Free Huey!
"You Can Jail a Revolutionary,
But You Can't Jail the Revolution"

On October 28th, 1967, the prophecy of violence was realized in a battle of gunplay between Huey Newton and the Oakland Police Department that left Officer John Frey dead, Officer Herbert Heanes shot several times, and Newton wounded in the stomach. The actual events of that evening’s confrontation were never established definitively beyond the physical evidence; for all effective purposes they were negligible. What mattered most were the ways in which the import of the shooting and Huey’s arrest for the death of Officer Frey were manipulated by the press and the Panthers. For the national media, the Panthers’ potential for violence merited no further debate—the question had been resolved with the worst possible outcome, the death of a police officer. Yet for the Panthers, the incident was a validation of sorts, a proof that their complaints of police brutality were warranted. Reports trickled out that police had handled the arrest of a badly injured Newton with excessive force; a widely distributed photograph displayed him shackled to a hospital gurney so that his stomach wound was tensed and contracted, obviously worsening his pain. Meanwhile, a confused and angry officer tried to block the photographer’s shot.

Eldridge Cleaver further framed the incident as an example of the Panther’s refusal to be intimidated; in his words, Huey Newton had “dealt with [Frey’s] transgression of the territorial integrity of the Black community in a necessary way.” [24] His actions and attitude were to be emulated, not condemned. Newton, for his part, more than willingly accepted the role of revolutionary exemplar thrust upon him. As Cleaver and the party made the decision to use Newton’s case as the cause celebrč of the Black Panthers, recognizing “that a potential black martyr could galvanize young blacks of all persuasions, in a way that they couldn’t be otherwise,” [25] Newton remained calmly in jail, seemingly unruffled by the prospect of his trial, conviction, and possible execution. “My life had to come to an end sometime,” he rationalized. “But the people go on; in them lies the possibility for immortality…since each man eventually gives up his life, death can only be controlled through the ongoing life of the people.” [26] With his new status as a national icon, Newton had been handed the opportunity to promote the Black Panther platform, to use his “incarceration [as] a continual reminder to the outside world of the outrageous tactics of the police.” In his opinion, “every day they kept me there I grew as a symbol of the brutalization of the poor and Black as well as a living reproach to society’s indifference to the inequities of the legal system.” [27] To Newton, the immediate publicity opportunities for the party outweighed the prospect of severe legal consequences for himself.

As Huey remained behind bars, coolly embodying resistance to injustice, the leadership of the party rallied the radical community around his image, temporarily uniting with SNCC [28] as well as forming an uneasy coalition with PFP. [29] The likeness of Huey P. Newton and the “Free Huey” slogan were emblazoned on flags, buttons, t-shirts, and posters; through heavy marketing this propaganda became “as popular among white radicals as antiwar buttons with peace signs.” [30] The hype of the Free Huey movement perhaps was represented best at the Oakland rally held in his honor on February 17, 1968, [31] where the merger with SNCC was announced. Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, and H. Rap Brown, three prominent members of SNCC, spoke about the great sacrifices that Newton was making for black people everywhere, thus reinforcing the idea that he had come to personify the troubles of an entire race. Carmichael announced that Huey Newton was “part and parcel of black people wherever we are on the world,” [32] removing Newton’s specific identity and encouraging the audience to view him as not just the symbol of the movement, but its very essence. Huey’s immediate condition was equated with the ultimate fate of the black community, and Forman’s inflammatory vow that “Brother Huey must be set free or else the sky is the limit!” [33] demonstrated that blacks had accepted Huey’s status as an indicator of their own oppression. Huey’s imprisonment was everyone’s plight; the fight for his freedom was their own struggle for liberty.

The significant but subtle implication of Huey Newton’s newfound position as the shared plight of the black race was the forfeiture of his individual will – as this symbol, Newton became a fixed icon for the party. His imprisonment permanently determined the nation’s interpretation and meaning of him, just as Malcolm X’s assassination had forever cemented his identity and achievements as they existed in 1963. Thus, on many levels, Newton’s actual incarceration meant a figurative social death more than his possible execution would mean literal physical death. As the view of Huey as the apotheosis of the revolution increased, his agency and chance for personal development decreased. His death as an individual agent preceded and overwhelmed the likelihood of his death by execution.

This concept was highlighted during the rally, where the speakers often referred to Newton as one not existent in the present: “Huey told me to tell you…” or “Huey said….” transforming the occasion into a sort of eulogy. [34] Stokely Carmichael proclaimed that “Huey Newton laid down his life for us,” [35] encouraging the audience to view Huey’s imprisonment as a sacrifice equivalent to death, while he gestured to the empty chair behind him—Eldridge Cleaver had placed the wicker chair of the infamous photograph on the stage, a reminder that the proud Huey Newton once had sat among them. One reporter describing the rally noted that “it was almost as though Huey P. Newton were already dead…We usually require of those among us who would be immortal that they first cease to breathe and be buried before claiming the exalted status. But even as Huey Newton continued to be mortal, the throne was his.” [36] As Cleaver had predicted, the Panthers’ founder had emerged as the sacrificial herald of the revolution—

