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“Vanguard of the Revolution”: New Film Chronicles Rise of Black Panthers & FBI’s War Against Them

StoryJanuary 30, 2015
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With groups around the country taking on issues of police brutality and accountability, we go back 50 years to another movement confronting the same issues. We spend the hour looking at a new documentary that just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival called “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.” It tells the history of the Black Panther Party through rare archival footage and interviews with party leaders, rank-and-file members, journalists — and even police and FBI informants. We feature extended excerpts from the film and speak with one its subjects, Kathleen Cleaver, who served as communications secretary of the Black Panther Party and is now a law professor at Emory University. We also speak with Stanley Nelson, the film’s award-winning director. The film is set to play in theaters and air on PBS later this year.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival is wrapping up. With groups around the country taking on issues of police brutality and accountability, we go back 50 years to another movement confronting the same issues. It was the ’60s. As Black History Month is about to begin, we spend the hour with a remarkable new documentary that just premiered here called The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

JAMAL JOSEPH: The thing that led to the Panthers was what we were seeing on television every day: attack dogs, fire hoses, bombings.

H. RAP BROWN: We stand on the eve of a black revolution, brothers.

ELAINE BROWN: I was a cocktail waitress in a white strip club two years before I joined the Black Panther Party. How did that happen? The rage was in the streets. It was everywhere.

ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: I say that Ronald Reagan is a punk, a sissy and a coward, and I challenge him to a duel.

FELIPE LUCIANO: Eldridge had this incredible ability to encapsulate a thought that stabbed right into the heart of the enemy. Now, was he insane? [bleep] yeah. That boy was crazy!

PAT McKINLEY: They were trying to change government as we know it to terrorist activity.

REPORTER: The State Assembly was in the midst of a heated debate when the young Negroes, armed with loaded rifles, shotguns and pistols, marched into the Capitol.

BEN SILVER: Do you feel the nation is in trouble?

J. EDGAR HOOVER: I think very definitely it is.

BEN SILVER: What is the answer?

J. EDGAR HOOVER: The answer is vigorous law enforcement.

BEN SILVER: How about justice?

J. EDGAR HOOVER: Justice is merely incidental to law and order.

BEVERLY GAGE: The FBI saw the Panthers as a very, very threatening and violent revolutionary movement. They absolutely wanted this organization to be destroyed.

WAYNE PHARR: I felt absolutely free. I was a free Negro. In that little space that I had, I was the king. And that’s what I felt.

WILLIAM CALHOUN: The great strength of the Black Panther Party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and enthusiasm. The great weakness of the party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and its enthusiasm. That sometimes can be very dangerous, especially when you’re up against the United States government.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. It’s set to play in theaters and air on PBS later this year. But today we bring you the first look at this brand new film. It tells the history of Black Panthers through rare archival footage and interviews with party leaders, rank-and-file members, and even police and FBI informants.

I sat down this week for an extended interview with one of its subjects, Kathleen Cleaver—she served as communications secretary of the Black Panther Party, is now a law professor at Emory University—and with Stanley Nelson, the film’s award-winning director. Nelson has made several films about the civil rights movement, including Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer. I began by asking Stanley Nelson why he’s now drawn to making a film about the Black Panther Party.

STANLEY NELSON: There’s no one reason. I mean, one of the reasons was, is that I was a 15-year-old kid in New York City when the Panthers came into being in 1966, and so I was enamored of the Panthers. You know, I’m 16 in New York. All of a sudden here are these people with leather jackets and berets and sunglasses and looking so cool and talking about revolution. I’m like, “Yeah, that sounds good to me.” So I’ve always been fascinated by the Panthers.

And then, you know, as a filmmaker, there’s always more than one reason why you want to make a film. And as a filmmaker, it’s just such a wonderful story. And the people who were part of the story, the majority of them are still alive. They were only 20 years old or so at the time. And the Panthers were this media sensation, so there’s an incredible amount of footage and still pictures, you know, to help construct this film. So, all of those things came together, and I became interested in the Panther story. But I think also I realized, you know, how the whole story reverberates with what’s going on in the country today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the issue of police brutality was seminal to the Black Panthers. Can you talk about that?

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, the Black Panthers were started in Oakland, California, and it was five guys who started and said, you know, “We have to do something about police brutality,” which was heightened in Oakland. The Oakland Police Department was notorious. And so, what they did, because there was a law in California that said you could carry a weapon, a loaded weapon, as long as it wasn’t concealed, so they would drive around and follow the police. And when the police jumped out to make a stop, they would jump out behind the police, and with their guns drawn, and stand a little ways back, and with their guns drawn, and make sure that no brutality or violence occurred on the part of the police. And that’s how the Panthers started. And from there, from these five or six guys, the movement just took off.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain who they were, those five or six guys.

