News: Freedom Fighter Forever

Black Panther founder is still working for change

Matt Borgerding

Bobby Seale now emphasizes the importance of ballots more than bullets.

If Bobby Seale were armed May 2 when he visited Over-the-Rhine, he didn't show it. But that's not like him. Or, to be fair, it's not like popular perceptions of Seale, whose image as leader of the Black Panthers — sporting dark sunglasses, black paramilitary beret and an assault rifle — appeared 35 years ago in posters in countless young African Americans' homes and in the nightmares of white America.

Seale, now 69, visited the Miami University Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine, at Buddy's Place, with his son, who's a physician at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Often cast as the antithesis to the nonviolent tactics of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers advocated armed self-defense against police brutality in the late 1960s. But Seale said conditions have changed.

"The police brutality that we were facing in the 1950s and '60s was 50 times worse than we have now," he said.

Seale instead called for increased concentration on electoral politics and building coalitions with progressives of all races.

"A great characteristic of the Black Panthers was coalition politics," he said. "We have to evolve more legislation and policies that make human sense."

In 1966, Seale and Huey Newton launched the Black Panther Party with a 10-point program that demanded retrials for defendants convicted by all-white juries and exemption from the military draft for African Americans.

But what really drew attention to the small Oakland, Calif., group was its approach to monitoring police. In addition to carrying tape recorders and law books while watching cops, the Panthers flaunted loaded firearms, then legal under California law.

"The reason we took the guns was the group that had attempted to observe the police immediately following the Watts riots — the police beat this group up, took their tape recorders and busted them up and took their law books and tore them up," Seale said.

In one of the group's most famous ploys, dozens of armed Panthers marched to the California State Assembly. When they arrived, Gov. Ronald Reagan was talking to a group of 10-year-olds on the Statehouse lawn, according to Seale.

"I guess Ronnie was boring them," he said. "We walked up, and all these little white kids came running up to look at our guns."

The Panthers were unabashedly confrontational, rejecting the meekness that marked King's approach. Seale described Newton's response to police questioning during a traffic stop.

"The police officer asked, 'What's your phone number?' " Seale said. "Huey said, 'Five.' The officer would say, 'Five what?' Huey would say, 'It's five — for the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. I don't have to answer your questions.' "

In the months after King's assassination in 1968, Panther membership soared to more than 5,000, with 49 chapters across the country, Seale said.

"We captured the imagination of the community," he said.

Seale was one of the Chicago Eight, tried for conspiracy to incite rioting during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by a federal judge, Seale was sentenced to four years in prison. The conviction was later overturned.

Two years later a jury in Connecticut deadlocked on murder charges against Seale and a fellow Black Panther. The charges were dropped.

A carpenter before he became a political activist, Seale said he sent detailed instructions to Black Panther offices around the country explaining how to use sandbags and other inexpensive equipment to protect against a police assault. It worked when police attacked the Panther headquarters in Los Angeles in late 1969; the incident turned into a five-hour shootout.

"They had 300 SWAT team members firing thousands of rounds at Black Panther Party headquarters, and only one person was wounded," Seale said.

Without ever quite endorsing nonviolence as a political strategy, Seale insisted the Panthers were advocates of self-defense, not the use of violence for gaining political power. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once called the organization "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country."

But police brutality was just one of the issues that motivated — and popularized — the Panthers. The group also established health clinics and free food programs for children in Chicago, Oakland and other cities.

"We were unifying the people around these grassroots programs that were serving the people," Seale said. "We saw our liberation linked up with all people's liberation. They're intertwined, and you can't get around that."

A man in the audience told Seale that his arguments are very different from the Black Panthers he knew in Akron in the 1960s. Victoria Straughn, chair of Concerned Citizens for Justice, challenged Seale's statement that police brutality isn't as bad as it once was. She cited police conduct before and during the 2001 uprising in Over-the-Rhine.

"Everything that you all were fighting for is still here and it's worse," Straughn said. "That's what the rebellion was all about."

But Seale insisted there's been progress in past decades.

"The only thing I can say is we got a little inkling of some kind of justice when we put some of these (Cincinnati) cops on trial, win or lose," he said. "In my day, they didn't bring anybody to trial." ©

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