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Fighting the Power

The Black Panther Party in Baltimore: The First of a Two-Part Series

Jefferson Jackson Steele
1209 N. EDEN ST., the former home of the Baltimore branch of the Black Panther party
Melina Giorgi
Former Baltimore Panther Steve McCutchen
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Black Panther party co-founder and chairman Bobby Seale
Former Baltimore Black Panther W. Paul Coates

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 2/1/2006

The party was in full swing. A smoky marijuana haze hugged the heads of some 20 teens and twentysomethings in a small, sparsely furnished bedroom on the second floor of a rowhouse on Eden Street. Some lounged on couches, others rocked back and forth on a makeshift dance floor in the middle of the room to the tune of the Temptations’ “Runaway Child, Running Wild.”

Steve McCutchen took note of a few beautiful young women swaying to those sounds, but he wasn’t focused on the cocoa-brown sisters in the room, necessarily. A light-skinned black man, 19 years old, McCutchen was just chilling and sipping on a beer. That is until a knock on the front door downstairs disturbed the groove. A teenage brother sporting an Afro leaped down the stairs to see who it was. Ten seconds later, McCutchen saw the towering frame of a man he knew as “Booty” standing in the doorway. This means trouble, he thought to himself.

McCutchen had a reason to be worried. With his buff linebacker’s build and no-nonsense demeanor, Booty looked like “something straight out of hell,” McCutchen says. Booty went to the record player and lifted the needle off the Temptations album. Partygoers stopped jamming and started staring. “Booty, we’re having a party, here,” McCutchen told the man. “You stopped our music.” So McCutchen walked back over to the record player and put the needle back in the groove.

As McCutchen turned to walk away, Booty warned, “You shouldn’t do that,” and lifted the needle again. As McCutchen started to put the needle back, he noticed Booty’s hand nearing the .38-caliber pistol he always wore on his hip. Still, McCutchen put the needle back on the record, and for a second folks were grooving again. That is until Booty took the needle off and shot at McCutchen at point-blank range. Somehow Booty missed, and McCutchen is alive today to tell the story.

McCutchen, Booty, and several of the partygoers that June evening in 1969 were members of the Baltimore branch of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which McCutchen calls “the first and only black revolutionary group organized in the United States.” From its initial emphasis on armed self-defense against racist policing and official oppression, the Black Panther Party’s platform expanded to include a sweeping social and political agenda on behalf of downtrodden people everywhere—especially people of color—and the party itself quickly expanded to include various chapters, and smaller branches, in cities all across the United States, including a branch in Baltimore.

Looking back at all of the partying that was going on then, and the events that would take place during the rest of 1969, McCutchen says Booty’s actions were more than a dangerous nuisance. The shot Booty fired might as well have been a warning shot—a warning no one heeded.

Up to that time, the Baltimore branch of the Black Panther Party had been operating more as a “pseudo-militant black social club,” McCutchen says, than a serious cadre of community organizers and soldiers for the struggle. Though the partygoers didn’t know it as they danced to the Tempts, the Baltimore branch would be reorganized in July by the national organization, which would mean a lot less partying and a lot more work on behalf of oppressed people in Baltimore and across the nation. And just as the reorganized local branch was getting itself together to become a viable force in the city, events were in motion that would eventually reveal that the Baltimore Black Panther Party may have been destined for failure. In fact, many former Panthers believe that the branch was founded by an agent provocateur.

McCutchen is now a 57-year-old math teacher in Oakland, Calif. And although 1969 was along time ago, he can recall it like it was yesterday. It helps that he kept a diary during part of the four years he was a member of the Black Panthers’ Baltimore branch (he was a member of the national party for a decade). An excerpt of that diary detailing the events that took place between May 1969 and August 1970 was included as part of The Black Panther Party Reconsidered, a 1998 compendium of perspectives from former Panther members published by Baltimore’s Black Classic Press—a publishing house owned by perhaps the city’s most well-known former Panther, W. Paul Coates. Now, with the 40th anniversary of the Black Panther Party’s founding on the horizon, McCutchen, like many other former Panthers, feels the freedoms he fought for back then are still being threatened today. So he, like several other former local Black Panthers, took time to translate those experiences to a reporter. But in order to do that, McCutchen had to go back to May 1967, when, as a 17-year-old, he sat glued to his TV set in West Baltimore’s Gywnn Crest Apartments, staring in awe at something on the screen he had never seen before—black people brandishing guns.

