Pack this many Black Panthers into a room more than three decades ago and the pigs probably would have besieged the place. Then the shooting would have begun, with the Panthers trying to give as good as they got.
But this week's 35th reunion of what J. Edgar Hoover called "the single greatest threat to the internal security of the United States" is passing unremarked by the police. The only guns are in the vintage photos on the walls at the University of the District of Columbia -- clutched by lean young men in black leather jackets, tight black pants, black boots and black berets cocked at a revolutionary angle. Huey P. Newton. Bobby Seale. Eldridge Cleaver.
Heads turn: Here comes a familiar face. The man wades into the crowd of 200. His reunion name tag dangles from his neck. Beneath the once-notorious logo featuring the fierce crouching black cat, it says: "Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Black Panther Party."
Look at Bobby now. He hasn't shelled out $15 for the powder-blue reunion T-shirt yet. He's wearing a blue button-down shirt, khakis held up by red suspenders, a baseball cap advertising "www.bobbyseale.com," where he sells Panther merchandise and his book "Barbeque'n With Bobby Seale." He's a gray Panther now, 65, a little stooped, with a comfortable belly. He still has the same piercing eyes and almost feminine long eyelashes he had when he used to sling a shotgun over his shoulder.
"Big Man!" Seale exclaims joyfully when he spots Elbert "Big Man" Howard, former deputy minister of information and first editor of the Black Panther newspaper, who campaigned to get Bobby out of jail on that murder charge in New Haven, Conn., in 1971. Seale was acquitted. "Big Man is the nicest person on Earth," Seale says.
Howard, 64, doesn't look like the giant in the photo of the original six party members in his back yard in Oakland, 1966. "I used to be quite big before age got me and I shrunk," he says, laughing.
Howard whips out old photos of Seale's campaign team when Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973 and the Panthers exchanged their leather and berets for bad suits and Afros. "The Polyester Gang!" Seale says with a chuckle, as he embraces Sultan Ahmad, 55, a former leader of the Philadelphia chapter, who was his campaign manager and now is deputy executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
"Look at Bobby Rush," Ahmad says affectionately, pointing to a photo of the former Panther deputy minister of defense, now a congressman from Chicago. Rush has been invited to the reunion, and his office says he'll try to make it. In the photo, Rush is looking tough with goatee and shades. "We should take that photo and put it up around Capitol Hill," Ahmad says. "As Huey used to say, 'You shoot at me, I'm shooting back.' "
Today these Panthers aim digital cameras, shoot video. They introduce children and grandchildren. They say, "Power to the people" and "Right on," but not always with a straight face. Yet just when this feels like any bunch of older, maybe wiser, men and women wisecracking and waxing nostalgic, the old darkness will leak in. Those were bad days, too. Once these people were hunted; now some feel haunted. They are the survivors, and the presence of ghosts makes them shiver.
There's Fred Hampton Jr., son of the 21-year-old Illinois Panther leader who died in a hail of police bullets as he lay in bed at 4 a.m. in Chicago in 1969. Fred Jr. was born three weeks after his mother crawled off the exploding mattress. Seale and Hampton hug, share some private words.
Then Seale, Hampton, Howard, Ahmad and some others pose for a reunion photo, and Seale raises his right fist in the old salute. They are not smiling.
In the Beginning The three-day reunion, which is open to the public and ends tonight in UDC's main auditorium, was originally scheduled for last October, 35 years to the month after Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The reunion was pushed back after the attacks on Sept. 11.
Newton and Seale were students working in a community economic development office in Oakland when they wrote the Panther 10-point program calling for freedom, jobs, housing, education, release of black inmates, trial by juries of black peers, a vote on black secession from the United States and an end to police brutality, capitalist exploitation and military service for blacks.
And Newton and Seale came up with the idea of arming themselves and following Oakland police on patrol to make sure the police didn't abuse black suspects. Carrying unconcealed weapons was legal at the time. The concept of shooting back if attacked appealed to young blacks impatient with the pacifist methods of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"No one was confronting the system," says Sherry Brown, 54, who ran the Baltimore Panther office and helped form a chapter in D.C. Now he's a political organizer who has worked for mainstream candidates for the D.C. Council and school board. "I felt [that] to overcome racism, black people had to confront the system."