STANLEY NELSON: They were college students. You know, this was Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, couple of others. And they were college students, by and large, who just wanted to end the brutality that was in their lives with the police.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathleen Cleaver, how did you become a part of—a leader of the Black Panther Party?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: I met Eldridge Cleaver, who came to a conference that SNCC had organized. He spoke at the conference. And when he went back to California, we were in love, and he wanted me to come and visit him. And I came to visit him in California. I came back to Atlanta in August. And in October, Huey Newton was shot, and he was wounded, and he was facing the gas chamber if convicted of police murder. And Eldridge said, “You’ve got to come out here and help us.” So I came back to California, I think it was in November, to work with the Panthers on that case. We got married in December.

AMY GOODMAN: You were born in Texas?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Yes, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you go from where you came from to be a member of the Black Panther Party?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Well, it’s not that complex. My parents were very well educated. They met at the University of Michigan. And my father had been an activist. He had been working on NAACP campaigns in Texas to win the right to vote. My mother had been protesting school segregation in Richmond, Virginia. So, my parents were part of civil rights activism. And the way I was brought up—and I lived in Alabama, where the movement started, and I wanted to be in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when I was in high school. I wanted to do what those students were doing, protesting segregation in the South. I couldn’t get there. And finally, in New York in 1966, about two weeks after the call for black power, I was able to get into SNCC. And I was thrilled. It was the best thing that ever happened in my life. I could work in the black power movement. I could be in this revolution. That was it. And that was the beginning, and that’s how I ended up in the Panthers, and that’s how I continued.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did the Black Panthers compare to SNCC in terms of their goals, what they were responding to?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: SNCC was on the decline. SNCC was actually collapsing. When I got there, I didn’t know this. But SNCC was an organization that was dependent upon funding from outside. And once it turned into a black power organization, and there were some other issues that happened, the funding dried up. And people—when I came in, you had to basically support yourself. No money. And so, the organization was declining, it was getting smaller.

When I got involved with the Black Panthers, it was a brand new group. And, in fact, there were like five when I got there, because most of them were in Santa Rita prison after the visit to Sacramento. So, it was a new organization. It very, very exciting. And all their principles in the black—it was one of the first organizations based on the concept of black power that had been articulated in Mississippi and by SNCC. And so, I got involved with them. In December, Eldridge and I got married, and I stayed out there and continued to work with the Panthers.

AMY GOODMAN: How did King, Dr. Martin Luther King, fit into this picture?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: In what way? My picture or the country?

AMY GOODMAN: In your picture, and did he inspire you? How did the Black Panthers relate to him?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Oh, everyone was inspired on some level by Martin Luther King. He was a tremendously decent and caring person. He was extremely intelligent, and he inspired a lot of Christians. Now, Eldridge made a comment in one of his speeches in Nashville. He said, “How about integrating some of this bloodshed?” That was one of the issues we had, that it was too much the black people should absorb all the punishment, and we should be forgiving, and we should want to be peaceful in the face of murderous brutality in the middle of the Vietnam War. Well, that wasn’t really a message that a lot of young people cared for. And so, when the Black Panthers came out and started talking about self-defense, droves and droves of young people wanted to do that.

And I thought that was the best—that’s the best—we followed Robert Williams. And he said, if you are confronted by a racist who believes himself superior, then he has—and you’re armed—he has to consider, does he want to risk his superior life to take your inferior life? And if you have a gun, you can put him in that position. And nine times out of 10, he doesn’t, and that’s the end of the violence. So we believed self-defense was a way to put a reduction into violence, and I accept that.

AMY GOODMAN: Stanley Nelson, you’ve done a documentary on the Freedom Riders, on Freedom Summer. So, as you were doing those, the Black Panthers, you’re clearly looking at, people are responding to, as you go further on into the ’60s. How do they compare in their strategy?

STANLEY NELSON: Well, I think it’s a different strategy. But I think it was—you know, it was a natural offshoot of some of those movements. So, Freedom Riders leads into Freedom Summer. You know, what happens at the end of Freedom Summer is, at the Democratic National Convention, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is defeated, you know, in kind of an underhanded way by Lyndon Johnson and his forces. And so many of the people in SNCC at that time felt betrayed. They felt, “We’ve done everything we can do. We’ve done it the right way. We’ve done everything. You’ve said you’re on our side. And then when we get to the moment when we have to share power, you back out.” So, the—

AMY GOODMAN: And this was to replace the all-white Mississippi party with the integrated party.

