Fighting the Power
The Black Panther Party in Baltimore: The Second of a Two-Part Series
When the phone rang, Paul Coates was asleep in his apartment on Cherry Hill Road. Not now, he thought, wiping sleep from his eyes—7:30 a.m. Too early. He had worked his usual 3-11 p.m. shift the night before and had only gotten to bed at 1:30. Plus, the 23-year-old married father of two was tired all around. He was juggling family life, his job loading airplanes for United Airlines, and being a community worker for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. When he had approached the Panther leaders six months earlier to join the party, they had given him an application to fill out, and he was still waiting on an answer.
“Coates, get your ass down here,” boomed the voice on the other end of the line. It was Defense Captain John Clarke, the man in charge of the Baltimore branch of the Black Panther Party. As a community worker who owned a car, Coates’ specialty was transportation. Translation: driving Clarke and other Panthers around town.
“The pigs have busted Ochiki and Chakazulu, and are getting ready to vamp on the branch,” Clarke continued, using Panther slang for an attack. “We’ve got to move this TE from Aisquith Street to headquarters.” “TE” was short for “technical equipment,” which was Panther-speak for guns.
Clarke’s deduction that they needed guns was reasonable, Coates thought. It was possible that everybody was going to be killed; police had vamped the home of Chicago Defense Captain Fred Hampton five months before, shooting and killing Hampton and injuring his pregnant wife. Having those guns in hand would mean that the Panthers would at least have a chance.
But going to North Aisquith Street to get guns to bring back to Panthers headquarters on North Gay Street was totally stupid, Coates thought, concerned that they were talking about all of this on the phone in the first place. Still, he got dressed. “If I had not gone, I would have been perceived as someone who was deserting my comrades,” he says now. “Leaving them when they really needed me. . . . Or worse, they may have thought that I’m a pig—part of the setup.”
It was probably only a matter of time until he got such a call. On April 24, 1970, six days before Coates’ wake-up call on the morning of April 30, Baltimore police officers Donald Sager and Stanley Sierakowski had answered a call about a domestic disturbance and found themselves under fire. Two Panthers, Jack Ivory Johnson and Jackie Powell, were arrested near the scene; on April 26, Marshall “Eddie” Conway was arrested as he reported to work at the main post office because police believed he had taken part in the shootings. (Johnson and Conway were convicted and remain in prison. Powell died in prison of heart failure in November 1980.) Word on the street was that Panthers would also go down for the torture and murder of alleged police informant Eugene Leroy Anderson back in July 1969.
Paul Coates’ life is a little calmer these days. He is the owner of the 28-year-old Baltimore-based Black Classic Press and has published works by authors ranging from well-known novelists such as Walter Mosley to pre-eminent scholars like Yosef ben-Jochannan. Coates only agrees to talk to a reporter about his Black Panther days in order, he says, to set the record straight. The Panthers, he says, were not the animals they were painted as by the media, the police, and the FBI. They were human people living human experiences. And the Panthers weren’t the conspiracy theorists that everyone makes them out to be today either. In the Black Panther Party’s late-’60s and early-’70s heyday, the FBI’s domestic Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) led to a wave of undercover agents and informants infiltrating the ranks, committing crimes, and implicating Panthers in them—one of the reasons the Baltimore Panthers started sitting on membership applications like the one Coates had filed.
The Baltimore branch of the Black Panther Party had gotten off to something of a slow start. From its founding in 1968 up through the summer of 1969, the chapter had functioned as more of “pseudo-black-militant social club,” former Panther Steve McCutchen says, than a well-drilled revolutionary organization (“Fighting the Power: Part 1,” Feb. 1). After the national party got rid of founding defense captain Warren Hart and reorganized the branch in July 1969, the Baltimore Panther Party began to flourish, only to find itself facing police harassment, numerous arrests, a series of trials, and reams of bad mainstream press.
