[Excerpted from Chapter 11 of Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist by Prof. Robert Trivers.]
One of the few benefits of moving from Harvard to the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1978 was the chance to meet the legendary founder of the Black Panther Party Huey Newton. Indeed he was waved in front of me as a reason to come to Santa Cruz. He was a graduate student in “History of Social Consciousness” – roughly equivalent to Western Civilization – who had the wit to see that “social consciousness” started long before the Greeks and, in some form, by the time of the insects. He had gotten his undergraduate degree from Santa Cruz in 1974 and befriended Dr. Burney Le Boeuf, the celebrated student of elephant seals. Burney had been preaching the beauties of evolutionary biology – my own work in particular – to Huey, and so I had the good fortune of meeting him after he had already been well-primed.
I needed no priming. In the early ’60s I had come to believe that African Americans should take a page out of Jewish history and murder those murderers of their own people who did not and could not receive justice in any other way. Just as the Jews had caught, tried, convicted, and executed Adolf Eichmann, I fantasized about a crack infiltration team doing the same in Mississippi to Byron de la Beckwith, who had murdered the courageous black NAACP leader Medgar Evers and then been duly acquitted by an all-male, all white jury in that state “drenched in racism.” I had fantasies of doing so myself, but they were very short-lived ones – most likely I would not have reached the city limits before a cop pulled me over and said, “Let’s see what this nice little white boy from Harvard has to say about the murder of dear old Byron.”
So when I first read that so-called Black Panthers in Oakland were patrolling, and, if necessary, killing racist white police officers and appearing to get away with it I said, “Right on.” And I say it to this day. Some deserve the death penalty, others multiple years in prison. I remain convinced that the Panthers were largely on the right side of justice.
The Trick of the Panthers
The Panthers began with patrolling the police. They would follow police at night or patrol until they came across police-citizen interactions. Huey might then emerge from a car with a law book in his hand and read out in a loud voice that, by law, “excessive” force cannot be used during an arrest. The police would invariably answer, “Our force isn’t excessive.” Huey would read them the legal evidence on that point. They would say, “Get the fuck out of here.” He would answer that a citizen is allowed to remain within a reasonable distance of an arrest. They would say, “Your distance is unreasonable.” He would flip to the relevant page and read the appellate ruling that declared a reasonable distance was ten yards or whatever, and it would go on like this.
Huey didn’t invent patrolling police behavior. It was started by an L.A. organization called US in 1965, but there was one critical difference in their approach: US were unarmed. One night the LAPD beat all of them up, and that was the end of that. He was armed. He knew he had the right to be armed, and he knew he had the courage. So when he emerged from the car there was usually a gun beneath the law book so that, should the interaction turn hostile or threatening, he could be ready with a response. All this waslegal back then, riding shotgun, in effect, on the police themselves.
During the war the Panthers waged between 1967 and 1973, roughly fifteen officers died for every thirty-five Panthers. Not a bad kill-ratio when fighting the United States of America. I believe the Panthers had the largest single effect on integrating police forces in this country. The reasoning being: hey, if black people are firing at our officers, let’s have some black officers firing back.
Dr. William Moore called in the fall of 1978 to say that Huey, who was then in prison, charged with beating up a tailor in his home for calling him “boy,” wanted to take a reading course from me. I said that was fine but I wanted a paragraph from Mr. Newton on what he wanted to read. Before he could reply he was released from lock-up and traveled to Santa Cruz to meet me. We met at Dr. LeBoeuf’s home. Huey was accompanied by Dr. Moore, his aide-de-camp Mark Alexander, and his bodyguard Larry Henson. When he told me that he had spent three years in solitary confinement, I asked him if he’d ever feared or endured a mental breakdown in all that solitude. He described a night when his whole psyche seemed to fragment and tear apart and he had to struggle to hold himself together and fight the fragmentation. This he acted out, with strong arm muscles acting to compress some exploding object. So we formed a strong psychological bond on the spot. I had suffered the fragmentation and collapse, he had fought it off, and he was open about it.
By the way, if you had a feeling for “vibes” (as Californians called it) you could feel Huey shivering as he sat talking. This was a result, I believe, of his having just come out of two months of the male-male hell that is prison.
We decided to do a reading course on deceit and self-deception, a subject I was eager to develop and on which Huey turned out to be a master. He was a master at propagating deception, at seeing through deception in others, and at beating your self-deception out of you. He fell down, as do we all, when it came to his own self-deception.
A Day with Huey
Shortly after that first meeting at Dr. LeBouf’s house, I was invited to Huey’s home for our first class together. This is hardly how it would have gone with any other student. But this wasn’t any other student, so I drove to Oakland and spent seven hours in his home as his guest, the intensity of the situation leavened by the presence of his beautiful wife Gwen.
Huey Newton was certainly one of the five or six brightest human beings I have ever met. Each of those five or six has had a different sort of intelligence, and Huey’s forte was aggressive logic. While you had to lean over to hear what Bill Hamilton was saying, sometimes you would be blasted against the back wall by what Huey was saying. And he moved his logical sentences as if they were chess pieces meant to trap you and render you impotent. “Oh, so if that is the case, then this must be true.” If you moved away from where he was pushing you, he would say, “Well, if that is true, then surely so-and so must be true.” So he was maneuvering you via logic into an indefensible position. The argument often had a double-or-nothing quality about it where, in effect, he was doubling the stakes for each logical alternative, giving you the unpleasant sensation that you were losing more heavily as the argument wore on, making more and more costly mistakes.