STANLEY NELSON: Right, right. And Johnson—you know, it’s too long a story to tell right here, but Lyndon Johnson engineers a kind of underhanded way to defeat them. And at that point, a lot of people left SNCC, and some left the movement altogether. But one of the things that happens at the end of Freedom Summer is there’s a shot of Stokely Carmichael—goes down to Alabama and gets on top of that truck or bus or whatever it is, and starts yelling, “Black power! Black power! Black power!” And that’s one of the first scenes in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, is Stokely Carmichael up on that vehicle yelling, “Black power! Black power! Black power!” So, the things—one thing really led to the other.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Stanley Nelson, the award-winning director of the new film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and Kathleen Cleaver, who served as communications secretary of the Black Panther Party. We’ll continue our conversation in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” by the Chi-Lites, a song featured in the documentary we’re looking at today. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we continue to look at a new film that’s premiering here at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, our last day broadcasting here. The film is called The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. I sat down with one of its subjects, Kathleen Cleaver, and former Black Panther communications secretary, now a law professor at Emory University, and the film’s award-winning director, Stanley Nelson. I asked Nelson to describe one of the party’s early landmark events, when co-founder Huey Newton led a march of armed Black Panthers to the California State Capitol in Sacramento to protest the passage of an anti-gun law. The year, 1967.

STANLEY NELSON: So, the Panthers are patrolling the police. They’re following the police around with guns. And a congressman in—I forget exactly his position.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: State legislator.

STANLEY NELSON: State legislator in Oakland says, “OK, we can’t have that.” So he introduces a law to ban carrying weapons in the open. So, but the law is still in existence, so the Panthers go to Sacramento, the California State Capitol, and walk into the Legislature with guns drawn. Now, it just so happens that Ronald Reagan, who was the governor then of California, is giving a speech right outside the Legislature. So all the cameras are on Ronald Reagan, when all of a sudden—

AMY GOODMAN: And a group of school kids.

STANLEY NELSON: And a group of school kids. So all these cameras are on Ronald Reagan, when all of a sudden they see all these black men with guns. So they turn from Ronald Reagan and start following these black men with guns into the Legislature. And they actually get on the floor of the Legislature with guns. And that starts the whole scene. Now, this becomes a huge news event, where this little group that was in Oakland, in California, now is on the national news. So, as we document in the film, African Americans all over the country are like, “Whoa! What is that?” As one guy says, “I wanted to be a part of that, whatever that was.” So, the Panthers catch on and become this kind of national movement very, very quickly.

MICHAEL McCARTY: When I heard about Sacramento, I was like, “Damn, these brothers are bad! They’re here up in Sacramento in the Capitol? Packing?”

MOHAMMED MUBARAK: The boldness, the courageousness about it, the arrogance of it, that put a whole new face on things. I said, “Man, I want to be a part of this, whatever that is.”

TARIKA LEWIS: Yeah, I walked into the office and told them I wanted to join the Black Panther Party. And they kind of laughed. I didn’t know that there were any other women in the party at that time. But then I asked them, “Could I have a gun?”

ERICKA HUGGINS: I was a student at Lincoln University outside Philly when I first heard about the Black Panther Party. I found my friend John Huggins, and I said, “We need to leave this stupid campus. We have work to do.” We got in John Huggins’ little hooptie car, we drove across the country from New York, and when we got to the West Coast, we joined the Black Panther Party.

BLACK PANTHER PARTY 10-POINT PROGRAM: What we want, what we believe. Point number one, we want freedom. We want decent housing. We want an education for our people. We want an immediate end to police brutality.

LANDON WILLIAMS: People joined for all kinds of reasons, but the Panthers have a 10-point platform and program that really was sort of like the fundamental sort of organizing tool and orientation tool.

JAMAL JOSEPH: The civil rights movement was basically a Southern movement. So, when you had an organization like the Panthers, who were taking on things like housing and welfare and health, that was stuff that people in the North could relate to and rally behind.

PHYLLIS JACKSON: Our attack was not only against white supremacy, but it was also about capitalism. We actually thought that the way in which capitalism created a working class that was kept absolutely destitute, that was wrong.

ELAINE BROWN: So we took the position that in order for us to be free, that system had to be dismantled. We cannot be free in a system that had oppressed us in the first place. So you have to get rid of that system.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. And where were you then, Kathleen Cleaver?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: I was in Atlanta, Georgia, and I heard about it. And because I was working directly with Stokely Carmichael, and he had spent a lot of time working in California raising money, I was there. And we were very excited about the Black Panthers and this new energy and new organization. In fact, Stokely said, “This is the first group that’s implemented black power.” So it’s one of the earliest black power organizations, is the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the Black Panthers in the film, Jamal Joseph, said the civil rights movement was a Southern movement. The Black Panthers was urban. It was about health. It was about police brutality. It was about housing.