 

The Black Panther party sprang to life in 1966, a few years after engineering major Bobby Seale and law student Huey P. Newton met at Oakland’s Merritt College. With the murder of Malcolm X in 1965, America had lost its figurehead of black militancy. Seale, Newton, and their cohorts took up X’s defiant, by-any-means-necessary stance; inspired by a black militant group that had emerged in the South, the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense and Justice, the nascent Panthers armed themselves, invoking their constitutional rights. But the Panthers were more than street soldiers. Party leaders developed a 10-point program of specific goals for the black community, including such basic needs as full employment, decent housing, freedom from exploitation, and an end to police brutality. The final point read: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.”

It was not uncommon in the early days of the BPP for members to carry guns while, say, doing work in the Oakland community. The Panthers had also made it part of their mission to make sure that police officers weren’t harming innocent members of the black community, and to do so while armed, and that made for a tense situation.

“Why did we pick up our guns?” former Black Panther Party chairman Seale says during a phone call from his current base back in Oakland. “We were exercising our right to [defend ourselves] against racist politicians who were sending their National Guard, police, and others to brutalize, shoot, kill, and murder people at otherwise peaceful demonstrations.”

But members of the California State Assembly challenged the Panthers’ right to bear arms by introducing legislation to specifically prohibit bearing arms in public. So on May 2, 1967, seven months after Seale and Newton had formed the party, armed Panthers entered the California State Assembly in Sacramento to protest against that legislation. They called on the American public, and black people in particular, to note how what they called the racist California legislature was aiming to keep black people disarmed and powerless, while police were committing acts of brutality all over the country.

As McCutchen watched all of this unfolding on television, he says, he thought, These are some bad motherfuckers, here. A student at Polytechnic Institute, McCutchen was already familiar with black-power ideals. He had been taking note of the philosophies and movements of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders who later became Panthers. He was also realizing that he had been miseducated.

“How could I wind up being an A student and be so dumb?” McCutchen says, remembering how he felt back then. “Not knowing how the real world was actually treating black people” in the Congo, Kenya, South Africa, and other territories that were still colonized. “And when I found out about the assassination of [Congolese leader] Patrice Lumumba—after I found the truth behind it, and how that was a CIA engineered event,” he remembers, “this gave me some information about the nature and extent of the U.S. government to remove people that oppose U.S. policy.”

There was another bit of U.S. policy that was in the forefront of his mind. “I wanted to avoid going to Vietnam,” McCutchen says. “I thought if anybody could keep me from Nam, it was the Black Panthers.” So in 1968, he joined the group that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called “the greatest threat to the internal security of America.”

McCutchen says he had seen Panthers member Zeke Boyd selling The Black Panther Party Black Community Newservice paper on the street and had asked him how he could join the party. Boyd referred McCutchen to the BPP office on Eager Street, and in the fall of 1968 McCutchen began selling papers and learning the party platform and 10-point program. He says he memorized the 10 points in one day.

The Black Panther Party was gathering new members all over the country that year. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, sparked riots in cities across the country and much searching in the black community: soul-searching and searching for fresh leadership to face what were still very tense racial times. Prior to King’s murder, the Black Panther Party “only had 400 party members up and down the West Coast,” Seale says. “In a matter of seven to eight months following Martin Luther King’s death—by November, I would say—there were 5,000 Black Panther Party members in 49 chapters and branches throughout the United States of America.”

