Ex-Panther and the nature of violence

March 27, 2000|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I USED TO KNOW this guy named Wallace who, as a young man, joined the Black Panthers. He told me a story once about the night he and some friends got into a rolling shoot-out with Los Angeles police, a high-speed chase that ended with a crash into somebody's living room.

Shotgun in hand, a friend at his side, Wallace bailed out and bolted down an alley. An officer ordered them to freeze. Wallace spun around to fire, but his rifle jammed. The cop pulled the trigger. "Blew my partner up," said Wallace.

The friend was hit "in the rectum," splattering his intestines. A second bullet ricocheted through his throat. Wallace hopped a fence, but police caught up with him. He told me that when they brought him back to where his partner lay, closer to death than life, the first thing he felt was a shock of pride.

That the Panthers meant something. That they stood for something.

It's the recent arrest of former Panther Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin that brings Wallace to mind. Al-Amin was born 56 years ago as Hubert Gerold Brown, but history knows him best as H. "Rap" Brown, who once stoked fire and fury in the decaying heart of the cities.

"Violence," he famously said, "is as American as cherry pie." He said other things, too, exhorting students in Cambridge, Md., to "burn this town down." He called on blacks to arm themselves because, "The only thing honkies respect is guns."

Al-Amin later went to prison after being convicted on a number of charges, including federal weapons violations and inciting to riot. He converted to Islam there.

We're told by friends and supporters that Al-Amin had become a different man in recent years. A man who counseled troubled people. A man who confronted drug dealers. A gentle and decent man who could never have done what Atlanta police say he did a few days ago: namely shoot two policemen, killing one, after they approached him with an arrest warrant on charges of receiving stolen goods and impersonating an officer. Al-Amin himself says he's the victim of "a government conspiracy."

It's worth noting that during his dangerous days as a '60s radical, the man was precisely that; he was a target of the FBI's infamous counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO. On the other hand, the charge of government conspiracy is difficult to swallow 30-something years later, given that Al-Amin was no longer a threatening youngblood.

That being the case, we find ourselves grappling with a stunning irony. Namely, that a revolutionary who once carried arms in the fight for black liberation might have gunned down two men who are, themselves, black.

It wouldn't be a surprise, though.

Violence pledges allegiance to no ideology. It has a way of overflowing boundaries, subsuming even righteous causes. It has a way of becoming an end unto itself.

Which is not to say that violence can never be an instrument of social justice. The Civil War, to name but the most obvious example, argues otherwise. And no less imposing a pacifist than Martin Luther King Jr. once said that Adolf Hitler's evil was so monstrous that he, King, would have put aside his pacifism to fight it.

Violence, we must reluctantly concede, has its place.

And yet, it's more often true -- and this was certainly the case in the turbulent '60s -- that violence becomes an expedient. It becomes an excuse for the shortsightedness of women and men, for their failures of patience, faith, courage, logic, wisdom. For their inability to imagine another way. Or to give peace a chance.

Writer and critic Mary McCarthy once said, "In violence we forget who we are." So the question is, in peace, can we remember again?

I don't know the answer. But I can tell you this: Last time I saw Wallace, the armed revolutionary was an entrepreneur who owned a furniture company. He had a kid or two and his hair was thinning.

And then, there's Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, who either made a change or just fooled people into thinking he had -- who either overcame the excuse of violence or just hid it away for later use in the recesses of his heart.

If he's not innocent, then he's pathetic. A man who was never able to remember again who he was. Or maybe a man who never even knew.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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