STANLEY NELSON: That’s what the Panthers were. I mean, again, that was one of the reasons why they were so fascinating to me, you know, back in 1966, ’67, ’68, because they were talking about issues that concerned me, you know, in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: You worked on, Kathleen Cleaver, the Huey Newton campaign, right, Free Huey?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: I came in when Huey was sitting in prison, in the Alameda County Jail, facing the gas chamber. And the Panthers, there was five us in a room saying, “We have to do something about Huey.”

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what happened. How did he end up in jail?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: There was an incident in October of 1967 when he was confronted by a policeman, an Oakland policeman. I think he said, “Oh, so we got the great Huey Newton.” So there was a confrontation of two adolescent types—26-year-old policeman, 26-year-old Black Panther. Huey wasn’t armed, but he ended up taking a policeman’s gun and ended up in a shootout, shooting episode. One policeman was wounded, one was killed. Huey was wounded. He ends up in the hospital, and then he’s arrested and charged with murdering a policeman and facing the gas chamber. So all that happened before I got there. I got there sometime in late November.

And we were talking about how can we free Huey, what do we have to do. It’s five of us, because all the other Panthers have been arrested for going to Sacramento. Eldridge Cleaver was the only person over 17, I think, in the room. Maybe Emory was with us, I’m not sure. I was 22. He was 31. So he was the spokesman, he became the spokesman. And we said—I said, “Well, if you want to do something, why don’t you go and have a demonstration at the courthouse to attract attention to his case, to get people to know about it?” “I don’t want to march, but I’ll march for Huey.” And so we got young men and their girlfriends and students to come and have a demonstration when he first went to court. And I said, “We have to notify the press,” and I created a press release. And I had to identify who sent it, and I said, “Kathleen Cleaver, communications secretary.”

And so, from then on, we continued demonstrating, protesting. That movement, that Free Huey movement, radicalized the community, and all these people wanted to join and be Black Panthers. And that’s when the name “Self-Defense” was dropped. It became the Black Panther Party. And it grew phenomenally all over the country, along with something called the Free Huey movement.

AMY GOODMAN: And ultimately, how did he get out?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: By law. A court of appeals—I think it was Fay Stender, was the attorney who worked on that particular appeal. The case was overturned. The conviction was overturned because there was some dispute about what had been said by one of the witnesses, whether the bus driver who testified had or had not seen his face. It was unclear, and that was a mistake, and therefore he was granted a new trial. But he got out on bail.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about informants, about the FBI. Stanley Nelson, talk about what happened to the Black Panther Party and what J. Edgar Hoover did, in particular.

STANLEY NELSON: Well, the Black Panther Party, as it rises and becomes, you know, much more public, there’s much more public attention on it, J. Edgar Hoover now takes notice of the Panthers. J. Edgar Hoover had always had a problem with African Americans and any kind of quest for equality. We did a film almost 15 years ago called Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind. And in 1923, the FBI agent who hounds Marcus Garvey out of the country is J. Edgar Hoover, in 1923. So now we’re, you know, in like 1967, J. Edgar Hoover is still around, and he’s heading the FBI. He pretty much has immunity; he can do whatever he wants. The FBI—I mean, the Panthers come to his attention, and he just goes nuts. And he issues these memos that say, you know, “Do anything you want to destroy the party.” And the great thing about it is now those memos are all available, and so we use those memos in the film. It’s not just conjecture. It’s not these rumors about J. Edgar Hoover. It’s his actual words, where he says, “Do whatever you can. Just destroy the party.” And that was the directive of the FBI.

You know, COINTELPRO has 290 actions against black nationalist groups, what they call black nationalist groups; 245 of those 290 are against the Black Panthers. So the Black Panthers are riddled with informers, because they have no—they have no security. You know, all you had to do was go down to the office and say, “I want to join the Black Panthers,” and it was like, “OK, fine. You can join.” So they sent agents. Every single office all across the country is riddled with informers. And the informers are doing things to set the Panthers up. So, you know, we have an FBI agent in the film, a former FBI agent, who talks about the fact that what—

AMY GOODMAN: Wesley Swearingen.

STANLEY NELSON: Yes, Wesley Swearingen, who talks about, what the FBI would do was get one of their informants who was in the Panthers to arrange for the Panthers to get guns. Then they would go to the local police department and say, “Oh, those Panthers have guns. You know, you better raid the office.” And so, also the Panthers, one of their directives for Panther members was: Don’t let the police just come and break down your door. They have no right to just come and break down your door and start shooting. And you’re in danger if they do come and break down your door. So, the police would raid the Panthers based on the evidence of the FBI, you know, the evidence that they had guns, that the FBI had bought for them, and then the Panthers would shoot back, and it would become a shootout.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the SWAT team in Los Angeles. Wasn’t this the first SWAT raid?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: This was the creation, in Los Angeles, was the first Special Weapons and Tactics squad ever, was created in the Los Angeles Police Department. And its first action was to take out the Black Panther office.