The disposition of several of the cases involving party members, especially that against Panther Charles Wyche, proved that the Baltimore branch was overrun with informants and police agents, as many Panthers had believed then, and that the chapter very well may have been founded by an agent provocateur. The Wyche trial, in particular, suggested that some of these agents were involved in the murder of another suspected police informer—Anderson—in order to blame it on the rest of the Panthers. And if it hadn’t been for the Wyche case and the machinations of a clever young lawyer, Coates says, he and his comrades may never have known the whole truth.
At around 8:30 a.m., Coates drove to Panther headquarters, a rowhouse at 1248 N. Gay St., and picked up Clarke and two other Panthers, Ronald Davis and Willie Joiner. He says he remembers thinking that traffic was light for rush hour, and he found a parking space right in front of the building. The four then drove to a house in the 1700 block of Aisquith Street that was rented by one of the Panthers and pulled into the alley. After they realized that none of them had the key, somebody kicked in a cellar window, and they began ferrying the Panthers’ stash of rifles and shotguns from the house to the car.
Coates was carrying a 20-gauge shotgun on his second trip out of the house when he found Clarke, Davis, and Joiner with their hands in the air, surrounded by, he says, “what seemed like 100 police.” The traffic was light and parking abundant because police had blocked off a perimeter around the Gay Street headquarters and followed them to Aisquith. Coates was arrested for the first time ever and charged with 15 counts of intent to murder, although he notes with a chuckle that “if I had been pointing that gun at those cops with an intent to murder them, I doubt that I’d be here to tell this story right now.”
Coates says now that he expected to be busted. In addition to Johnson, Powell, and Conway, six Panthers had been arrested and charged in connection with the slaying of Anderson, whose still-clothed skeleton was found in Leakin Park on Oct. 27, 1969—the state of his remains led to the nickname the “bag of bones” case. Police believed that the 20-year-old Panther sympathizer had been tortured for two days at the previous Panther headquarters on North Eden Street, before being taken to Leakin Park and shot dead. According to news reports, police were turning black neighborhoods upside down looking for Panthers. In all, a total of 21 suspects, 20 of them Panthers, were officially being sought for both crimes.
Steve McCutchen kept a diary from May 1969 to August 1970 that was later published in The Black Panther Party Reconsidered, a 1998 compendium of perspectives from former Panthers published by Coates’ Black Classic Press. McCutchen’s account indicates that Panthers were being hunted everywhere—even when they were feeding free breakfasts to local students at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church at Eager and Valley streets.
“They attacked us this morning,” McCutchen wrote on April 30, 1970. “Pigs ran into the breakfast program at the church looking for Panthers. They snatched Larry [Wallace] coming from the pad on Aisquith Street. The vamp was about charges from last year. About something involving a former Panther. Other former members were snatched, Ochiki [aka Irving Young], Charlie Wyche, Reeva [White] . . . and they’re looking for me.”
“The police said to themselves, We’re going to wipe the Panthers out,” Coates says now. “So they went back and brought up these other charges”—Anderson’s “bag of bones” case—“that weren’t substantial, but they were substantial enough to paint the Panthers as animals, and go out and arrest everybody.”
There was one more place for the police to vamp—the Panthers’ Gay Street headquarters.
Anticipating the police, the community rallied to protect the Panthers. According to a May 1, 1970, article in the Evening Sun, local college students, including several from Johns Hopkins University, “handed out leaflets proclaiming that the ‘Black Panther Office Is Under Siege.’” The students described the April 30 raids as being conducted by “‘carloads of Baltimore City pigs’ . . . using ‘Nazi-like tactics,’ and denounced the attacks ‘racist’ genocide.” The students, according to news reports, staged an all-night vigil outside of the headquarters.
McCutchen, who was one of those being sought in the Anderson case, sat inside the house on Gay Street that day, watching it all unfold. He remembers it was more than a few students. “There were [a thousand people] filling the whole 1200 block of Gay Street,” he says. “And they were blocking the alleys behind the headquarters so that police could not get into the alleyways.” Citing a previous violent showdown in Oakland, Calif., McCutchen says, “They prevented the shootout between Panthers and police. Because we were [ready] to shoot.”