From the mouths of Free Huey activists, Huey began to sound like a messiah. Their enthusiasm to see Huey set free paralleled the Christian enthusiasm for the second coming…Young radicals and militants of all persuasions began preparing for the rebellion they were sure Huey would lead. [37]

The party’s hype surrounding Huey Newton (which the Black Panther reinforced weekly by emblazoning Newton’s stern countenance on its masthead) made for great press and media attention; his imprisoned figure was an ideal site on which to project the larger goals of the revolution. And, as Hugh Pearson suggests, the timing of Newton’s arrest and incarceration was perfect: “Everyone was searching for something to sustain their various agendas, and Huey Newton was turned into fertilizer for them all.” [38] However, eager as Newton was to assume the role of the martyr and the Panthers to assign it to him, the fact that he was still alive remained a paradox that neither could reconcile. This conflict was avoidable as long as Newton remained passive and in jail, but the Panthers’ fiery rhetoric, demanding—even promising—an immediate revolution was not viable for the long term. Eventually the revolution would have to begin. “People kept saying we’re going to have a revolution when Huey gets out of prison,” a member of SNCC recalled. “And at twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, you think, oh yeah? But then a part of you asks yourself, If he doesn’t get out, does that mean we’re not going to have a revolution?” [39]

For the Panthers, Newton’s imprisonment allowed the special opportunity to market him not only as a martyr, but also as a martyr who could still provide sound bytes. Joan Didion observed that “almost everything Huey Newton said had the ring of being a ‘quotation’ or ‘pronouncement’ to be employed when the need arose.” [40] Newton’s words were revealed to the community as encouragement, confirmation that despite, or perhaps because of his imprisonment, their revolution would be achieved: “There will be no prison which can hold our movement down…The walls, the bars, the guns and the guards can never encircle or hold down the idea of the people.” [41] In his writings, Huey Newton constantly stressed the idea that his life would be a sacrifice for the people—indeed, the very titles of his books illustrate his obsession with the martyr role: To Die for the People (1972) and Revolutionary Suicide (1973). Newton’s conception of revolutionary suicide [42] involved a deliberate offering of himself as a means to raise consciousness and educate the masses, evidenced by his continuous discussion of death:

The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man. Unless he understands this, he does not grasp the essential meaning of his life. [43]

My fear was not of death itself, but a death without meaning. I wanted my death to be something the people could relate to, a basis for further mobilization of the community. [44]

I expected to die. At no time before the trial did I expect to escape with my life. Yet being executed in the gas chamber did not necessarily mean defeat. It could be one more step to bring the community to a higher level of consciousness. [45]

The jury’s verdict of September 8, 1968, proved Newton’s expectations of martyrdom unwarranted: “We the jury find the defendant Huey P. Newton guilty of a felony, to wit, voluntary manslaughter, a violation of Section 192 of the Penal Code of the State of California, a lesser and included offense within the offense charged in the first account of the indictment.” [46] The verdict was a compromise: Newton would not face the death penalty, but he would serve significant time. Yet, to almost all concerned parties, the decision was a disappointment. Newton and the Panthers had been gearing up for his complete vindication or execution by the state—either choice would have advanced the party’s agenda of revolution. Similarly, the police and right-wing media had hoped for a death sentence to serve as a vindication of Officers Frey and Heanes and the police department, and also as a warning to the Panthers that their violence would not be tolerated. Newton reacted to the verdict with a public announcement, begging that they “use restraint and not show violent eruption at this time for the reason that the establishment would like to have an excuse to send in 2,000 or 8,000 troops.” [47] The people minded his words and “stayed cool.” Ironically, it was two Oakland police officers that resorted to violence to express their anger. After sharing a few drinks in memory of their fallen colleague Frey, the officers sped past the Black Panther offices in their patrol cars and fired a volley of bullets into the front windows, shattering the glass and the steel frame underneath. A poster of Huey Newton in his wicker throne hung prominently in the center of the office, torn by multiple bullet holes. It would become yet another well-known symbol of Huey's sacrifice for the black community, simply one more icon of his oppression.

"If you so much as touch a hair on Huey's pretty head, you better give your soul to the Lord because your ass belongs to the Black Panther Party."

--Earl Anthony, Spitting in the Wind

"At this moment our leader, Brother Huey P. Newton, is being tried by old baldheaded racists who are predetermined to send him to the gas chamber. But they will carry out the sentence over our dead bodies. There seems to be little hope of avoiding armed war in the streets of California and of preventing it from sweeping across the nation. If there has to be a war, then let there be a war."

--Eldridge Cleaver

"There was an inevitably about the Huey Newton trial which drove me fairly insane. The smell of manifest destiny was everywhere. A giant ferris wheel, spinning, controlled by a conspiracy of faceless robots. In its path lay Huey Newton."

--Gilbert Moore, A Special Rage

Pushed into the corner
Of the hobnailed boot,
Pushed into the corner of the
"I don't-want-to-die" cry,
Pushed into the corner of
"I don't want to study no more,"
Changed into "Eye for eye,"
The Panther in his desperate boldness
Wears no disguise,
Motivated by the truest of the oldest lies.

--Langston Hughes, "Black Panther"

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