Blog #41: The Single Greatest Threat

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J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panther Party (BPP) “the single greatest threat to the nation’s internal security.” Some Panthers were Marxists, had guns, and are in prison today for violent acts. But much of the violence that killed both Panthers and police was fueled by an over-zealous, militarized FBI program known as COINTELPRO.  233 of its 295 programs were aimed at the Black Panthers. There were  forged letters and anonymous phone calls poisoning Panther romantic relationships. Hoover said, “…we must create suspicions with regard to their respective spouses and your imagination and resourcefulness must be employed in order for the Bureau to be effective.”

Many COINTELPRO actions were based on lies because, in Hoover’s own words, “it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.” Lies led to landlords evicting Panthers, public humiliation, a press backlash portraying Panthers as “thugs”, and vendors ending contributions to BPP welfare programs. False charges led to 200 warrantless police raids on Panther offices and homes, often with no evidence of illegal activities. Local police were encouraged to harass Panthers at rallies, to suppress evidence, and to frame Panthers for crimes they didn’t commit.

The FBI used disinformation to sow violence between the Panthers and other groups. As reported in 1976 by John Kifner of the New York Times, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities blamed the FBI for stirring up “gang warfare” and contributing to violence that killed both Panthers and police. Kifner cited another committee report that said some FBI tactics “were clearly intended to foster violence.”

Divisions within the BPP were deepened by FBI deception. Provocateurs and informants were paid, threatened, or blackmailed into cooperating with authorities. Panther Security Chief William O’Neal, gave the FBI a floor plan of the Chicago apartment where BPP leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered and other Panthers were wounded and arrested on bogus attempted murder charges. The 14 police officers who broke in before dawn showered 90 bullets through the apartment killing Hampton and wounding his pregnant girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, as they slept. In 1982 municipal, county and federal governments paid $1.85 million to nine plaintiffs. Such government-sanctioned assassinations – like that of 17-year-old Bobby Hutton, shot dead holding his hands high in the air while attempting to surrender to the Oakland police – make me wonder if the FBI was really the “single greatest threat” to our country.

  • Lesson #205: The Black Panther Party was flawed and members were sometimes violent. Explaining the BPP in the context of 400 years of oppression and harassed by a law enforcement community eager to increase Panther extremism so as to justify severe repression, is often condemned by moderates as pro-Panther. I’m just trying to tell a truth that is rarely acknowledged.

  • Lesson #206: COINTELPRO’s attempt to break up marriages and relationships was common. The FBI threatened to expose Martin Luther King Jr.’s affairs and urged him to commit suicide. One letter read, “King, look into your heart. The American people would know you for what you are — an evil, abnormal beast. There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

  • Lesson #207: When 30 Black Panthers peacefully entered the California Statehouse in Sacramento, many legally carrying weapons, Governor Ronald Reagan criticized them saying, “I don’t think loaded guns is the way to solve a problem that should be solved between people of good will.” In a nation that relies on militarized police to solve problems that arise out of poverty, desperation, and oppression, the irony of this phrase is powerful.

  • Lesson #208: I believe that the death of any police officer, such as John Frey who was killed on Oct 28, 1967, is a tragedy. The fact that Huey Newton was arrested for it on trumped up charges is another tragedy.

  • Lesson #209: False accusations, arrests, and trials of Black Panther Party members were common, as in the case of the “NY 21,” who were accused of plotting bombings. Millions of taxpayer’s dollars were spent, but after 156 not guilty verdicts, all the charges were dropped.

  • Lesson #210: Government overreaction and fear of militant Blacks blinded authorities to alternative and peaceful ways to deal with what was essentially a group of frustrated Black youths seeking a better society. As Panther veteran William Calhoun put it, “The great strength of the Black Panther Party was its ideals, its youthful vigor and enthusiasm. The great weakness of the party was its ideals, its youthful vigor and enthusiasm.” What would have happened had the government used the ideals, vigor, and enthusiasm to steer the Panthers toward political engagement and legal means to seize power?

  • Lesson #211: It’s important to remember that all this was occurring when many young black and brown men were sent to Vietnam to kill young yellow men. I believe the government’s militarism contributed to viewing the Panthers as a battlefield enemy. As Panther veteran Thomas McCreary recently put it, “The average age of a Panther was between seventeen and twenty-three years old. We were children, and they moved on us like we were North Vietnam.”

  • Lesson #212: There are Panthers in jail today that may be there due to bogus charges, fake evidence, and legal hostility. Elmer “Geromino” Pratt, a Black Panther Party leader incarcerated for 27 years, was freed by a California Superior Court because an FBI agent testified that he believed Pratt had been framed. The officer explained both the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department knew Pratt had not been in the area at the time the murder occurred.

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