The guns got all the attention, but Newton and Seale, joined by Eldridge Cleaver, devoted much of the party's energy to community organizing and establishing free breakfast programs for schoolchildren, free health clinics, free sickle cell anemia testing and other direct assistance to The People. Some of these ideas were adopted by city governments, a lasting Panther legacy.
Unlike other black militants, the Panthers believed in working with like-minded white radicals, and they looked forward to a socialist revolution in America. Eventually, the party claimed more than 40 chapters and 5,000 members.
But by 1974, the party was imploding, done in by infighting and drugs, police raids on more than 30 Panther offices and the FBI's illegal counterintelligence program, in which agents sowed disinformation within the party to turn one Panther against another.
The Panthers weren't angels. Although they claimed to use weapons only in self-defense, former Panther David Hilliard tells the story in his 1993 memoir, "This Side of Glory," how Cleaver and a band went looking for an Oakland policeman to kill after King's assassination. Police stopped the group before they could strike, and in the shootout that ensued an unarmed Panther named Bobby Hutton was killed, the party's first martyr.
Today numerous Panthers remain in jail on various charges. Former party members argue that many of the charges were trumped up. Indeed, two Panthers were released in recent years when judges found irregularities in their cases.
Newton became a drug addict and was fatally shot by a dealer in Oakland in 1989 at age 47. Cleaver became a born-again Christian and a Republican, and he died of undisclosed causes at 62 in a hospital in Pomona, Calif., in 1998.
A group of Panther alumni led by Billy X Jennings of Sacramento held the first reunion on the 20th anniversary, and they've held one every five years since. This is the first on the East Coast, with workshops on police brutality, organizing youth, reparations for slavery, the plight of Panthers in prison.
Former members speak of their years in the party as a highlight of their lives. They don't regret the guns -- necessary at the time, they say -- and they are proud of the free services they provided to the poor. Many still work on the same issues in quieter ways. A delegation is planning to march with the young protesters massing in the District today, a generation that tends to focus more on injustice abroad.
Some Panthers believe the country is better in some ways now. "Hate crimes" are recognized and punished, notes Claudia Grayson, 49, who ran the Bobby Seale People's Free Health Clinic in Berkeley, Calif. But "there are many more people living in the streets. I see some reforms. I don't see a revolution until people's basic needs to be alive are met."
Panthers also admit to mistakes. "I would not advocate armed robbery as a legitimate means of fundraising," says Grayson, who served nearly two years for helping to rob a grocery store to support the party. After jail, she became a medical assistant and is now a jewelry maker.
Seale is controversial because he seems perhaps too mellow, having "mainstreamed himself," in the words of one former Panther.
"I love this country," says Seale. "This country is ahead on a lot of levels."
Yes, police still occasionally kill black men, but now at least they are put on trial, he says. "It was 50 times worse in those days, and nobody went to court."
Seale also applauds the war in Afghanistan. "I like the methodical way it was done. . . . That's how you judge the operation when you're dealing with a bunch of terrorists such as they are."
A Call to Arms
Fifteen Black Brothers, most of them armed, with magnum 12-gauge shotguns, M-1 rifles, and side arms, held a street rally at the corner of Third and Chesley [outside Oakland] last Saturday afternoon about 5 p.m. . . . The racist cops could only look on. . . . The point to get firmly into your mind is that both the Black Brothers and the racist cops had "POWER."
-- from the first edition of the Black Panther newspaper, April 1967
Big Man Howard is contemplating the first paper he put out. Seale did the graphics, and they co-wrote the text. What led the news, and what prompted the armed demonstration, was the killing of a young black man in suburban Oakland by police.
The co-author of those defiant words in the four-page mimeographed newspaper tacked on the wall is soft-spoken, almost diffident. How to reconcile this man with those 35-year-old words? And those tactics -- armed demonstrations? Imagine today's anti-corporate-globalization kids turning out with guns.
"In the beginning," Howard explains patiently, "the police would patrol our community, and almost every week somebody would get killed, and so a show of arms was a necessary move at the time. . . . Extreme actions required extreme measures.