As a result of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Baltimore schools had begun the business of integration, but neighborhoods and public spaces were still a work in progress. For example, the Gwynn Oak amusement park was finally been integrated in August 1963, after eight years of demonstrations. Although official segregation was crumbling in the late ‘60s thanks to new federal and state laws specifying equal rights in employment and housing, unofficial segregation and discrimination was still a force in the daily lives of Baltimore’s lower-income black population.

Newton was in jail, accused of the 1967 killing a police officer in Oakland. (He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1968 and sentenced to 15 years, but his conviction was overturned and the state of California eventually dropped its case.) As a result, Seale says, he kept was busy traveling the country, “going from chapter to chapter, branch to branch, teaching the demographics and methodology of effective community organizing . . . of how to set up free breakfast for children programs, free preventative medical health-care clinics, sickle cell anemia testing programs, and various other programs that we had.” In fact, the Panthers were at the forefront of making previously little-diagnosed sickle cell anemia the public-health issue it is today, and Panther-style free-breakfast programs are a staple of public school systems, including Baltimore’s.

As for Baltimore, Seale admits that he can’t remember too much of what was going on here at the time. “I came here a couple of times, but I can’t half-remember when I [came],” he says, adding that he knows that what was going on here was similar to what was going on everywhere there was a local Black Panther Party branch or chapter.

“I would get places, like a church, and 10, 20, 40 people would decide they’re the new Black Panthers in the area,” Seale says. Riled by the ongoing civil-rights struggle and violent backlash against it, many who attended these organizational meetings were ready to go to war in the streets. Such firebrands were often surprised by the Panthers’ agenda, which was more likely to involve serving hungry black kids breakfast or attending political education classes (Mao Zedong’s “little red book” was a typical text) than throwing down with cops. “Some [would be] arguing, ‘We’ve got to go patrol the police,’” he recalls. “I’m telling them that the ‘patrolling the police’ tactic is over, that you’ve got to serve the 10-point program.

“I’ve got one or two guys arguing, ‘I ain’t gonna serve no breakfast,’” Seale chuckles to himself. “And I [would say], ‘Then you need to leave here, because you don’t know what the revolution’s about.’”

The revolution, as Seale explains it now, was about challenging institutional racism wherever it appeared—in schools and hospitals, as well as in the streets. Programs such as free breakfast and free medical clinics turned out to be more effective revolutionary tactics than battling cops, and could be just as dangerous for activists. Or, as Seale remembers telling would-be Panthers, “That power-structure racist out there will kill you and murder you if he thinks you’re unifying some black folks around a relevant grass-roots program that makes any sense.

“I mean, these were the debates, by and large,” Seale continues. “The great majority of the brothers and sisters who were starting these chapters and starting these branches, they became dedicated—they were hard-working people.”

 

In 1967, the same year that Steve McCutchen was watching the Panthers invade the California State Assembly on TV, a 21-year-old black man from Cherry Hill was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army and considering volunteering for a tour of duty in Vietnam. But a picture he saw in the Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper changed all that.

“I saw a picture of a small tank with a .50-caliber machine gun pointed at, like, 50 black women on a street corner in Newark, New Jersey—on the front page of the newspaper,” Marshall “Eddie” Conway says during a call to City Paper from the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup. “I’m looking at this picture, and looking at the uniform hanging up on my locker, thinking, This is not right. I would have been over in Vietnam, fighting for democracy, and here the Army was fighting people in the black community.”

So Conway said the hell with Vietnam, came back home to Baltimore in 1968, where he joined the fire department in Edgemere in southeast Baltimore County and started hanging out with some of the Panthers he knew that September. Conway was already doing unofficial community work, and by the end of the year he had joined forces with the nascent Panther branch.

