There is much to learn from studying the Black Power Movement in the context of the Black intellectual-activist tradition. It takes intelligence to prepare, organize, and counter-organize when dealing with a force that seemingly has the law on its side as well as greater resources such as personnel and firepower. Consider the events surrounding the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party and the shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department at Panther Headquarters on 41st Street and Central Avenue in the early morning of December 8, 1969. Much of the popular and scholarly attention given to the shootout highlight the spectacle of Panthers as revolutionaries engaged in self-defense from agents of the state. Here, the focus is on the intelligence of the Panthers and the broader Black community. Reflections of those who were involved reveal their reflections and intellect in that historic moment.
On January 17, 1969, the growing tensions between the Black Panthers and the Organization Us came to a head at UCLA leaving Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins dead and the subsequent imprisonment of Watani and Ali Stiner. This event widened the gulf between the two organizations who were both targets of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and were manipulated into open warfare. In the aftermath, Vietnam veteran Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt was named Carter’s successor as leader of the Southern California Chapter. Pratt recalls, “‘That fratricidal crap only lasted four or five months.’” Referring to the conflict as “fratricidal,” or the killing of one’s sister or brother, recognizes the two groups were comrades in the same struggle with different ideological positions that was exploited by local law enforcement and CONTELPRO. Pratt states, “we finally wised up and stopped fighting. We were pretty sure where the nasty letters and phone calls were coming from. We were stupid for a while, but we weren’t gonna be stupid forever.” The Panthers and Us recognized the insidious hand of local and federal law enforcement in their infighting, but it did not deter the efforts of COINTELPRO and other law enforcement agencies.
Throughout 1968 and 1969, attacks on Black Panthers began to escalate around the nation including the police firing shots into Panther headquarters in Oakland and assassinating Fred Hampton in Chicago. In Los Angeles, Elaine Brown and Wayne Pharr, a survivor of the LAPD raid, observed what they believed was an LAPD reconnaissance mission at Panther Headquarters days before the actual attack. Pratt and Pharr, theorized self-defense plans and conducted reconnaissance missions in the city sewers. The idea was to use the tunnels as an underground labyrinth to get away from a police attack if, and when, needed. They fortified headquarters by filling the space between the walls with sandbags as well as filling the space between the roof and ceiling. They also built bunkers inside the office to provide shelter from the front and top in case the police were shooting from above. The bunkers and upstairs walls were equipped with firing slats. That is, they cut rectangular holes in the walls and fitted them with a metal hinge that could open and close. They also created a trapdoor and ladder to access upstairs without having to go outside. It was this intelligence, engineering, and planning that contributed to the Panthers ability to survive the LAPD’s assault.
Pharr explained the plan was to first, fortify headquarters, then resist and fight as long as possible, next, escape into the tunnel, and lastly blow-up the tunnel from the sewer. They had almost reached the sewer before the LAPD’s new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit converged and attempted to raid Panther Headquarters at 5:00am on December 8, 1968. Eleven Panthers battled SWAT from their fortified headquarters for 5 hours, ending in the arrest of all the Panthers, three seriously injured Panthers, and four wounded officers.
During the shootout, the two women in the building Renee “Peaches” Moore and Tommye Lewis went to the communications room to call family, comrades, and media. Angela Davis was one of the individuals to receive the phone call. She and others rushed to the scene, surveyed the situation, and dealt with police harassment and their occupation of the neighborhoods surrounding headquarters. A community member offered her house to use as resistance headquarters, which was across the street from a house the police had commandeered to use as their headquarters. Panthers, the Black Student Alliance, and Che-Lumumba organizations collaborated and organized their efforts from the house, even staying in contact with the Panthers in headquarters who were ready to surrender as long as the community and press were present. Davis reports,
They realized that if they had not defended themselves from the beginning, they might have all been shot down in cold blood. They had tried to hold out until we could gather enough people to witness the aggression, as well as to stand watch as they lay down their weapons and left the building.
The survival of all eleven Panthers was due to their training, research, preparedness, and collaboration with the community during the gun battle.
Davis recounts that Jefferson High School students secured the gym for a community rally with the administration. After a series of speakers spreading the gospel of protecting and defending the community from police aggression, the students called for a walkout to inform Black communities of the attack. Another meeting was called later and attended by representatives from Black organizations throughout Los Angeles. They called for a general strike two days later in Black Los Angeles and to hold a massive protest rally at City Hall. They printed thousands of leaflets to flood the communities with literature about the attack and resistance. They also took to local Black radio stations and engaged in grassroots canvassing. The coalition also organized an around the clock vigil of Central Headquarters with numbers over one hundred keeping watch even as unmarked police cars drove past. Eventually, the police attacked the crowd, which included not only Black youth and activists, but businesspeople, ministers, and elected officials. Black State Senator Mervyn Dymally was the first person struck after trying to deescalate the situation with police. The crowd scattered, and Black residents opened their doors for those fleeing the abuse of the police. Trapped in houses and storefronts on or right off Central from 6 to11pm, the coalition leaders recognized this harassment as an effort to sabotage the ensuing rally. As a result, they felt it necessary to continue the plans for the rally and develop a plan to propose to the people.
The collaboration had concluded on a theme, genocide. All the speakers powerfully spoke to this theme. Davis recalls,
The speeches were powerful. As we had previously agreed, the theme of the rally- the theme of all the speeches- was genocide. The aggression against the Panthers embodied the racist policy of the U.S. government toward Black People. Carried to its logical conclusion, this policy was a policy of genocide.
The Panthers had been charged with conspiracy to assault police officers. In my speech, I turned the idea of conspiracy around and charged Ed Davis, the Chief of Police, and Sam Yorty, the mayor of L.A., with conspiring with U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover to decimate and destroy the Black Panther Party.
The rally morphed into a march on the county jail that held the Panthers. The energy and frustration of the crowd was palpable. One of the goals of the demonstrations was turning the enthusiasm into committed organizing efforts that would produce tangible results. Davis reports that for a time after the rally, there was a decrease in police violence and a change in their confidence and arrogance in their interactions with Black people. “By the same token,” she says, “the collective confidence, pride and courage of the community was definitely on the rise.” The shared experiences of police racial oppression, studying and researching, and collaboration resulted in the survival of the eleven Panthers involved in the shootout. Their resistance efforts, including Black intellectual- activism, were central.
After the shootout with the police, Pratt and Pharr would lead political education and Black history sessions in their cell block. They took the sessions seriously, keeping each other’s minds sharp and continued consciousness raising activities. They did not mind the police listening, because they hoped they would learn from the sessions illustrating that Pratt and Pharr believed that the willingness to struggle for racial justice must be accompanied by intellectual development and consciousness raising.
Studying the shootout specifically, and the Black Freedom Movement in general, in the context of the Black intellectual-activist tradition is a reminder that intelligence, research, and study were key factors in their survival and success. Additionally, it reminds current activists to be aware of the potential dangers and challenges embedded in self-defense and the protection of others. Consciousness raising and intelligent preparation are critical for success, and, in the case of the Panthers, vital for their survival.permission.