By the time I was twenty years old I had ready Huey's "Revolutionary Suicide" and "To Die for the People." I had also read the "Black Panther Party Manifesto," Bobby Seale's "Seize the Time; the Story of Huey P. Newton" and everything else about Huey P. that I could get my hands on.
As a young African growing up in the inner-city, Huey P. Newton's work to provide the philosophical groundwork for the Black Panther Party (BPP), just minutes away from where I grew up, and his fearlessness in confronting police, had a profound impact on me. By the time I was 11, I had already experienced police terrorism. And that was just the beginning of my exposure to the true role of police; to repress all potential pockets of resistance, particularly the African masses. So, for me, Huey P. Newton personified that identity in my mind. His example of personal courage was the model I used to try and model my own behavior off of. For a young African man growing up, he was the epitome of what I thought I wanted to be like.
That's why the accusations against Newton that have surfaced in recent years have been extremely troubling to me. He has been accused by close Panther associates of behaving erratically and in abusive manners towards comrades, particularly women. Now, unlike lots of folks, I don't react to things that bother me by letting those things overwhelm me. When the negative talk about Newton first surfaced for me, about 20 years ago (its escalated quite a bit in the last 10 years or so with the resurgence of interest in the BPP) I went to work doing extensive research to understand as much as I could. Plus, I benefit from having exposure with many former Panthers, some of which had much face time with Huey P. So, I'm probably a little more aware of the extent to which the federal government e.g. the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), played a crucial role in doing everything it possibly could to undermine Newton once he was released from jail on August 5th, 1970 (after the initial conviction for the death of Oakland policeman Frey was overturned). What I mean is a cursory study of the FBI's counter intelligence files, which they were forced to make public in the 1974 Freedom of Information Act, demonstrates that the FBI closely studied the day to day interactions within the BPP. As they freely indicated in their documents, the FBI understood that the BPP that existed when Newton first went to jail in the police shooting in 1967 was a totally different organization from the one Newton stepped into when he was released in 1970. In October, 1967, when the confrontation that left Frey dead and policeman Heanes and Newton injured occurred, the Panthers had a limited number of members and although their work was swiftly creating a reputation for them, they were still basically a regional organization. By 1970, largely as a result of the "Free Huey" movement that expanded into an international effort, the Panthers had almost 40 chapters throughout the U.S., a clear presence, and relationships internationally. By 1970, most people, including many of the most visible and active Panthers besides Newton, had no real relationship with Huey P. Newton. For many people, he was the leader in the ratan chair with the spear and the rifle. The FBI had done extensive work by 1970 to undermine the Panthers. Bobby Seale and David Hilliard were incarcerated on questionable charges. Eldridge Cleaver was in Africa (an African going to Africa cannot be in exile since Africa is our national home). Much had been done by the FBI (forged attack letters and having informants sew seeds of mistrust for examples) to weaken the foundation of the BPP. Keep in mind that by 1970, dozens of Panther offices had been raided illegally by police across the country. Panther leaders Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, John Huggins, Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark, and original member Lil Bobby Hutton, had been killed either by police informant work and/or direct police terrorism. Panthers all over the country were being arrested on mostly fabricated charges and faced with serious prison time. Much of the party needed a spiritual boost in the face of this intense repression. The prospect of having the bold and courageous Huey P. Newton out and ready to again lead the Black Panther Party created a condition that Huey P. Newton, or any living or dead human being, could ever hope to live up to. The FBI was acutely aware of this reality and they plotted methodically on ways to exploit this issue. Specifically, they sought to find imaginative ways to discredit Newton. This was done by more informant work, letters, etc. For example, we know now that the conflict that led Newton to expel the hugely popular Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt) was completely instigated by the FBI. This is also true for the widening of the divide between Newton and Cleaver. The FBI worked to exacerbate this split for months focusing on manipulating the actions of people like Connie Mathews who served as an aide to Cleaver and Newton at one point pretty much during the same general time period until those relationships were completely blown apart. When Newton and Cleaver openly argued on a television show in 1971, the FBI enthusiastically celebrated the spoils of their work.
