The Black Panthers in Oakland
by Chris Gordon
An armed response to police racism and brutality in Oakland, The
Black Panthers began as a handful of men under Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, dedicated to protecting the black community from oppression. By following police patrols and observing interactions between officers and members of the community, Panthers hoped to reduce the violence against the people of Oakland.
An armed protest staged at the Sacramento State Capitol to protest a gun ban and a shootout between Panther leader Huey Newton and Oakland police officer John Frey made the Panthers a recognized name across the United States. The altercation with Frey resulted in Frey’s death and Newton’s arrest on a murder charge. An organized protest against Newton’s incarceration forged alliances between Panthers and other minority groups and white radicals and helped to expand the Panther organization achieving over thirty chapters and 10,000
members at its height. Newton would be found guilty on a voluntary manslaughter charge before being released on a technicality two years later.
Expanding their organization to include numerous community outreach programs, the Panthers helped feed school children, provided clothes and shoes, even plumbing and pest control in an attempt to better their image and uplift the black community. The addition of their own newspaper The Black Panther, drove the Panther’s message to thousands of people both in America and internationally, reaching 125,000 units sold per week. In a
momentous event, the Panthers supported Lionel Wilson in the years leading to his successful mayoral run in 1977 becoming Oakland’s first black mayor.
However, the Panthers militant image and conflict with local police
forces overshadowed their humanitarian and political successes. The FBI labeled the Panthers as a threat to internal security and tasking their counter intelligence programs with combating the Panthers through surveillance, misinformation, undercover operatives, and arrests.
Internally, Panther leadership found itself unable to reach consensus on the organization’s changing alliances and programs causing splits and resignations from some top leaders, especially after Newton’s release from prison. Newton returned to lead a greatly expanded organization he was unfamiliar with. Looking to regain control he centralized the Black Panthers in Oakland, recalling all leadership members and closing many Panther chapters. Newton’s growing drug addiction added further strain amongst leaders causing
some notable members to quit. When founding partner Bobby Seale left the Party in 1974 it signaled an exodus of many other members.
Under continued pressure from the FBI and the Panther’s leadership
struggles, the Party began to decline. With much of their money going to legal defense and bail, the social programs were slowly cancelled and The Black Panther newspaper ceased its circulation. By 1980, Party membership had dropped to only twenty-seven members and by 1982 The Black Panther Party ceased to provide any service it had once performed.
Though no longer an active force in Oakland, the Panthers forged the voting community into a political voice that is still active today. Furthermore, the Panthers opposition to police brutality helped turn public opinion against the police department, prompting an increase in the number of black officers and strengthening punishments against cops who abuse their power.
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