The shortest form of this argument could be called the “Huey two-step,” as in the following. Huey was angry at me one day for allowing myself to be described in a popular scientific magazine article as knowledgeable about both cocaine and marijuana prices on the streets of Montego Bay. It was a mistake to mix the two, was Huey’s contention; one was enough. And since I was already widely associated with marijuana, which in turn had numerous redeeming qualities, Huey felt I should not be publicly associated with cocaine. Of course he was right. So I came up with some feeble argument about how if it was useful to others to know this fact (though I had no reason to suspect it would be) then the cost of self-revelation to me didn’t matter. Almost like Jesus volunteering to be tortured on the cross. To which he replied, “In thatcase, why don’t you lecture naked?” Newton two-step. Argument over.
Speaking of cocaine, I was naïve enough that, during that first independent study session at his house, I never noticed the white powder around his nostrils, nor how often he left the room and returned. I was only told later that he stayed up the whole night before our visit, snorting cocaine throughout, as his wife begged him to get some rest and not destroy another important meeting. Cocaine was Huey’s drug and his downfall, but in this case I think it only buzzed him enough to overwhelm me – indeed, I had to take my customary nap before heading back down the road. He made me take the nap in his own bed while all was silent throughout the house. That was Huey Newton: if you were his guest in his home, you came first. That was the warmth of the man. As for cocaine, at that time in Oakland it was known as “the dancing lady” and you were warned, “Mind that she dances off with you some night.”
After that trip, my wife and I had them down to Santa Cruz and shortly after he arrived, having already mastered the basics of evolutionary logic, he took me aside and said, “There is only one thing we might disagree on – do you believe in free will?” I answered that I didn’t know what people actually meant when they used the term but that I believed organisms had the ability to look back on their actions and decide whether they wanted to repeat them. He embraced me. We apparently disagreed on nothing.
My First Night Out with Huey
The next time I saw Huey we met for a men’s night out – me, Huey, and two of his top guards, Larry and George, set out to hit a few clubs in West Oakland. We ended up at a very pleasant club, filled with people of both sexes, and we had plenty of laughs and fun interactions with the larger crew, but, as would happen so often, we stayed too long. The club thinned down to us at a table and three drinkers at the bar. Huey called for a final drink. It was 1:50 a.m.
The waitress came back to say that it was too near closing time (2:00 a.m.) and she couldn’t serve him a drink. He told her to tell the bartender that he wanted a drink. She returned to say that the bartender couldn’t do what he’d asked, since it was closing time. Larry and George got up and stood by the front door and the door to the men’s room, each unbuttoning his jacket. Huey now walked up to the bar and said, “If you don’t serve me I’ll knock this place over.” Wow, I thought, this is getting exciting. I’m about to be the getaway driver on an armed robbery! I later learned that knocking the place over meant robbery of the entire club, including all its patrons. There was a deep silence. Then a tall, thin, gray-haired, light skinned, African-American man of perhaps seventy spoke up: “Well serve the man a drink!” Brilliant stroke. Problem solved, bartender busy at work, Huey back in his chair.
The drink arrived. Huey had a five-dollar bill to cover the two dollar cost. No, it was on the house, said the waitress. No I insist, said Huey. No, no, no, no – no charge for your drink. Huey insisted, the five dollars went on her tray, he drank the drink and we rolled on out.
I felt great. Huey explained the details of what we’d just been through to me as we roared off laughing. Fast departure because you never know when reinforcements will arrive. Absolute necessity of paying for the drink because in the eyes of the law if you accept a free drink under threat of armed robbery, you have committed armed robbery.
Huey incidentally was an expert in the law, especially misdemeanor law. His familiarity with the field began with his father, who taught him that the police use misdemeanors to catch you in your felonies, so you had to pay close attention to misdemeanor law. His father also taught him that you can take a killing but you can’t take a beating and warned him to avoid, “Liars, thieves and gamblers.”
The importance of attention to misdemeanor law was brought home to me very forcefully late one night when we were driving around in West Oakland, me at the wheel. Huey told me to turn around, so I made a U-turn. Immediately, he began to berate me: “It’s illegal to make a U-turn within the city limits.” “But it’s three in the morning.” “The law applies 24/7.” “But there’s nobody around to see us.” “You don’t know that. You only know you can’t see anyone.” He proceeded to instruct me on the proper move, which was to turn left into someone’s driveway and back out facing in the opposite direction.
So misdemeanors were off the table. And if he was committing a felony, he always warned you. Sometimes he would get in my car and say, “I’m dirty.” This meant either that he was carrying a gun or a quarter pound of cocaine. He carried each on a couple of occasions with me. In one case we were on our way to see some ex-Party members who were now into cocaine full-time in West Oakland and lived in the Acorn apartment complex. In the Acorn complex, you were in danger of being robbed on the way in and robbed on the way out. Either way, this put both of us in jeopardy. But I had chosen to become a Panther as a mere foot soldier; Huey was dominant and so I rolled with Huey. We were not robbed and no police officer ever stopped us. One of Huey’s legs was a bit shorter than the other and Huey could exaggerate the resulting limp so people would see quickly it was Huey Newton arriving with security in the form of me.