Battle of the Black Panthers

David Hilliard’s career as an enemy of the state is only a memory now. The former chief of staff of the Black Panthers, the United States’s first armed black revolutionary group, does not disown the violence of the days when the FBI labelled him a threat to national security.

He still sometimes revisits the street corner in Oakland, California, where in 1968 police surrounded the car in which he was a passenger, sparking a bloody confrontation that left one Panther dead and two officers injured.

He served four years in jail, but the battles in which another 67 Panthers and 14 policemen would die before the group disbanded were necessary, he insists.
“It was a response to America’s violence. Police were beating and killing black people with impunity.”

Today, aged 64 and in very different times, Hilliard hardly expected to be fighting another battle—least of all against a radical black organisation calling itself the Black Panthers.

But now he has joined several members of the original Panthers, including co-founder Bobby Seale, to threaten legal action against the New Black Panthers, an increasingly vocal group they accuse of staining their legacy—which includes anti-poverty initiatives for urban black children—in favour of racial supremacism, anti-Semitism and hate-mongering.

“This is about more than the ownership of a trademark, it’s about who controls and defines history,” Hilliard said. “We were a self-defence movement, they are a black vigilante militia group. They hate Jews; Jews were our comrades on the left and our attorneys. We were branded terrorists by J Edgar Hoover; they have embraced the terrorism of September 11. We attacked, but only because we were attacked by police. These guys have totally distorted and degraded our history.”

The New Black Panthers have been garnering attention since 1998 when they arrived in military uniform for an aggressive stand-off with the Ku Klux Klan in the Texan town of Jasper, after the notorious racist murder of James Byrd, who was dragged to his death behind a truck. The New Black Panthers were soon a fixture on the news networks, portraying themselves as the new face of African-American radicalism.

Their leader then was Khalid Muhammad, sacked from his job as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam for his hysterical anti-Semitism.

“I’m here to tell you that God has a people, that God has chosen a people, and it’s not some hooked-nosed, bagel-eating, lox-eating, perpetrating-a-fraud ... so-called wannabe, imposter Jew,” he told a church meeting in Detroit two years ago, according to an investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil-rights organisation based in Alabama that monitors US hate groups.

The New Black Panthers is the first black group it has ever listed.

“We get people saying they’re going to kill us because they think we’re linked to this movement,” says Hilliard. “But we didn’t waste our time messing around with some poor, cowardly, hooded Klansmen—we were against the system of oppression.”

He is also angry, he says, that the New Black Panthers released a doctored version of a famous photograph showing Seale and another co-founder, Huey P Newton, carrying guns. The group replaced Seale’s image with that of Muhammad, who died last year.

The 10-point manifesto Seale drew up with Newton was certainly radical—it called for all black people to be armed, for all black prisoners to be released and for no black men to fight in the army—but it harboured no hate, Hilliard says.

Nor was violence the focus: among the best-known non-violent activities of the movement, which boasted 5 000 members at its height, was a massive testing programme for sickle-cell anaemia, which mainly affects black people.

“We championed coalition politics; we worked with the women’s rights movement; we saw the Jews as akin to us in their own oppressions and suffering. We’re not separatists. We simply came out of a time when America’s blacks were under assault, when the racists were attacking the civil-rights marchers in the South.”

Hilliard is not unaware of the irony that the New Black Panthers seem to endorse many of the opinions with which the government’s domestic spying operation, Cointelpro, spent much of the 1960s trying to tarnish the old Panthers.

Malik Shabazz, the current leader of the New Black Panthers—who describes himself as fighting “the white, Jewish, Zionist onslaught” and blames the September 11 attacks on “support for Zionism”, claims the old Black Panthers are themselves tools of the FBI.

“I think they are being used to keep alive the counter-intelligence programme of the FBI and the US government, creating divisions and factions among black organisations,” he told The New York Times. Hilliard’s group wanted war “and we will have to go to war”, Shabazz said. “I think they are really working with the Zionists,” he added. “I think their lawyer is one.”

The New Black Panthers have been among the most vocal supporters of Amiri Baraka, the poet laureate of New Jersey, currently under attack for a poem about the September 11 attacks.

“Who told 4 000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day?” Baraka’s poem asks, repeating a discredited myth that circulated on the Internet.

He refused to resign and New Jersey’s governor does not have the legal power to sack him, prompting state legislators to initiate a Bill that would allow Baraka’s removal.

Zayid Muhammad, a New Black Panther leader, led a protest in Newark, the state capital, this week, telling supporters: “We stand in support of our elder, Amiri Baraka, 150% against the Zionists.”

At the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Mark Potok, who monitors the group, said while most black racism in the US was a reaction to white racism, “at some point you’ve got to stop. It just isn’t true that we’re in the same place as we were 40 years ago, with police departments filled with Klansmen, black people being killed across the South every day.”

The Nation of Islam had been crucial in nurturing black anti-Semitism, Potok said. “They have almost singlehandedly promulgated the myth that Jews ran the slave trade, which is almost ubiquitous in parts of the black community. And that’s just made up.”

Hilliard swore he would fight as hard in the courtroom as the Panthers once did with the gun.

“They have taken our name because they get instant validation from it, because there is a romanticism that attaches to it,” he said. “They think nobody’s minding the store. But they’re wrong.”—(c) Guardian Newspapers 2002

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