There are few concrete details available about the founding of the Baltimore branch of the Panthers, but McCutchen and Conway say that it was founded by a man named Warren Hart, who also served as the branch’s first defense captain (the head of the branch), and that it was most likely operational by October 1968. The branch must have been organized by members of the national Central Committee, which, Seale says, means that those members must have come through Baltimore or that Hart must have gone to Oakland. Seale says he has no memory of Hart. McCutchen rattles off names he remembers as early Baltimore Panthers: Mahoney Kebe, Arnold Loney, Donald Vaughn, Reeva White, and Zeke Boyd, none of whom could be located for this article. Irving Ochiki Young was on the scene in the branch’s earlier days, as well, although he was never an official member.

Conway still shows interest in talking about those heady days, even though he has spent nearly 36 years in prison for a 1970 murder he says he did not commit. Since then, justice groups such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Friends of Eddie Conway and politicians such as Baltimore state Del. Salima Siler Marriott (D-40th District) have been advocating for his release. Conway is one of a dozen or so Black Panthers across the country who are still in jail for crimes they were convicted of while members of the party. “Eddie Conway is a political prisoner,” Seale says. “He is innocent and he should have been released years ago.”

Back in April 1968, Conway was trying to find out what the revolution was about. He says has was working as a firefighter when the ’68 riots broke out. He had been in the first group to integrate the Edgemere fire department, but back in Baltimore he decided to wear his fire department uniform while mayhem was erupting in the streets, because he thought people would ask him fewer questions. He was right. “The uniform allowed me to move around [easier],” he says. “Police would harass me, but not so much.”

Despite King’s death, Conway says, “there were high hopes that things could be changed. But the undercurrent, the feeling of people in the black community, was that things would change for some black people and not others.”

At that time, he says, there was federal aid to rebuild urban areas, and agencies were being set up to get black businesses established, programs to help people get better jobs, get into college, and get better housing opportunities. “At the same time, there was this pervasive poverty on the ground,” Conway says. “There was always this undercurrent down on the street corner with guys who didn’t see how it was benefiting them. My gut feeling is that guys down on the street corner never thought those changes would reach them.”

That’s why, Conway says, the Baltimore Panther branch entrenched itself in poor black neighborhoods. The first local Panther headquarters was on Eager Street in 1968. In 1969, the headquarters moved to 1209 N. Eden Street—the house where McCutchen and Booty got into it—and later to a house on North Gay Street. A 1969 article in the Afro-American details a billing dispute between the Panthers and Baltimore Gas and Electric; the account for the Eden Street headquarters was in Warren Hart’s name. “It wasn’t unusual for Panthers to get behind in bills,” McCutchen says.

In 1968, when Conway first joined, the local Panthers had launched their standard breakfast program at the St. Martin de Porres recreation hall at Valley and Eager streets in East Baltimore, were selling Panther newspapers on the street, and were conducting political education classes in the community. But the Baltimore Panthers had not reached the stature of their Oakland forebears. A July 1969 Baltimore News-American article recounts what happened when a white Baltimore police officer tried to take to jail a black woman who refused to back away from a wire fence. As he reached for his night stick, a group of black youth crowded around, the News-American reported: “The onlookers said, ‘Go get the Panthers.’”

As the article goes on to note, “The Black Panthers didn’t show. . . . The Panthers, strong in other parts of the country, are not a significant force in Baltimore, and in their absence of power, no other militant group has been able to establish a foothold.”

Conway says he joined the Black Panther Party to organize, not for the drinking, sex, frolicking, and fun and games that were going on among the young Panthers at the time—though he admits that he enjoyed some of that, too. But Conway was most concerned with the branch’s leadership and some unexplained events at that time.

“We were sending people to Reading, Pennsylvania, and various places,” Conway says. “But we were sending a convoy of four cars with 10 people, and three cars and eight people would come back.” For Conway, it wasn’t just that the math didn’t add up. The reaction of local Panther leadership to such odd events didn’t either.

