Mythologizing the Black Panthers Means Picking the Wrong Heroes @

June 04, 1995|By ADAM HOCHSCHILD

San Francisco -- Everybody seems to be reconsidering the 1960s. First Robert McNamara says the Vietnam War was wrong after all.

And now a new movie, "Panther," directed by Mario Van Peebles from a screenplay by his father, Melvin Van Peebles, glorifies the Black Panther Party.

I was in the anti-war movement. I was also a civil rights worker in Mississippi. I'm proud on both counts.

There were a lot of great things about the '60s that we need to rediscover and praise. But the Black Panther Party was not one of them.

The Panthers started out impressively enough, with some noble rhetoric, free breakfasts for schoolchildren and an array of black self-help programs -- mainly in their home base in Oakland, but elsewhere, too.

The party soon became the target of a vicious, well-documented program of provocations and murderous raids by police and the FBI.

But noble rhetoric and persecution do not make people heroes. The Panthers quickly degenerated into a criminal gang, extorting merchants, trading drugs -- and beating and killing people who got in their way.

The violent nature of the Black Panther Party has been exposed abundantly, most notably in several magazine articles by Kate Coleman, a white Berkeley journalist, and in a book, "The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America," by Hugh Pearson, an African-American writer who was once a Pacific News Service editor and is now with the Wall Street Journal.

A surprising amount of detail about the party's descent into drug-dealing and brutality can also be found in recent memoirs by two former Panthers, David Hilliard and Elaine Brown. They still idolize the party's charismatic leader, Huey Newton. He was shot dead in 1989 as he tried to buy rock cocaine in West Oakland from an ex-convict with a grudge against him.

One particularly vocal critic is David Horowitz, the '60s activist and Panther supporter who has become an extreme right-wing gadfly. Even though I vehemently disagree with almost everything Mr. Horowitz now stands for, on this issue he is 100 percent right.

The Panthers had many victims. One was Betty Van Patter. An East Bay bookkeeper, she was hired to bring some order to the Panthers' chaotic array of business enterprises.

She told friends that she was finding suspicious irregularities in the account books. She promptly disappeared. In early 1975, her corpse was found in the bay. I knew Ms. Van Patter slightly, and her daughter was a colleague of mine at work.

In the new movie "Panther," you won't find Betty's murder, nor any of the other unsolved killings the Panthers left behind. Instead, you'll find the Panthers made into idols.

And you'll find some preposterous villains: the FBI and the Mafia together conspiring to introduce drugs into the ghetto, in order to weaken black militancy.

Come on, now. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was guilty of so many real abuses, why make up imaginary ones? Anyone who blames the FBI for the drug plague is as loony as the militia types who blame the Oklahoma City bombing on black helicopters full of Japanese secret agents. Conspiracy theories like these are ways to avoid coming to grips with tragedies whose origins are more complex and much closer to home.

In defending their film, the makers of "Panther" talk about how the black community today is in crisis, and needs heroes to celebrate. True enough. But who does it serve to make heroes out of people who ran extortion rackets and left a trail of blood through their own community?

Except for Betty Van Patter, almost all the Panthers' victims were black.

There are plenty of real black heroes to acclaim. Why not celebrate someone like the legendary, self-effacing Bob Moses, a pioneer civil rights worker, often beaten and jailed in Mississippi, who 35 years later is running an imaginative model program to teach math to inner-city kids?

If we're going to reconsider the '60s, fine. But let's do so with our eyes wide open. Like all times in history, the '60s were a decade of unsung heroes and unnoticed villains. To give both their due requires honest vision and not fairy tales.

San Francisco writer Adam Hochschild is a former editor of Mother Jones magazine.

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