As the community watch began to wind down after a few weeks, McCutchen says that party members feared that the police and the FBI might come back, “and with more force this time.” So three of the handful of Panthers who were still at large at the time—Victor Delly, aka “Yogi”; “Sandy” Sharp; and McCutchen—fled to Philadelphia. (Coates was released on bail; his charges were dropped a year later. Charges against the others arrested with him were eventually dropped as well.) They landed in a safe house around the corner from the Panthers’ west Philadelphia office, and woke the next morning to the sound of gunshots. They turned on the television and found out that police had raided the north and west Philadelphia Panther offices. The three Baltimoreans then fled to the Panthers’ Bronx, N.Y., office.
“All comrades are safe,” McCutchen wrote while in New York in June 1970. “Yogi, Sandy, and I are relieved.” As for Baltimore, the diary entry continues, “Connie wrote. The beat goes on there.”
The beat was, in part, the ongoing police pressure on the Baltimore branch of the Black Panther Party, and the remaining community workers’ and sympathizers’ attempts to go on. But it was also the beating McCutchen felt in his heart for his Baltimore comrade Connie Felder. The national party ordered McCutchen to stay in New York because he was fleeing “bag of bones” charges and evading the draft, but he was missing Felder like crazy.
In July 1970 Felder would become McCutchen’s “revolutionary wife.” Although local Panther leaders had wanted them to wait at least a year since their first meeting before making the extralegal commitment, they didn’t want to put it off any longer.
“Can’t let this day go by,” McCutchen, then 20, wrote that July. “Connie and I had a ceremony. . . . Connie in blue knit with powder blue underneath.
“For now and later this is what I want,” he continued. “It helps me accept the unknowns. We’re out of touch and out of reach physically, but bridge that gap.”
Eight months later, in January 1971, McCutchen risked a visit to Baltimore to see Felder and got arrested. He spent the rest of that year in jail.
Before becoming a Black Panther, Felder wanted to become a nun. Now a fiftysomething mental-health worker living in the Baltimore area, the teenage Felder had told her mother that she wanted to join a convent in order to “help people,” but learning that she would have to be cloistered for 10 years dimmed her enthusiasm. She wasn’t even Catholic. But Felder, then 18, had seen Panthers passing out literature in West Baltimore. And she thought to herself, Here’s my chance.
Felder remembers meeting McCutchen in early 1970, when he was lieutenant of information for the local Panther branch and she was a newcomer wanting information about joining the party.
“I wasn’t interested in him, because I was very serious about what I was doing,” Felder remembers. “All I was concerned about was, was the party legit? Did they stand for what they said?”
After visiting headquarters a few times, she says, she decided to join in January 1970. Soon her administrative skills—she could type, take dictation, and handle the phone—landed her the post of communications secretary, responsible for the administrative operations at the branch.
As for the unofficial “revolutionary marriage” with McCutchen, “we wanted to be with each other for the rest of our lives,” Felder remembers. “And we were challenging the very foundation of society anyway [as Panthers], so why couldn’t we have our own ceremony? It was legal to us.”
When McCutchen fled to Philadelphia, Felder was told that she would probably never see her revolutionary husband again. Regardless, Felder says she and her dozen or so remaining comrades went about the business of being Panthers: going to political education classes, selling Panther newspapers on the street, involving herself with community programs, and fulfilling her duties as communications secretary. She remained passionate about Panther projects, like its free-breakfast program, and she still sounds so today.
“You send your kids to school hungry because you don’t have any food,” Felder says. “But you’re sending them to school for arithmetic. And your son or daughter sees pictures of apples in his textbook and is taught that one apple plus one apple equals two apples.
“But he’s not trying to count those apples,” she continues. “All he wants to do is eat the apple. You can’t learn when you’re hungry.”
Felder says that after many of the male Panthers were arrested and/or in jail, the half-dozen or so female Panthers took up the slack: “We had to keep the branch running.”
