Ex-Panther continues to push for change

October 28, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Paul Coates pondered each question I asked him, taking half a minute or so before he answered. His answers were measured, articulate and intelligent.

Just the Coates I remembered from the days when he was the captain of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party.

This month Coates was in Oakland, Calif., celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. It was the latest of several gatherings that reunited former members of the organization that Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded.

"The reunion was great," Coates said. "I have attended most of the reunions we've done. There was a 20th, 25th, 30th, 35th and now the 40th. I've had the benefit of reconnecting with people and with the past."

Coates became captain of the Baltimore Panthers at a particularly dangerous time in their existence. In April 1970, Baltimore police officers Donald Sager and Stanley Sierakowski were shot on the city streets. Sager died; Sierakowski was seriously wounded but survived.

Three members of the Baltimore Black Panther Party were arrested and charged with the crime: Jack Ivory Johnson, James Edward Powell and Marshall "Eddie" Conway. (Conway was convicted and received a life sentence. He's still in prison today.) Other Panthers were arrested. The party was in disarray. Coates was just a community activist with strong Panther sympathies then.

"As part of that set-up for Eddie," said Coates, who believes Conway is innocent and was convicted on the perjured testimony of a jailhouse informant, "they [police] busted about 20 people. They manufactured charges that would absorb bail money. That was a tactic police used across the country."

Coates attended a meeting of the Panthers in New York and told them of the situation in Baltimore. They made him the new captain of the party's Baltimore chapter. Coates said he soon got a taste of what those who had joined the party before him got.

"About 15 cops surrounded me with their guns drawn out," Coates recalled. "I had 15 attempted-murder charges on me. The `victims' were the cops surrounding me with their guns out."

Coates said he was arrested for everything from those "attempted murders" down to parking tickets "that weren't parking tickets." He went to court on the attempted murder charges with Billy Murphy as his attorney.

"It was Billy's first criminal case," Coates said. "The charges were thrown out. None of [those charges] went to court. It was a way of restraining the Panthers and having them exhaust their finances. It constantly kept us on the defensive."

Those were just the tactics of the local police. The feds used COINTELPRO -- the brainchild of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover -- to neutralize the Panthers. COINTELPRO informants working for the FBI acted as agents provocateurs, spies and disruptive elements in the Black Panther Party and black nationalist groups.

Two of the informants, brothers George and Larry Stiner, fatally shot two Black Panthers on the UCLA campus in 1969. The Stiners were members of Ron Karenga's US organization. Informant William O'Neal infiltrated the Chicago Panther chapter, rising to become chief of security for Illinois party leader Fred Hampton. It was O'Neal who drew the floor plans for the police raid of Dec. 4, 1969, in which Chicago cops killed Hampton and Mark Clark.

While security chief for the Chicago Panthers, O'Neal "also devised an `electric' chair that members were told would be used for traitors and informers," according to a 1982 New York Times article. After his work with the FBI, O'Neal was an informant for a Chicago cop who was charged with killing a drug dealer. It turns out that in the latter case, O'Neal snitched first and snitched best.

Details about characters such as O'Neal are part of the history of those sympathetic to the Panthers. For those who consider the Panthers "gangsters" and "thugs" -- writers Sol Stern, David Horowitz and Kate Coleman, among them -- O'Neal is barely mentioned. But Betty Van Patter is.

Van Patter was a white woman whom Horowitz, then a left-wing activist, recommended the Oakland, Calif., Panthers hire as a bookkeeper. She was killed in 1974. Horowitz has contended for years that the Oakland Panthers did it because Van Patter turned up something not kosher about the organization's books.

Those are the bad things about the party: misdeeds that should be attributed to its national leadership in Oakland. Former members -- the rank and file -- prefer to remember the good things. Coates, as captain of the Baltimore chapter, was one of those good things. He brought order and sanity to a chapter that, he claims, had been started by an agent of the National Security Agency.

These days, Coates runs Black Classic Press, which was started to provide books to prisoners. That won't surprise Leila McDowell, who works at the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation in Washington. A former Panther, McDowell said she knows several ex-Panthers who are involved in social change.

"I keep running into former Black Panthers that kind of continue that tradition," McDowell said.

gregory.kane@baltsun.com

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