[Excerpted from Chapter 11 of Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist by Prof. Robert Trivers.]
According to Huey, the Black Panther Party started as a simple, old-fashioned robbery, which he was planning with a number of confederates. Problem was he was reading Franz Fanon and becoming politically conscious. So he decided to use the robbery to start a new political party, as radical as its start-up funds. The hard part was selling it to his fellow robbers. They didn’t like the idea. “They almost killed me,” Huey told me, but finally he got them to sign off on it, and some of them even became Party members later.
Huey liked to tell me that there was nothing quite like the thrill of a bank robbery. He would act it out, coming around the corner with his gun drawn and pointed unerringly at his intended target, all while announcing the robbery in a calm, authoritative voice. When he was planning a bank robbery on behalf of the Party, a federal agent apparently overheard him telling his men, “Don’t worry about messing up, because if you do I’m going to kill you.”
Once, when he and I were driving through West Oakland, near Berkeley, Huey pointed out the site of the Party’s first political act. There was a street corner at which local African-American children were run over nearly every year while attempting to cross one particularly dangerous street near their school. Numerous requests had been submitted for a stop sign and a proper street crossing to protect the children. Nothing had been done.
One day the Panthers appeared at the street crossing at the appropriate time, dressed in their leather jackets and berets and each carrying a rifle or shotgun. They proceeded to direct traffic, standing in the highway to permit safe passage for the children. Six weeks later the city put up not a stop sign but a stoplight at that very corner. Nothing like armed black men to stir civic activity. At least in Oakland. In the Louisiana of their birth they would have been assaulted, arrested, and a few killed in the bargain.
Guns and Black People
Huey was a master of visual imagery in its many forms. “Wanted: Dead of Alive” posters featuring a policeman, named and pictured: “Must be presumed to be armed and dangerous at all times.” A poster of himself, seated on an old colonial wicker chair, an African spear in one hand, an American rifle in the other, Panther beret on his head, and a serious, straight look on his face. As if the Party were a new colonial power come out of Africa, one that was using what had helped so many others colonize the world – guns. When the Oakland police shot up the poster in the window of Party headquarters, Huey simply made another poster out of that image; it showed so clearly what the police would like to do to him were they not constrained by his Party, his fame, his financial backing, much of it from Hollywood, and the legal power that it bought. All you need to produce is “reasonable doubt” and a little planning can go a long way.
When the California legislature was meeting to decide whether to pass the “Huey Newton law,” as it was popularly called, which stated that you could no longer “ride shotgun” but instead had to keep your loaded gun in your locked trunk, Huey and thirty five other Panthers showed up in Sacramento on the day of the vote, most of them carrying rifles. They tried to enter the legislature with their guns, which was allowed by law at the time. Police stopped them from entering, ordered them out of the building, and shortly thereafter arrested them.
Huey told me that many black people argued against the public display: “Now they’re sure to pass the bill, why don’t you ease up the pressure?” Huey’s response was simple: they were going to pass the bill anyway, and he wanted to show black people that they had the right to show up in front of the legislature with guns and confront a mass of armed police. That was one of the main points of the Party – to encourage African Americans to use their right to bear arms in self-defense. It was in response to a lynching that President Harry Truman made the first and key decision in favor of equal gun rights for the black man in the U.S. when in 1948 he integrated the armed services. Before then Black soldiers sliced the carrots and did the dishes. Many African Americans of more recent times have a strong ambivalence or hostility toward Huey and the Panthers because they believe he helped spawn the culture of black gun violence among the urban young. There is probably some truth to the charge, but I think harsh drug penalties take a larger part of the blame. With the stakes so high for being caught selling illicit drugs, the chances of internecine war and murder inevitably rise as well.
To those who make this charge against Huey, I would also ask what alternative they’d propose to black gun ownership. I suppose you could have armed whites all around disarmed black cities, therefore suffering no internal gun strife, but we have in fact gone through that period. Remember when a howling mob of armed whites burned the thriving black business community of Tulsa, Oklahoma to the ground in the 1920s, killing scores of black people in the process? To be the only unarmed people in a country built on armed violence is not a good position.
Another point I’d make to Huey’s detractors is to remind them that the Panthers helped usher in the wholesale integration of police forces throughout the country, and certainly in Oakland where the Party started. And while it is certainly true, as Huey pointed out, that painting a cop black does not in itself make the cop any better, still, in principle, the black cop is likelier to know how to judge whom from whom and is less likely to have racist attitudes toward his own kind.
A final point on Huey’s legacy: though people tend to assume that Huey was anti-police in principle, in fact he saw obvious value to community surveillance and organized protection. That’s why he regarded himself and Party members as on a par with the official police. He used to joke, “I’ve got nothing against the police as long as we are firing in the same direction.” When he met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Huey asked him why he had to use random acts of terror against Israelis. Arafat replied that it was because he had no other weapon. Huey said, “Well in that case, ok.” But Huey himself never believed in random acts of violence. His violence – whether for good or evil – was always highly directed and specific.