"Then there was a time to put that away."
Howard left the party in 1974, when everything was falling apart. He returned to his home state of Tennessee and joined the training program for Kmart. The ex-Panther built a career managing stores, and he raised a family.
His daughter, Tynisa, 21, a hairstylist in Forestville, is at his side at the reunion. He never talked much about his Panther days with her. She found out he was a big man in the movement when she was sitting in a movie theater watching Spike Lee's "School Daze," and near the beginning there was a montage of old photos. "That's my Daddy!" she exclaimed.
At the reunion, she's having trouble imagining him as a radical. "I've never seen him raise his voice," she says.
Howard just shrugs.
Then out of a battered briefcase he pulls an original news release for Seale's campaign for mayor of Oakland. It outlines a way to raise funds for The People. Simple: tax corporations and stockholders.
Howard smiles. Right on.
Walking the Walk
The revolution has come
Time to pick up the gun
No more brothers in jail
All pigs gonna catch hell
Off the pig! -- sung at Black Panther demonstrations
The 52-year-old woman in dreadlocks and a long casual dress is gazing at the picture of the 20-year-old woman in an Afro and a black leather jacket. The woman in the picture is in the front line of a phalanx of Panthers blocked by a police barricade. She's saying something and pumping her right fist.
Yasmeen Sutton stares at the younger woman, almost as though she is looking through a mirror across the foggy ruins of time.
"That's me!" she says to Bull Whip and B.J., two old comrades from New York.
"Was that the demo where the cops pulled us over and arrested anyone who didn't have an ID?" asks B.J., or William Johnson, 49, now a union activist.
"Yes!" recalls Sutton, who did have her ID, though Johnson was hauled off by the police.
The young Sutton was the finance chief of the party's branch in the Corona section of Queens, N.Y. In the picture, she's participating in a demonstration outside a New York jail for the Panther 21, the group accused in 1969 of planning to blow up the Bronx Botanical Gardens and department stores. They were acquitted.
And what's she saying as she pumps her fist?
The older Sutton launches into the keening melody, "The revolution has come . . ."
Others in the reunion crowd join in. She remembers another chant -- Oink oink, bang bang, dead pig! -- and laughs at the over-the-top rhetoric. She and her comrades didn't exactly mean it -- unless, of course, the pigs came for them.
But she was serious about the issues. Her family was appalled. Why not join the NAACP? But Sutton believed only the Panthers had a chance of accomplishing real change. Years later, her daughter's schoolteacher told how when she was a girl she was grateful to the Panthers for serving her free breakfast before school.
Sutton later used her Panther finance skills to help nonprofits and now is comptroller of a drug treatment program for women in East Harlem.
"All of us Panthers continued to take on at least one of the issues," Sutton says.
Willing to Pay the Price
At the reunion's evening general session, a Panther reads a list of comrades who were killed or have died since the party was founded. The list runs to nearly 50 names.
The graying Panthers are worried about the general police crackdown since Sept. 11. It reminds them of something.
"I'm upset about the legalization of Cointelpro" -- the FBI's domestic spying program in the '60s -- says Grayson, who plays emcee at the evening program. Perhaps this is an area where the Panthers can pass on some wisdom.
"It's going to be almost as bad as it was," Grayson predicts. "We can give the power and knowledge of what we've already seen."
On their way into the auditorium for the session, two women from the New Orleans Panther office are reminiscing.
"It was the richest experience of my life besides giving birth," says Althea Francois, 53, who has brought her oldest daughter to the reunion. "She was a true Panther baby. She experienced a shootout."
That was the first of two shootouts at the New Orleans office, in 1970. After the police hauled off 14 Panthers, and before the smoke had completely cleared, Francois and Betty Touffaint, now 52, went inside, called the central office in Oakland and reported: "This office is open."
Touffaint, now an assistant pastor with an evangelical ministry in New Orleans, says she was wounded by pellets from a police shotgun in the second shootout, and she served 11 months on charges that included attempted murder and criminal anarchy, before the charges were dismissed or reduced.
Recalls Francois: "It was the very first time in my life I finally saw folk not only willing to live or work for something, but also willing to die for something."