Book Review: “The Shadow of the Panther” by Hugh Pearson – posted 9/21/2013
I suppose it is a bit odd to be reviewing a little noticed book that came out about 20 years ago. Sometimes very good books get ignored. Such is the case with Hugh Pearson’s book about the Black Panther Party, “The Shadow of the Panther”.
I was prompted to take a look at the book after reading Steve Wasserman’s excellent review of a new book on the Panthers, “Black Against Empire”. Wasserman’s provocative piece appeared in the June 24th issue of The Nation. He mentioned the Pearson book in the review.
Wasserman’s review was really interesting because most writing about the Panthers is either in the love or hate category. There are not many books or articles about the Panthers in the balanced, shades of gray category.
Hugh Pearson’s obscure book was something of a revelation to me. When I picked it up, I was struck by Ishmael Reed’s blurb inside the cover: “The best book on the Panthers yet published. Explosive is too mild a word with which to describe this book.” Reed was not kidding.
I think the book was brave. It is certainly an illusion smasher. The detail and specificity of many of the allegations in the book make it more difficult to argue with. For folks like myself, more inclined to the heroic narrative about the Panthers, the book was difficult to read.
Pearson delves heavily into the dark side. There are two narratives going on simultaneously. You have the bold Panthers who stand up to police brutality in the Black community. These Panthers ran the breakfast for children program, ran a free medical clinic for the underserved, set up schools, and registered voters. They were a source of pride in the Black community. Then there were the criminal Panthers. Murder, extortion, rape, drug offenses – and that barely begins to touch all the crimes Pearson reported.
Particularly in the Bay Area, the Panthers were portrayed as the equivalent of a gang of thugs. There were a litany of despicable acts Pearson reported. The extent of the thuggery is shocking. It is hard not to think that the public image of the Panthers was at quite a distance from the reality. The Panthers looked better from far off. The problem was that the closer you got, the more seamy underside became visible.
Central to the story is the saga of Huey P. Newton. I think it is fair to say that Huey was the central personality in the party during its heyday. Huey embodied a bundle of contradictions. He learned to fight early in his life. Pearson wrote that he acquired a reputation for being so bad, so quick to the draw, that others on the rough streets of Oakland respected him. He could hang on the street with the brothers but he was also quite intellectual. Pearson showed how Huey valued education and how he ended up getting both a B.A. degree and a Ph. D. later in his life.
Huey led the Panthers to have a class-based politics. He was not anti-white or any kind of cultural nationalist. He was also an internationalist and the Panthers supported many Third World liberation movements.
However, from the perspective of 2013, it is hard to ignore some of the crazy stuff that used to appear in the Black Panther, the party’s paper. I would note the offensive dehumanized pig language which was a regular feature that ran deeply in its pages. I also remember the occasional anti-semitism that would creep in, usually in relation to Israel and the Palestinians. Wasserman mentioned the adulation of totalitarian North Korea and now deceased dictator, Kim Il-Sung. The Panthers somehow thought the North Korean concept of juche could fit here in America. Really that is bizarro world.
There was an element of megalomania with Huey. The titles he endorsed for himself included “Supreme Commander”, “Servant of the People”, “Supreme Servant of the People” and “Servant”. “Minister of Defense” was not enough. Talk about grandiose. After reading the book, the title “Servant” seems like unintended irony. While Huey had guts big time, considering all aspects, a more accurate title might have been “Self-Servant”.
In his personal life, Huey had a huge problem with substance abuse. Really that was what did him in. He had long-term issues with alcohol and cocaine and he siphoned off money collected by the Party to feed his addictions. At the end of his life in 1989, there were contracts out on him and not because of his politics. He had crossed other drug dealers, had tried to muscle them, and they wanted him dead.
Huey and much of the Panther leadership had a ridiculously sexist and abusive treatment of women. Pearson tells many stories. Eldridge Cleaver may have been the worst but Huey’s behavior was out of control. I would note that the picture Pearson presented of Elaine Brown, one of the most prominent female Panther leaders, was not flattering either.