AMY GOODMAN: When was this?



KATHLEEN CLEAVER: In December. It was—the confrontation was four days after the murder in Chicago of Fred Hampton.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that first, the murder of Fred Hampton, which you document so well in The Black Panthers, this new documentary. I want to go to a clip, but maybe you can set it up for us, of Fred Hampton, who’s actually espousing racial unity.

STANLEY NELSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean, one of the most amazing things about Fred Hampton, besides the fact that he was 21 years old when he’s making these speeches and he’s head of the Chicago branch of the Panthers, is one thing that he always talked about was racial unity. And one of the things that scared J. Edgar Hoover about Fred Hampton was he had the real ability to unite people, besides being an incredible speaker, incredibly bright. He had been the leader of the NAACP youth branch in Chicago. So he had those connections. He had connections in church. He had connections all over Chicago. And one of the things that he always said was, you know, “We have to unite, all unite,” that there’s these problems that we have in common, and we need to unite on these. So, you know, he was building this coalition in Chicago that really scared J. Edgar Hoover.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip from The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. We’re starting with Michael Klonsky. Explain who he was.

STANLEY NELSON: Michael Klonsky was head of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, which at that point was the largest student organization in the country. I think there were over 100,000 members of SDS on campuses all over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And it goes from Klonsky to Fred Hampton.

MICHAEL KLONSKY: We used to called the Panther Party the vanguard of the movement, because they were out in the forefront, they were kind of setting the pathway. The things that we would face some repression for, they would face it 10 times as great. They were sacrificing their—oftentimes their lives in the struggle.

FRED HAMPTON: And these people in this class have divided themselves and say, “I’m black, and I hate white people,” “I’m white, and I hate black people,” “I’m Latin American, and I hate hillbillies,” “I’m hillbilly, and I hate Indians.” So we’re fighting amongst each other.

MICHAEL KLONSKY: Fred Hampton, here in Chicago, was the main voice for racial unity.

FRED HAMPTON: The Black Panther Party stood up and said that we don’t care what anybody says. We don’t think fighting fire with fire is best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight it with solidarity.

MICHAEL McCARTY: We worked with organizations such as the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican street gang that had become political, and the Young Patriots, hillbillies, Appalachian white boys.

UNIDENTIFIED: I want to introduce a man who’s come over tonight from another part of town. He’s fighting for some of the same causes we’re fighting for.

MICHAEL McCARTY: Bob Lee, who was our deputy field marshal, had a meeting with them, and he was explaining why we should work together.

BOB LEE: There’s police brutality up here. There’s rats and roaches. There’s poverty up here, that’s the first thing that we can unite on. That the common thing we have, man.

UNIDENTIFIED: And I want you people to stick together. And I’ll stick with the Black Panthers if they’ll stick with me. And I know they will.

LANDON WILLIAMS: The coalition that Fred was building in Chicago represented the Latinos, the poor whites and poor blacks. But also, because he had been in the NAACP, he had linkages with folks who were in the congregations, or church folks, and with working-class folks. So Fred was building a broad-based coalition in Chicago, and that was the threat.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s a clip from The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Talk about what happened in December of 1969, Kathleen Cleaver.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Well, Fred Hampton had been spied upon. The floor plan of his apartment had been given to the FBI. And the FBI created a death squad. They had certain individual policemen that they hand-picked to take an action that was to murder Fred Hampton. I mean, they went into his house shooting. They didn’t have—they didn’t knock. They came in at like 3:00 in the morning. Everybody was asleep or half-asleep. They came in shooting.

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, one of the most amazing things about this shooting—I can’t even say shootout, because the Panthers didn’t fire a shot—is—

AMY GOODMAN: Which, of course, was not what the police said at the time.

STANLEY NELSON: Right, no, the police had their own version. But was that, you know, this is an apartment with plasterboard walls, so the bullets are going through, all the way through the walls, you know, through one room to the other to the other to the other. You know, and there’s a scene in there afterwards where they put sticks in the holes. And there’s hundreds of sticks in the holes. The police just went in there shooting, you know, kicked the door. They actually—another Panther was killed. A kid named Mark Clark was killed. And he’s shot through the door as he goes to answer the door. They kill him by shooting him through the door.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: It’s important to recognize the informant who’s in there—

AMY GOODMAN: William O’Neal.