Huey had an extraordinary, intuitive understanding of animals and animal imagery. Although he was not the inventor of the following usages, he seized upon them and popularized them: “Black panther” for black revolutionary and “pig” for a police officer.
Nothing as black at night or as terrifying as a panther. And pigs have a long, distinguished history of being unclean because of a parasite found in their meat. Personally, though, I’ve always had a fondness for pigs. They’re very bright. Few things are cuter than a family of bush pigs running across the high grass of the African veldt, father or mother in front and rear, everyone with their tails raised high, presumably the easier to follow. To see them tied to stakes and forced to root and live in a small space for their entire life is painful to me, though not nearly as painful as the grotesque way in which our “food industry” has produced conditions of mass torture unheard of even in our prisons – chickens, cows, and pigs unable to turn around for their entire life.
Huey once mimicked a moose giving its territorial defense call when challenged – a deep rising moaning sound. He said that he had brought out the moose call in me when, during an argument over splitting royalties evenly, he had suggested that instead of one-third to him and two-thirds to me, as we had originally agreed, it should be two- thirds to him and one-third to me. And I do, indeed, remember the feeling of territorial invasion that seized me, as if suddenly being attacked on two sides simultaneously. And there was a “moose” quality to my voice, as I said, “Wait one minute there, Huey!”
When his wife caught him returning from a three-day bender and was blistering him, he would imitate to me his response in front of her, head down, his paws raised to his chest and hanging limply while he said to her, “It’s the dawg in me, honey; it’s the dawg.”
The following is not quite animal imagery though it is close. Huey routinely used to refer to “your black ass” in a conversation – this without regard to your ethnicity or color. Once he caught a look in my eye because he leaned forward and said, “Bob, all asses are black if you look closely enough.”
I soon adopted the style as my own, which led to a fun minute one evening with a young African American graduate student at Santa Cruz with whom I was arguing. I made reference to my own black ass, at which point he stepped forward and said “Whose black ass?” I stepped forward and said, “My black ass.” He stepped back and said, “Your black ass?” I stepped back. “My black ass.” Problem solved; once we knew whose black ass was in play, tension abated quickly.
Huey was beyond racism, certainly way beyond my own. There were Asian and white Panthers from the beginning; I was only a late example. I naively assumed he would show a bias toward the darker side. Not so. Huey was the Godfather of my slightly darker-skinned twin daughter Natasha, and he once took me aside and said, “Don’t let your racism against white people cause you to discriminate against your lighter skinned twin, Natalia.” Guilty on both accounts. He himself was a quarter Jewish through admixture from the rape of his then 16-sixteen-year-old grandmother by the son of the man employing her mother, and he always respected that side of himself, despite its ugly origin. He would sometimes remind me that he was a quarter Jewish, knowing full well that I was almost half – as if to say, and if you want to compete with me in this area, go right ahead.
We normally think of deception where self-image is concerned as involving inflation of self: you are bigger, better, or better looking than you really are. But there is a second kind of deception – deceiving down – in which the organism is selected to make itself appear less large, less threatening, and perhaps less attractive, thereby gaining an advantage. Being less threatening to an individual may permit you to approach more closely. The most memorable instance of deceiving down that I learned about was when Huey Newton taught me the Black-American term “dummying up.” This refers to a tendency to represent yourself as being less intelligent and less conscious than you actually are, usually the better to minimize the work you have to do. So an employee may dummy up in order to avoid being required to do more difficult things. In Panama, I routinely saw many instances in which the Spanish-speaking people would misrepresent themselves as understanding less English than they did or as being considerably less intelligent than they actually were, all in order to gain benefits from the benighted gringos who all too easily believed the dummying up.
One day I asked Huey how he dealt with dummying up by others. As head of a large organization he must have repeatedly faced this problem among his underlings. It took him a while to catch on to what I was asking him, but when he did his whole face lit up and he became animated and said, “Oh, you want to know how I handle that?” He then launched into a brilliant verbal attack on an imagined example of dummying up. I only wish that one of Richard Nixon’s aides had been on hand to silently activate a tape recorder so that none of this was lost to posterity. Unfortunately, I can only give a rough sketch of Huey’s answer.
If I remember correctly, he imagined a situation in which a waiter is always managing to position himself so as to avoid seeing his boss calling him and to otherwise appear to be working while not actually doing any work. His own
monologue in response to this ran roughly as follows: “Oh, so you’re so dumb that you happen to be looking the other way whenever I’m trying to get your attention. And you’re so dumb that when you know I am watching you, you decide to polish silverware that needs no polishing. And you’re so dumb that you are always walking toward the pantry without ever reaching it. Well, you’re not that damn dumb!” – followed perhaps by slapping the organism to the ground, verbally or otherwise. In short, Huey revealed to the actor the hidden logic of his actions, and the final ironic punch line was that, “You’re not that damned dumb” since you’ve managed to arrange all this dumb-acting behavior in such a coherent pattern, designed to deceive your employer.