For her part, Felder says she was treated as an equal. “In the Baltimore chapter, I thought women were treated very respectfully,” she says. “Nobody was bogarting anybody, saying, ‘I’m going to sleep with you, and you can’t do anything about it.’ They knew who you were with and they respected that. Or, let’s say that most of them did.”
In the spring of 1970, Defense Captain John Clarke, who was originally from Los Angeles, was extradited back to the West Coast on an old warrant. In June 1970, Coates became a member of the Black Panther Party and the Baltimore branch’s defense captain on the same day.
“The New York chapter called me up to see the leadership,” Coates says. When he arrived, the New York leadership told him that they wanted him to be defense captain.
“‘I can’t be defense captain,’” he remembers saying, as he chuckles. “‘I’m not even a member.’”
“‘You are now,’” he was told.
Despite the gender equality she says she felt with her male Panther comrades, Felder feels that she was passed over for the defense captain job. She was, after all, the only Panther remaining who held an official title in the branch.
“That’s not what I remember, but if that’s what she remembers, then that’s what she remembers,” Coates says.
Coates’ first priorities as defense captain were getting his people out of jail and staying out of jail himself. “There were Panthers who had charges on them, and I had charges on me,” he says. So he began the work of sitting in on comrades’ trials, communicating with lawyers, and helping to plan on how to get them off.
Up first: Irving Ochiki Young. Though Young wasn’t even an official Panther member, police were alleging that in July 1969 he drove Eugene Anderson and his killers out to the spot in Leakin Park where Anderson’s remains would be found months later. Young’s case went to trial in November 1970, less than six months after his arrest
According to a 1971 News-American article, a Baltimore Panther named Arnold Loney testified for the state that he, Young, a Panther named Melvin Johnson, and Wyche were in the car when Anderson was driven on what news reports called “a death ride.” Anderson’s death from a shotgun blast in Leakin Park was purportedly a fallback plan; trial testimony indicated that Anderson’s abductors had intended to dump his broken body in Glen Burnie. It so happens that police stopped Young near Glen Burnie on July 12, 1969, the night authorities believed Anderson was killed, and gave him a ticket.
According to a Dec. 8, 1970, Sun article, Maryland State Trooper Alfred Hrankicka stopped a car containing five people because it had a faulty tail light, and because he suspected that the men were five of six men wanted for an assault and robbery. When he stopped the car, he noticed that one of the occupants had “knots and cuts” on his face. (Loney testified that Anderson was seated between him and another occupant in the car’s backseat.) When the trooper questioned the men, they said that the injured man had been in a fight earlier that day. So the trooper checked the trunk for weapons and issued the driver, who he testified was Young, a repair order requesting that he get his light fixed.
The final state’s witness during that day of testimony, Rita Simons, whom the Sun article identified as a Morgan State University teacher who was “friendly” with Young, testified that Young, came to her house at 3 a.m. on July 12 and gave her a copy of that same order. Loney had testified earlier in the trial that “the car of the defendant’s girl friend had been obtained for use in the ‘death ride,’” the article reported.
“That’s a pretty strong case,” Coates says now. “None of the other cases were that strong.
“So what was argued was that all of the other cases should go first, Ochiki should go last,” he continues. Although the Baltimore Panthers didn’t have the high-powered lawyers the national Panther party brought in for some cases, Coates says, “we had all been advised by the lawyers to wait. But, [Young] had his own attorney, or what have you. And his attorney carried him into court and got him life [in prison].”
Now 68, Irving Ochiki Lumumba Young meets a reporter at his East Baltimore home, smiling and polished in a gray suit and a dark blue tie. “Lumumba” he took from Nigerian prime minister Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961; “Ochiki,” the name by which his Panther comrades knew him, is a name that he just “drummed up.” “Back then, everybody was into Africa,” he says. Young, who wound up finishing his bachelor of science degree while in jail, was headed to class at Morgan State University when he was arrested in April 1970.
