Like many other ex-sixties radicals, I once made the unfortunate mistake of thinking that the Black Panthers were a legitimate social protest movement. In fact, in August 1967, the New York Times Magazine published my charitable article on Huey Newton, complete with the now-iconic photo of the Panther “Minister of Defense” seated on an African wicker throne, with a gun in one hand and a spear in the other.
Within a few years, I understood that I should have described Newton and his cadres as psychopathic criminals, not social reformers. By now, a torrent of articles and books, many written by former sympathizers, has voluminously documented the Panther reign of murder and larceny within their own community. So much so that no one but a left-wing crank could still believe in the Panther myth of dedicated young blacks “serving the people” while heroically defending themselves against unprovoked attacks by the racist police.
Except, that is, at the New York Times, where the obsession with white guilt and black victimhood apparently trumps every standard of journalistic and historical accuracy.
Where else but in the Times could a review of an exhibit of photographs of the Black Panthers turn into a political lecture by a white art critic on the justice of black violence? In the Arts and Leisure section of May 25, commentator Holland Cotter instructs us that the advances promised by the plodding mainstream civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. could only have been seen as chump change by an intelligent young black like Huey Newton, living in a place like Oakland, California. Integrating public facilities might have been a legitimate goal for southern blacks, says Cotter, “but what could it do for a black kid stuck in a ghetto where no whites, except armed-to-the-teeth police, would be caught dead?” Cotter describes Newton and his sidekick, Bobby Seale, as “smart ambitious urban activists [who] had grown up with the 1950s civil rights movement, and knew it wasn’t enough.” Thus, what could these two frustrated civil rights activists do but create the Panthers, “one of the most potent revolutionary groups of the 60s”?
If Cotter had done a little research on his subject, he might have discovered that Huey Newton’s first prison sentence was not for civil rights or Black Panther activity but for stabbing another black man repeatedly at a party, and that before Newton created the Panthers he was regularly burglarizing homes in the wealthy Oakland hills. Of course Newton, as Cotter avers, was a very bright young man. In mastering texts by Marx, Mao, and Lenin, instead of Martin Luther King, he could find a higher justification for virtually any criminal act. After all, didn’t Comrade Stalin become a bank robber in the name of the revolution?
But the Times’s art critic doesn’t know about any of this—and doesn’t want to know. His purpose is to memorialize all the good things, like the Panther’s food and medical programs. It was a taste of socialism in one neighborhood, and it was all part of “a grass-roots movement that had audaciously tackled intertwined issues of race and class head-on.” So what happened to “that utopian instant”? Part of the reason it all came apart, says Cotter, was that “the haute bourgeois left turned off its largesse.” And why did the Panthers lose their crucial support from such liberal trendsetters as fawning booster Leonard Bernstein? According to the Times’s art critic, it was all because of a single work of criticism, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, by Tom Wolfe (an author who, not so coincidentally, is hated by most art critics, because he doesn’t think much of them). Wolfe’s “caustic little neoconservative classic” scared off the faint-hearted liberals, says Cotter.
So there you have it. In addition to the long list of sins committed by the neoconservatives, they also did in the heroic Panthers!
What Cotter cannot own up to is that the Panthers self-destructed because of the violence and larceny they imposed on their own community. In my Times Magazine article, I had quoted Newton as saying that he was willing to kill a cop. True to his word, he later shot and killed a 23-year-old Oakland police officer named John Frey after he pulled over Newton’s car. Newton pleaded self-defense, got off with a conviction for involuntary manslaughter, and was back on the streets in two years boasting about how he had “offed the pig.” When Panther accountant Betty van Patter discovered that the leaders were misappropriating money from the breakfast program that Cotter so piously praises, she was murdered. Cotter refers to “alleged attacks on the police, arrests, trials,” as if all this were perhaps in doubt. Of Newton’s confrontation with officer Frey, Cotter lapses evasively into the passive voice: “There was a shoot-out. An officer was killed. Newton was arrested for murder.” The shoot-out had an independent existence, separate from any individual shooter, Cotter wants to suggest. Who knows who killed the cop? Who knows whether the cops rightly arrested Newton?
And in fact, Cotter suggests, how could people whom the photos in the exhibition show to be so “beautiful”—like Newton, with his “clear, light skin and wide-spaced, candid dark eyes”—possibly be evil, no matter what heinous acts they allegedly committed? For this art-chatterer, the Panthers are aestheticized and sexualized, like the Nazis in Leni Riefenstahl’s films.
Evil? Not in the Times’s Arts and Leisure section! A little gunfire adds a certain excitement in maintaining the larger Times fiction of permanent black victimization in America.