KATHLEEN CLEAVER: —had drugged Fred Hampton’s orange juice. He didn’t drink alcohol, so he put some drugs in his juice. He drank the juice, and he was drugged. He was falling asleep when they came. In fact, he was groggy. He could not wake up, because he was—

AMY GOODMAN: And he was laying next to his pregnant girlfriend.




STANLEY NELSON: Who actually—she couldn’t wake him up, and she actually lays on top of him, on Fred Hampton, to protect him. You know, he’s—Fred Hampton is shot. She’s wounded. Fred Hampton is wounded. They drag her out of the room, and then they shoot Fred Hampton in the head to kill him.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: I heard a story that Fred Hampton was told, shortly after Martin Luther King’s death, by a policeman: “You’re next.” Because by the COINTELPRO standards, they were making certain that no black leader could rise to be a messiah to unify the black masses. So King was their number one target. Well, Martin Luther King was dead by 1968. December 1969, Fred Hampton is assassinated.

STANLEY NELSON: Right. I mean, there actually—we have a couple of black policemen in the film who talk about it. But, actually, they give statements from back then about how horrible this was. I mean, they’re still alive, and they give statements in the film. And one of them told us that he had told Fred Hampton a couple of weeks before that, you know, “You should watch it, because, you know, you’re under fire.” And they actually had plans to try to fly Fred Hampton to Canada. They had a plan to do that. But Fred had, you know, like one more thing to do, one more thing to do, one more thing to do—and, of course, never made it out.

AMY GOODMAN: William O’Neal was his bodyguard, the agent, the informant for the FBI.

STANLEY NELSON: Right, he was Fred Hampton’s bodyguard.

AMY GOODMAN: And he never had any suspicion?

STANLEY NELSON: No. People thought that William O Neal was weird, you know, that he was weird. He would come up with these plans to do crazy things. You know, “Let’s get some hand grenades and do this.” And they’d be like, “What are you talking about?” And, you know, these crazy things, and they thought he was strange. But nobody thought that he was an FBI informant. I mean, the thing that we have to understand is that at that point the COINTELPRO program was completely secret. Nobody understood that the FBI was doing this crazy stuff. I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: Which stands, of course, for Counterintelligence Program.

STANLEY NELSON: Right. Now, we’re kind of, “OK, we know.” But back then, I mean, these are kids. They don’t—nobody’s thinking—I mean, The F.B.I. was a TV show on ABC, you know, with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. That was the FBI. Nobody even suspected that the FBI was doing this kind of crazy thing, much less murder.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Stanley Nelson, director of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and Kathleen Cleaver, former communications secretary for the Black Panther Party. The film is premiering here at Sundance. We’ll continue with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Free Bobby Now” by The Lumpen, a song about jailed Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale. He would go on to run for mayor of Oakland. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, from the Sundance Film Festival, as we continue to look at the brand new film premiering here called The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, as we continue my conversation with the film’s award-winning director, Stanley Nelson, and Kathleen Cleaver, former Black Panther communications secretary, now a law professor at Emory University.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Kathleen Cleaver, what did you understand at the time? You certainly experienced the power, the surveillance of the FBI, and your husband, Eldridge Cleaver—

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Well, we thought they wanted to kill us, to eliminate us. That was the way that evidence was going, that they would spy on us, that they would follow us, and that they wanted to eliminate our organization. What we didn’t understand was this very insidious type of internal disputes they wanted to provoke, the conflict that they established between Huey Newton, who was in the United States in prison, and Eldridge Cleaver, who was in Algeria in exile, and all kinds of ways to turn people against each other. The assassination of Fred Hampton was a police operation, but the FBI funded it, and the FBI took credit for it. And so, the manner in which the organization was being dismantled was very vicious and very violent, but we were determined to defend ourselves and not to let that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, explain then what happens a few days later in Los Angeles.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Well, in Los Angeles, the Panthers knew that the LAPD was planning to attack their office. They knew this because they had come by a few days before this, and Geronimo Pratt, who was the defense minister, said, “Look, that was a reconnaissance. They’re going to come back.” And so they were planning. They had sandbagged the office. They were planning for an assault on the office. They just didn’t know when it would be.

And, in fact, the man who was on guard on top of the roof, named Cotton, Melvin Cotton Smith, was actually a police informant. And the police had told him that we’re going to attack at a certain time. But guess what? They came a few hours early. And so that informant had to shoot at them. And there was several hours of shooting back and forth, back and forth.

What was amazing—and it was considered a victory in the Black Panther Party—no one was killed. And the Panthers themselves said, “We cannot let this go down, after what they did to Fred Hampton.” So the spirit of Fred Hampton and the hostility to what had happened, the anger, the fury at what they had done to Fred Hampton, fueled their determination not to let anything happen like that in L.A. And it didn’t.