 

Although the Panthers didn’t have a name for it then, the late ’60s were the heyday of the FBI’s domestic Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). As part of efforts to monitor and subvert the activities of civil-rights and anti-war activists, FBI agents spied on and infiltrated groups such as the Panthers, breeding paranoia and sowing mistrust. According to The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents From the FBI’s Secret War Against Dissent in the United States (1990), by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, COINTELPRO was carried out by the FBI between the mid-1950s and the early ’70s as “a program designed to ‘disrupt and destablize,’ ‘cripple,’ ‘destroy,’ or otherwise ‘neutralize’ dissident individuals and political groupings in the United States, a process denounced by Congressional investigators as being a ‘sophisticated vigilante operation.’”

All Conway knew was that all over the country police informants were showing up in Panther garb talking about “Power to the People.” Black Classic Press publisher Paul Coates says that when he first wanted to join the Baltimore branch in 1969, the membership books were already closed, largely because the Panthers were so worried about infiltration by police agents.

“Panthers had to stop wearing the uniform of a black beret, a powder blue shirt under a black leather coat, and black pants, because impersonators were going around the country pretending to be Panthers and committing crimes,” Coates says, adding that he remembers wearing the Panther uniform only once, for the funeral of Baltimore civil-rights activist Walter P. Carter in the early 1970s.

Coates also points to a series of congressional hearings in Washington by the House Committee on Internal Security (formerly the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee) beginning in 1970. “These hearings brought to light a lot of negative exposure on the Panthers, and, as it turns out, the government used this as an opportunity to highlight the [Panthers] as a criminal organization,” he says. “But from the Panthers’ perspective, many of these acts had been carried out by impersonators and agents.”

Conway acknowledges that disappearing acts were not uncommon because of all of the trouble that being a Panther could bring. “People would decide they had had enough,” he says. “The police would harass them so badly they would pack up and leave town.” Still, he adds, “people were just disappearing, and I was concerned that no one in the branch was investigating what happened to them.”

Conway says he was interested in conducting an investigation to see what was going on in the spring of 1969, but he says local Defense Captain Warren Hart wasn’t so interested in that.

Hart is described by party members who knew him back in the day as a fast talker. He was in his 30s, older than the teenagers and twentysomethings who made up most of the Panthers’ cadre. McCutchen remembers that Hart was portly, drove a gold Thunderbird, and was rarely around the Panther house on Eden Street. “He only showed up at the office for meetings, to check the mail, or use the phone,” McCutchen says.

Conway says that at some point in early 1969 he got word to members of the Central Committee, the Oakland-based governing body for the national Black Panther Party, that the Baltimore branch was operating in violation of rules and regulations—Panthers were spending time hanging around the office rather than out on the street corners selling newspapers or in the neighborhoods tending to the needs of the community. Conway singled Hart out as someone who allowed this type of slack conduct to occur.

Back in Baltimore that July, McCutchen recalls, “Hart had told us all that we had the Fourth of July off. He told the Panthers that they would not have any duties—selling papers, attending the breakfast program, or doing community work.

“There was no reason for it,” he continues. “We were Black Panthers. We didn’t get holidays off.”

Coincidentally, July 4, 1969, was the day that Donald Cox, the field marshall for the Black Panther Party Central Committee, and Henry Mitchell, a Panther leader from the New York State chapter that Baltimore reported to, decided to drop in on the Baltimore Panthers.

“Field Marshall D.C. from National arrived with Mitch and a lawyer named Turco,” McCutchen wrote in his diary. “A White lawyer with the Panthers. Strange. I tried to search them at the front door. Turco was packing, and I missed his piece.”

But missing Turco’s gun was the least of the Baltimore Panthers’ problems. There were stacks of unsold papers sitting around, and the office space was found to be unsuitable and out of order in general.

“All Panthers had to depart for a general meeting,” McCutchen wrote in his diary. “Hart was criticized for fucking up. D.C. said that the branch might be closed down. Some Panthers were told to get out if they didn’t understand what had to be done. Hart was busted down to Panther.”

