Panther Patrols: Publicity and Performance
"It's About Gettin' the Man's Attention"

The Black Panther Party was founded in late 1966, at the genesis of the Black Nationalist movement, before the notion of “Black Power” had fully replaced the theory of non-violence. From the outset, Huey Newton emphasized the importance of image and visibility. Newton and Seale had grown restless with the over-intellectualization and ineffectual rhetoric of academic African-American associations. In their view, such groups of “armchair revolutionaries” [9] were little more than cultural debating societies. They felt they “had no choice but to form an organization that would involve the lower-class brothers.” [10] The party would be one of action and not mere words; they therefore turned from the college campus to the streets to fill the ranks, and guns figured prominently in this task: “To recruit any sizable number of street brothers, we would obviously have to do more than talk…If the Black community has learned to respect anything, it has learned to respect the gun.” [11]

The Panthers' basic ideology was one of armed protection against police oppression: “The key plank of the Panther platform, the one which would shape its history and predetermine its course, was a non-negotiable demand for the immediate end of police harassment and brutality in the black community…indeed, their very name proclaimed a dedication to the concept of armed self-defense.” [12] For Huey Newton, the black ghetto was merely a colonized nation at war with an oppressive police state. The residents of the black community therefore had a right to defend themselves against acts of aggression, and who better to police the streets of Oakland than the “brothers off the block?—brothers who had been out there robbing banks, brothers who had been pimping, brothers who had been peddling dope, brothers who ain’t gonna take no shit.” [13]

In keeping with this motive, “the official party uniform—black leather with a matching beret—was selected with an eye toward fashion and the traditional ghetto status symbols.” [14] However, it was the gun that provided the most significant “status symbol” in the eyes of the community. The gun was a rhetorical tool, deployed to impress black urban audiences and to warn law enforcement officers and other outsiders. Newton described the emphasis on the gun as “a necessary phase in [the Panthers’] evolution, based on Frantz Fanon’s contention that the people have to be shown that the colonizers and their agents—the police—are not bulletproof...this action was a bold step in making [the Ten Point] program [15] known and raising the consciousness of people.” [16]

The action certainly was a “bold step” – the sight of the cocky and confrontational Newton, winking at officers from behind his weapon and challenging white authority awed most blacks. Such confrontations with police were common in the early days of the party, as Newton, his law book in one hand and shotgun in the other, capitalized on every opportunity to demonstrate his command of the streets in front of an audience:

[Newton] watched the shaky officer approach, surrendering his license as required but refusing to yield any information not demanded by statute.

“What are you doing with the guns?” the patrolman asked, torn between obvious fear and hostility.

“What are you doing with your gun?” Newton countered…

Visibly tense and on edge, the police [began] to toss hostile questions at Newton…he answered jibe for jibe, seeming to enjoy the long-delayed meeting, knowing that one such confrontation might be worth a hundred members for the party. He was in his element, playing to the crowd as he asserted his right to bear arms, announcing his intention to open fire if the police should draw their guns or try to disarm his men illegally. In the end, the police were beaten. [17]

The guns thus figured in the Panthers’ “staging” [18] of the revolution in three important ways: black men were finally on equal footing with the police, able to defend themselves from brutality; police were intimidated and backed off; and the community of black onlookers was empowered by the individual act of defiance. The clashes with police were specifically targeted at this black audience, and in many instances, their presence on the street was deliberately solicited: “Come on out, black people. Come on out and get to know about these racist dog swine who been controlling our community and occupying our community like a foreign troop. Come on out and we’re going to show you about swine pigs.” [19] The Panthers relied on these demonstrations to educate the community about their rights and the Ten Point Program, as well as to recruit potential members.

The Black Panther newspaper also became a crucial tool in the efforts toward propaganda and recruitment, serving both as an internal organ and as the party’s public vehicle. The paper introduced and propagated the symbols and rhetoric that would attract national attention, such as the use of the terms swine and pigs in reference to police. [20] After the media-savvy Eldridge Cleaver took over as Black Panther Minister of Information in mid-1967, the paper began to print images specifically intended to incite controversy. One of Cleaver’s first ideas was the set-up for the famous picture of Newton in the wicker chair—a portrait that endures even today as an icon of the Black Panther Party. The story behind the photograph itself was simple enough: “Cleaver took a wicker chair and positioned it like a black African throne surrounded by appropriate decorations—two warrior’s shields, and an animal pelt on the floor. Newton sat in the wicker chair in full Panther regalia, holding a spear in his left hand and a shotgun in his right.” [21] The African cultural symbols were an acknowledgement of black pride and nationalism, while the spear and the shotgun were reminders that the time for empowered action had arrived. [22] However, liberal and conservative audiences would manipulate the photograph in drastically different ways. To the left, black and white, Huey Newton was the nation’s preeminent symbol of black resistance to the white power structure and establishment. In contrast, the right framed him as a serious threat to law and order and the embodiment of the frightening potential for racial violence in the United States.

National audiences continued to have trouble differentiating between rhetorical threats of violence and real actions, between what the Panthers might mean to the nation symbolically and any real threat they posed. In the Black Panther, phrases like “the sky’s the limit” and “all power to the people” were repeated frequently to give a sense of determination and relevance to the Panther cause, but to mainstream America, these seemed like threats of an imminent violent revolution. Thus, as much as the Panthers’ rhetoric and symbolism aided their cause on the left, it solidified the case against them for the rest of the nation. Especially in the perception of the police, Huey Newton’s Panthers were a very real and violent shoot-out waiting to happen, for according to Michael Newton, “the early scuffles with the establishment [had] convinced many that the Black Panther Party meant business. Newton and his men were ready to put their personal safety where their mouths were.” [23] The stage was set for a violent confrontation, and all those involved must have wondered only when and where it would take place.

"The Panthers had the audacity to walk around patrolling affluent white communities and suburbs. It was guerilla theater. Their message to residents was, let's see how you like someone armed, in uniform, of a color different from you, walking around in your neighborhood."

--Hugh Pearson, The Shadow of the Panther

"If a Hollywood director were to choose them as stars of a movie melodrama of revolution, he would be accused of typecasting.
The leader: lithe, slender, saturnine and handsome. He looks out at the world with dark, slitted, suspicious eyes. In his hands, at port arms, a blunt, ugly riot gun.
The chief lieutenant: also lithe and slender but taller. Face grim and tight, set off by a thick mustache.
But these two are not actors and this is not Hollywood. This is Oakland, California. The melodrama is real, the guns are real. The two young men are real revolutionaries."

--San Francisco Chronicle, 1967

“Newton had symbolized the Panthers; to much of the media he was the Panthers, seated in the high back bamboo chair wearing the black beret, trousers and shirt of the Black Pantehr Party, armed, bandoliers across his chest. Ah, yes, the photography that sent hearts aflutter in the late 1960s while the love affair with the Panthers was still going on. What happened?”

--Michael Newton, Bitter Grain

"Black people had been taught nonviolence; it was deep in us. What good, however, was nonviolence when the police were determined to rule by force? We had seen the Oakland police and California Highway Patrol begin to carry their shotguns in full view as another way of striking fear into the community. We had seen all this, and we recognized that the rising consciousness of Black people was almost at the point of explosion."

--Huey Newton, Revoutionary Suicide

"The Black Panthers are American to the core-in their lifelong romance with guns, in their inherent disdain for intellectualism, in their haste to solve big problems with simple solutions."

--Gilbert Moore, A Special Rage

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