clap and yell, “You know where it’s at” or “Dig it!” Newton, it was clear, was acting out the fantasy of every black youth on the street. And, amazingly, he got away with it. The police retired without making any arrests.
Within days, word of these brazen new Panthers spread from Oakland across the Bay Area. The turning point came on February 21, 1967. Another of the new Panther groups, this one based in San Francisco, had invited Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, to announce the formation of a Bay Area chapter of Malcolm’s OAAU on the anniversary of his death; because the San Francisco Panthers disdained weaponry, they invited the Oakland Panthers to provide security. Newton, Seale, and their new recruits, all armed, escorted Shabazz from the airport to offices of the radical magazine Ramparts , where she gave an interview. They emerged afterward into a phalanx of newspapermen, television cameras—and police.
Shabazz had asked that her picture not be taken. When one photographer refused to lower his camera, Newton punched him. Several policemen raised their guns. When a few Panthers turned their back to watch Shabazz emerge from the building, Newton snapped, “Don’t turn your back on these back-shooting motherfuckers!” He chambered a round into his shotgun. A crowd formed. Both Ramparts editors and policemen raised their hands and told everyone to “cool it,” but when one officer refused, Newton barked, “Don’t point that gun at me!” When the officer still refused, he shouted, “Okay, you big fat racist pig, draw your gun! Draw it, you cowardly dog! I’m waiting.” The officer lowered his weapon, defusing the situation, but the incident was caught on television cameras and made a powerful impact when it aired.
This was something entirely new to California and soon to the rest of the country: strong, proud black men with guns facing down startled white policemen. This, it appeared, was what Black Power would mean in the streets. Word of Huey Newton and these fearless new Black Panthers spread like a windswept fog. In the next few weeks the party attracted hundreds of new recruits, some of them gang members and ex-convicts; Newton made clear that the Panthers wanted the toughest, most badass street fighters he could find, and he got them.
None were more important than a tall, languid ex-con who studied Newton’s bit of theater on the sidewalk that day outside the Ramparts office, where he worked. His name was Eldridge Cleaver, and his destiny would be to become Huey Newton’s single most valuable partner and, later, his worst nightmare. Cleaver’s legacy would be the destruction of the Black PantherParty, but he was even more pivotal to what came after, to the underground movement of the 1970s. He became Black Power’s fourth great voice, the oratorical bridge between open defiance of American authority and urban guerrilla warfare. Not only would he emerge as the guiding force behind the Black Liberation Army, but, having forged alliances between black convicts and white Bay Area radicals, he created the intellectual framework for what became the Symbionese Liberation Army.
There was no black voice, before or since, quite like Cleaver’s. Born in rural Arkansas in 1935, he moved with his family to Phoenix and then to Watts, where as a teenager he fell into a life of drugs and petty theft. He spent much of the 1950s shuttling between reform schools and California prisons, eventually, in 1957, graduating to rape. Years later, in a series of essays that paved the way for the white-radical deification of hardened black prison inmates, he described his rape of white women as his first revolutionary act.
To refine my technique, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto—in the black ghetto where dark and vicious deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of the day—and when I considered myself smooth
Angela Conrad, Kathleen Hesser Skrzypczak