We also know that the pressures of all these realities were clearly not lost on Newton himself. From all reports, he struggled mightily to be the leader he knew people expected him to be. Preferring to articulate his ideas through his writing, Newton was not even comparable as a orator to Cleaver or Bobby Seale. With the pressure of his imprisonment and the weight of the besieged BPP on his shoulders, it can be effectively argued that Newton melted from the weight of this pressure. He had always displayed reactionary tendencies, even before the creation of the BPP, but at no time before he left imprisonment did he demonstrate the erratic behavior that came to define him throughout the 70s. So, there's no question that FBI inspired repression took its toll on Huey P. Newton. There's also no question that its no accident that these discrediting efforts against Newton (and Malcolm X, Che Guevara, and any revolutionary who has extensive respect and following) are reflections of COINTELPRO 2018, but that's a another article.
Still, as a person committed to revolutionary politics and organizing, I make it my business to struggle with myself to not be that "rugged individual revolutionary male" organizer that our All African Women's Revolutionary Union (A-AWRU) has always warned us about. From that education, I knew that despite the fact I greatly admire men like Newton, Che Guevara, Kwame Nkrumah, Kwame Ture, etc., its fair to say none of them excelled in their personal relationships with women. Even Malcolm X, who starts that list of admired men for me, cannot be categorized as successful with building and maintaining relationships with women (Malcolm was married to Sister Betty Shabazz for seven years, and during that time, she left him on three different occasions). None of those men will ever win best social skills awards as it relates to their abilities to connect with people on smaller day to day levels. The common denominator is all of them were forced to endure an overwhelming level of pressure to carry the movement on their backs so I can excuse the fact they probably were not always the best people to go out bowling with. What has troubled me about Newton, which separates him from the others, is the accusations of abuse against women. I think I understand better than most people the pressures on him after he came out of prison, but that is absolutely no excuse for the abuse. And, the allegations are strongly supported. The stories of beatings of Panther women. The whipping of the 17 year old sex worker in Oakland. Those things more than likely happened and that's problematic and inexcusable.
Believe me when I tell you I have stayed up at night thinking about this often. The reason I think about it is because I love Huey P. Newton and I've tried to struggle to understand how I can love someone who abuses women. I mean, I went to jail for beating up a domestic abuser so my position on that subject is pretty clear. I haven't wanted to give Newton a pass and I don't think that I have. Instead, where I've landed is that Newton, drug infused due to the repression and pressure or not, was wrong. His abusive behavior was reactionary and unacceptable. The element that has stuck with me is how Newton could write such an eloquent statement about the need to respect women and LGBTQ people in our communities (50 years ago when such thoughts being articulated in an organization was extremely rare), and then engage in such abusive behavior? I don't think the answer is any different than it is for any inconsistent behavior people in the movement and world exhibit. One of Kwame Ture's most consistent criticisms of the Black Panther Party (as well as the criticism of numerous Panthers who became All African People's Revolutionary Party cadre - and there are many) was the lack of consistent and ongoing political education within the BPP. By that, we don't mean weekly political education classes. We mean defined reading, discussion, and praise/criticism/ self-criticism. The Panthers never institutionalized these critical elements and their failure to do this opened the door for the FBI. The best protection against police infiltration is a strong political education program. With that, you need not worry about police infiltration because your members are steeled in your ideological direction and will not veer off of it for anyone. With strong political education you don't need the false sense of security that security culture practices provide. Huey P. Newton is part and parcel of African people who are part and parcel of humanity. He was the victim of a failed political education process like all the Panthers, the African community, and all of humanity. The A-AWRU has said that the revolutionary process requires not just a change in who manages the production apparatus, but a change in our values. A change in the people that we are. Without that social revolution and changing of hearts and minds, what we have is socialism on paper and capitalism in our hearts and minds.
I still love Huey P. Newton. I see his shortomings and I use them (as I'm attempting to do now) to frame how we move forward. It is possible to admire the courage and commitment of the young Huey P. Newton while deploring the erratic behavior and abuse of the 70s Huey P. Newton. I choose to take the best of Huey P. and educate on how we can create institutions and processes that permit us to challenge conditions that produce the unacceptable behaviors. I speak this out loud every night to the framed picture of Huey P. in that ratan chair that I'm looking at right now as I type this. And I give thanks to the A-AWRU and I focus on keeping myself as honest as I can while appreciating the fact I have an organization that is committed to helping me do that.