There were any number of stories that freaked me out. The Party’s roles in the execution of their former bookkeeper, Betty Van Patter, is a horrible story. As is the story of Huey’s role in the shooting death of a very young prostitute, Kathleen Smith. The murders aside, the story I found unbelievable was Huey’s bullwhipping of Bobby Seale. Next to Huey, Bobby was the second most famous Panther leader. It is shocking that Huey could have treated his own close comrade so brutally but Huey was frequently erratic. I am hoping someday Bobby writes a memoir that pulls no punches. In Wasserman’s article, it sounded like he was considering that.
There was much competition and rivalry among Panther leaders. They were frequently expelling members or disciplining them for perceived slights. Macho posturing was common. Pearson says that Huey was enamored of the movie The Godfather. He went to see it repeatedly and required Party members to do the same.
Pearson wrote that Huey began dressing in a fedora, cape and tailored suits after seeing the movie. There is a horrifying story about how Huey pistol-whipped a tailor whom he had invited to his penthouse apartment.
The Party became a monstrosity of self-imposed wounds. At the same time, it was a victim of Cointelpro, a covert government effort to discredit and disrupt political organizations like the Panthers. While the Party often pointed to Cointelpro as the basis for many problems, that is clearly a grossly inadequate explanation.
Cointelpro did place informants and agent provocateurs in the Party. They tried to blackmail Party members and they worked to create a climate of fear about their infiltration. Still, it was the clandestine illegal activities of the Party itself which was its real achilles heel. Pearson believed that Betty Van Patter’s murder at the hands of the Panthers was due to the fact she knew too much about the clandestine activities. There was like a mafia goon squad around the Panther leadership.
That is not to say that the police and the FBI did not target the Panthers. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had called the Panthers the greatest threat to the internal security of the country. Hoover’s assessment was ludicrous but he followed up on it. The wave of attacks on the Panthers from 1967 to 1969 was hardly an accident. The constant raids on Panther offices across the country capped by the police murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark was part of a consistent project. We still only have a partial picture. It is wrong that no one was ever charged in relation to the murders of Hampton and Clark.
A deeper problem with the Panthers was their fixation on the gun and violence. That was so the wrong direction for any progressive political movement trying to gain a popular foothold. It scared far more people than it attracted. The gun stuff was a pose and in my opinion, stupid adventurism. The Panthers would have been far more effective if they had focused on constructively addressing the many social and economic problems in their communities. They could have stood up without the gun emphasis that too often defined them.
I always thought it was strange Huey titled his books “Revolutionary Suicide” and “To Die For the People”. Why would a revolutionary be so fixated on death or suicide? What kind of vision is that? The titles reflected a sort of death wish or prophecy. There was a lack of perspective about how far the Party was from reaching most Americans, let alone African Americans.
Pearson quotes Saul Alinsky about the Panthers:
“I like the Panthers, I really do, They’re nuts of course, but they’re really a fantasy of that senile political paranoid in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover. They haven’t got the numbers and they know nothing about revolutionary tactics. What kind of revolutionary is it who shouts that all power comes out of the muzzle of a gun when he knows damn well the other side’s got all the guns.”
The gun focus pointed the Panthers in the wrong direction. It created a justification for the repression that came down later. I certainly do not deny or disregard the idealism that brought so many good people into the Panthers. The problem was that the Panthers were so alienated that they could not figure out how to constructively advance their agenda.
Pearson argued that the Panthers focused on defiant symbolism rather than concrete achievements. He placed the Panthers in the historical continuum of organizations created to promote civil rights bur he placed them on no pedestal and he did not have a favorable opinion of the Panthers compared to SNCC and earlier civil rights advocates. I would credit the book with presenting a more critical and honest perspective than is the usual fare when the Panthers are discussed. People on the left could learn from this book and it deserves a wider readership than it ever obtained. In my opinion, leftists remain cowardly when it comes to honestly assessing both the strengths and weaknesses of the Panthers.
Unfortunately Hugh Pearson died in 2005. He was only 47 when he died. He deserves credit for taking on such a controversial subject and for moving honest discussion forward.