STANLEY NELSON: I should say, too, that, you know, by this time, a bunch of the Panthers were Vietnam vets, and they had combat experience. So what they did was they put sand in between the walls. So they poured sand in between the walls. They had shooting ports. They had sandbagged up the wall, so there were sandbags there. So when the police attacked, the bullets were not getting through; by and large, they were not getting through. And so it became this five-hour gun battle. And because the battle lasted five hours, the local news could get there. So the local news gets there. We’re talking about 50 years ago. They get close enough to film a lot of it. So this gun battle, as it’s ongoing, is being filmed.

REPORTER: All right, running down the street now, toward the building, to see what’s going on. There are police officers—look like Vietnam combat uniforms, with automatic weapons—holding us back. Shotguns everywhere you can look.

MOHAMMED MUBARAK: I looked at the TV. Channel 5 had it on live. So I’m feeling like I can sneak in the back and join them, some kind of way, as crazy as I’m thinking.

REPORTER: There’s a large group of people right now. They’re putting the pressure on police to allow us to stay, so we can witness this.

ROLAND FREEMAN: When the police was trying to creep up on the side, you could see them, their reflection, through the windows across the street. When they got close enough, they would tell me, “OK, throw it now! Throw it now!” Then they’d throw the damn bomb out the window at the police. We’d blow up, and they run back. We see this little cloud of smoke come, and it just—and that’s the tear gas.

WAYNE PHARR: Back in those days, everybody smoked all the time. So what we did was we put the cigarette butts in our nose to filter out the fume.

REPORTER: We’re looking right at the Panther headquarters. The devastation is astounding. The whole front of the building’s been shot up, bullet holes all over the place, front doors smashed down, screens ripped out.

ROLAND FREEMAN: A guy got shot here, got shot in the arm. They missed my head here. I got buckshot all in me. They shot that room up. You know, so this arm was dead. So now I’m up there with just one arm, bleeding all down the face and stuff. But I’m alive.

WAYNE PHARR: I felt free. I felt absolutely free. I was a free Negro. You know, I was making my own rules. You couldn’t get in, I couldn’t get out. But in my space, I was the king. In that little space I had, I was the king. And that’s what I felt. You understand? That’s what I felt.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathleen Cleaver, so you mentioned that your husband, Eldridge Cleaver, was in Algeria. Take us back to why he left this country.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. On April 6, 1968, in Oakland, Eldridge Cleaver was leading a group of Black Panthers who wanted to retaliate against this killing of King. And their idea of retaliating was to go and find police and shoot at the police, kill some police, because they had killed King. And there was a crew of maybe seven or eight Panthers. And when they came across the police, when they confronted the car, they all scattered and went in different places.

And Eldridge and Bobby Hutton ended up in a basement of a house. David Hilliard was under a bed. Some other people were in the bushes. And so, the actual long-term shooting back and forth was between two Panthers, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Hutton. And then they—after tear gas canisters are set to—started to burn in the basement, they decided to surrender. And Eldridge told Bobby Hutton, “Take off all your clothes, and then they can’t accuse you of having a weapon.” And he only took off his shirt. He walked out with his hands up, and he was shot immediately. He was murdered.

AMY GOODMAN: How old was Bobby Hutton?


STANLEY NELSON: He was the first member to join that group of four or five who formed the party. He was the first member of the party.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: And there was no question he was murdered. There was a policeman who was willing to testify that he was murdered. I have his statement. Nothing was ever done. Eldridge was taken back to San Quentin, and he was a parolee, and so his parole was violated, so it looked like he had four more years independently of his charge. His lawyer, our lawyer, Charles Gerry, represented him in a hearing in Solano County, I believe—I’m not sure where’s Vacaville, Northern California. Anyway, the judge, to everyone’s surprise, because the attorney—the adult authority that was in charge of parole did not present any evidence. All the evidence came from Eldridge and his attorney. And he said, well, from what he’s heard, he should be released, that he was in prison because of his eloquence.

AMY GOODMAN: Because of?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Because of his eloquence in representing the ideals of his organization. He was out on his bail, $50,000 bail, in June of 1968, about two weeks before the murder of—

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kennedy.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: —Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. It’s a very intense time. And so, Eldridge was very public about not going back to prison. He said it publicly. He said it in speeches. He says, “I’m not going back.” And he was supposed to turn himself in, in November of '68, in a certain date, and he wasn't there. He didn’t turn himself in.

