were
the Panthers able to operate for so long as a criminal gang with a military
arsenal, endangering the citizens of major American cities? How could they
commit so many crimes -- including extortion, arson and murder -- without
being brought to the bar of justice?
The best review of Elaine's book and the best epitaph for her Party are
provided ironically by Elaine herself. In the wake of the brutal and senseless
whipping of Bobby Seale by a leader insane with drugs and political adulation,
and a coterie too drugged with power themselves to resist, she reflects:
"Faith was all there was. If I did not believe in the ultimate rightness of
our goals and our party, then what we did, what Huey was doing, what he was,
what I was, was horrible."
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