Reached by phone at his home in Harlem, former New York Panther leader Mitchell recalls the state of the Baltimore Panther office that Independence Day. He says there were hundreds of copies of the Panther newspaper sitting around, water-logged. The lights were off, the rent was behind, and Hart reportedly hadn’t shown up for weeks. Mitchell says that he told Hart that “he needed to turn over the keys and any funds that he had over to the party, and to consider himself no longer a member of the Black Panther party by his own actions.” Mitchell remembers that Hart didn’t raise too much of a ruckus upon hearing this: “He said nothing. He accepted it.”

The fallout included orders to paint the outside of the Eden Street headquarters and several changes in the chain of command. For one, Mahoney Kebe, a Baltimore Panther who had been around since the beginning of the branch, was made acting defense captain. McCutchen, who took the pen name Lil Masai, after Masai Hewitt, the Panther’s national minister of education, was named lieutenant of information, responsible for disseminating information to the rest of the branch’s members. Hart effectively disappeared.

While the branch was finally on the right track organizationally, things were getting on the right track for McCutchen, too. He had moved into the Panther house on Eden Street and was getting the support of the Panthers in evading the draft. “I can’t go into the U.S. military,” reads McCutchen’s July 4, 1969, entry, in part. “I didn’t want to take the chance of going to Vietnam. If I have to take a stand and fight and maybe die, I’ll do it here. I won’t go.

“Comrades supported my decision to refuse the draft. I’m packing a piece wherever I go now.”

The breakfast program was beginning to flourish, and Panthers were conducting political education classes. McCutchen says that branch membership was up. But rumors were starting to heat up about there being an informant in the ranks.

 

On Oct. 27, 1969, just three months after the national Black Panther Party cleaned house locally, police found a body in West Baltimore’s Leakin Park. The flesh had decayed away, leaving behind the clothes and skeleton of a man identified as 20-year-old Eugene Leroy Anderson. That July, when Cox and Mitchell came to Baltimore to whip the local branch into shape, according to news accounts, it wasn’t the only whipping going on. The so-called “bag of bones” case generated a variety of newspaper accounts, and The Sun, the News-American, the Afro-American, and other papers would report the details of testimony that came out in court during the trial of suspect Charles Wyche in April 1971, re-creating the events that allegedly led to Anderson’s death on a hot night in July 1969.

Anderson, who lived in the 1500 block of North Bond Street, was a Panther sympathizer who handed out party literature in the community and throughout the city and even helped paint the outside of Panther headquarters, per Cox and Mitchell’s instructions. But according to a 1971 Sun article, prosecutors alleged that the Panthers had found out that Anderson was a police informer. So on July 11, 1969, he was kidnapped and taken to a third-floor bedroom in the Panther house on Eden Street, where he was beaten and tortured for two days before meeting his untimely death.

According to news accounts, witnesses alleged that 11 Panthers and one lawyer for the Panthers were in that room the night of July 11. One of those present ordered the death of Anderson because he told the police about his “Panther brothers.” Another hit Anderson in the head with the butt of a pistol. A female member took her burning cigarette and extinguished it against Anderson’s forehead, as did two other Panther women.

After that, Anderson was punched and beaten with bed slats, alcohol was rubbed on his bloody wounds, and one of the torturers used a term that was often aimed at police officers: “All pigs to the slaughterhouse—today’s pig is tomorrow’s barbecue.” Then, the state’s case maintained, Anderson was “allowed” to read Quotations by Chairman Mao Tse Tung while writhing in pain.

The torture went on, according to court testimony: Anderson’s eyes were gouged, he was scratched, he was beaten some more, and someone heated a knife in sugar water and used it to flay parts of his body before he was taken to Leakin Park and killed with one shotgun blast on July 12. Three months later, police found his remains, described in the media as “a bag of bones,” because his body had disintegrated so quickly.

The police sought 21 members of the Baltimore Black Panther in conjunction with the crime. (Conway had already been arrested for and later convicted of allegedly killing one police officer and injuring another in April.) Many wondered if this would mean the end of the line for an organization that perceived itself as just getting things in order. But the story, and questions, continue to this day.

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