What he actually did, I found out many years later, was he went to Montreal. In Montreal, he got on a boat and went to Havana, disguised as a Cuban soldier. And while he was in Havana, a group of other hijackers and different people there created a little cluster of Black Panthers. That did not exactly sit well with the Cuban authorities. And so, at one point, Eldridge was required to be there—no publicity whatsoever. A news story comes out. I was actually on my way to Algeria to get a plane to go to Cuba to join him. And I’m in France, and the news story says, “Eldridge Cleaver is hiding in Cuba.” I said, “OK, front-page story, this is a problem.” So, because of the revelation that he was there, and he was only allowed to be there in secret, they said, “OK, we’re going to send you to Algeria to take the heat off of us, and then you can come back with your wife.” So he went to Algeria because his hiding was exposed.

AMY GOODMAN: So you did join him in Algeria.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Ultimately, I got a message. I was on my way. Algeria is a stop for the Aeroflot, and that was how you could get to Havana by air. If you were in the United States, you had to go find another flight. And 45 minutes before I got on the plane to go to Algiers to get the Aeroflot, I got a message from a journalist, Lee Lockwood, who had said, “I have a message from your husband. When you get to Algiers, do not try to come to Cuba. Stay in Algeria,” that he’s coming there. So I knew this very abruptly.

AMY GOODMAN: So how long did you live there with him?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Four years. We had two children while we were in Algiers. I was pregnant when I got there. So my son was born in July, about five weeks after I got there. And then my daughter was born in Pyongyang the follow year.

AMY GOODMAN: Why Pyongyang?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Well, Eldridge had a—Eldridge and Bob Scheer had—Bob Scheer is an editor at Ramparts. They had created this U.S. People’s Anti-Imperialist—

AMY GOODMAN: He’s now a journalist with Truthdig.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: U.S. Peoples Anti-Imperialist Delegation to visit North Korea, Vietnam and China. And he was taking this delegation, and he told the Koreans, “I can’t leave my wife here all this time,” until they said, “Oh, we will organize it.” And they invited—the Korean Women’s Union invited me to come to North Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in that period, when he’s in Algeria, the tension between him and Huey Newton, who’s been released, is growing intense.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Eldridge was thrilled with Huey’s release. He wanted him to come to Algeria, wanted him to see the international section of the Black Panther Party. He had a big portrait of Huey. He was just—and this would be the crowning achievement, that you can see our international section. On the other hand, in the United States, Huey was being fed all this information and misinformation about Eldridge, and made to think that Eldridge was trying to undermine him and all these crazy types of things. And so, Huey’s believing that Eldridge wants him to come to Algeria so he can kill him. He did believe this. And so, he doesn’t want to come.

And so, the proceedings of what’s going on in the party and people being—when Geronimo, who had led the amazing defense of the Panthers against the LAPD, Geronimo is expelled and accused of being all sorts of things, that was a huge blow in the party, and a lot of confusion. And then the New York 21, who questioned after they got out—some of them questioned what was being done with the money raised for their bail and legal fees, and questioned Huey Newton publicly in an underground paper statement, they got expelled.

So, to make a long story short, Eldridge and Huey went on a conversation on an AM show, and Eldridge condemned all these activities and said, “You should get rid of David Hilliard. He’s destroying the party.” And then the show ended. After that, Huey Newton calls up and expels Eldridge from the party—Eldridge, me and Don Cox, anyone in Algeria. There were three central committee members in Algiers at the time. So he expelled us. And so, that was the very traumatic period for everyone in the party, not just us, but, you know, people who had supported this organization, who revered Geronimo. They didn’t understand. How can you be the ideal revolutionary one year and the next year be a CIA agent and a scumbag?

AMY GOODMAN: Geronimo ji-Jaga Pratt.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain who he was.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Well, he was the defense minister, deputy defense minister, in Los Angeles. He was also the hero who had made it possible for the defense of the office. And the newspaper just glorified him. He was a great hero, he was this and that. So, a year later, he’s expelled. So you know there’s something wrong, but people didn’t know what. And so it affected the whole organization.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have any idea about the FBI at the time?

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: We didn’t have the idea that they were constantly, every day, monitoring, pushing information. I’ve read their documents afterwards and saw how they were thrilled. They were so happy that the party was split. They figured they’d accomplished it, it was over, once they expelled Cleaver, because people went underground and then the Panthers began to fight each other. And there was retaliation and killings among Panthers in response to the situation that Huey had created with the expulsion. So, the FBI was very much involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much to both of you.


AMY GOODMAN: Kathleen Cleaver, Stanley Nelson. The new documentary that has premiered to great acclaim here is called The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for today’s show and our week of live broadcast from the Sundance Film Festival, now in its 31st year here in Park City, Utah. To see or get a copy of a DVD of any of these shows, you can go to our website at I’ll be speaking today at Dolly’s Bookstore on Main Street here in Park City at 1:00 p.m. It’s a free event. Everyone’s invited. You can visit our website for details.

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“The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther”

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