“There were about 30 police for one little man,” he recalls. “They were everywhere—in the trees even. ‘Don’t you move,’ they said, and grabbed me and slammed me against my car. I busted my lip.” Young was arrested in front of his apartment building where he worked as a security guard.
Young says he never thought he would wind up going to prison for first-degree murder. “That was crazy, how all of a sudden you can get hooked up with a murder,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it when I went into lockup, and I said, ‘Why are you locking me up?’ And they said, ‘Murder one.’ I was so unaware of what was happening to me, never being incarcerated and unaware of how the judicial system worked against the black man.”
Shortly after he was imprisoned, Young says he was already plotting. “If I wasn’t out of there in five years, I was going to escape,” he says. “I had a way out, too.” Fortunately, he didn’t have to go that route. An organization working on his behalf had written then-Gov. Marvin Mandel. In 1974, Young says, Mandel called for him to be brought to Annapolis.
“All of a sudden Marvin Mandel wanted to talk to me,” he recalls. “Something about the case. They had investigated, and something didn’t [add up]. It didn’t make sense why I was [still in jail] and no one else had been convicted.” When the governor requested it, Young says he took a lie-detector test and passed it. Mandel pardoned Young on Christmas Day, 1975.
Young says that no state trooper ever stopped him and contends he was set up because merchants “wanted the chapter in Baltimore gone.” The Panthers had been contacting business owners who traded in Baltimore’s black neighborhoods and asking them to contribute to the branch’s free-breakfast program. “All we were saying was is that you come into this neighborhood, [make money from this community], and go home,” Young says. Perhaps feeling pressured by the Panthers, he continues, “some of the merchants got rebellious and called the authorities.”
Asked where he was on the evening of July 11 and the early morning of July 12, 1969, Young says simply, “I was a single man. I could have been anywhere.” When asked about Eugene Anderson, Young responds, “I never met the man.”
The verdict against Young did not bode well for the Panthers accused of taking part in Anderson’s murder. Charles Wyche was the next to face a jury in April 1971.
Margaret McCarthy, Wyche’s girlfriend at the time, had previously worked with a lawyer she thought could help with his case. In 1971, Larry Gibson was just a few years out of Columbia University’s law school. Now a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, an attorney at Shapiro, Sher, Guinot, and Sandler, and the mastermind behind the campaigns of former mayor Kurt Schmoke and many other politicians, Gibson sits down to talk a few days before going to Liberia to congratulate the country’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, on her historic win. After all, he had a hand in that, too.
In May 1971, Gibson had already joined Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy in a case involving then-police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau’s efforts to prohibit the selling of the Black Panther Black Community News Service. Authorities were incensed about an April 1970 Black Panther illustration of pigs in police uniforms facing down a gun, with flies hovering above them ready to feast on their bodies. In the wake of the April 1970 shooting of officers Sager and Sierakowski, Gibson says, “the rationale was that this paper was urging people to and telling them how to ambush and attack police.” Judge James Perrott issued a temporary injunction preventing the Panthers from distributing the newspapers that lasted for 10 days, then extended the injunction for another 10 days, but never ruled on the matter.
McCarthy had been with Wyche when Anderson was murdered; Gibson believed her when she said that Wyche was innocent and filed a motion to try Wyche separately from the others.
Gibson produces a notebook from 1970 detailing the trial—from his opening statement, to trial sequence, to motions to suppress and his closing statement—but he finds it difficult to make out his own scrawl from 35 years ago. But he still remembers key details.
The Panthers had concluded that Anderson was a police informant, Gibson recounts, sent in to spy on the organization. “It’s fairly clear that some of [the Panthers] killed him,” he says. “I was convinced that Wyche was not one of them.”
Wyche went on trial in April 1971, charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy; witnesses testified that not only was Wyche present for Anderson’s torture, but that he pulled the trigger on that shotgun in Leakin Park. News reports list four local Panthers or party sympathizers who supplied information to the police about the kidnapping/murder of Anderson. According to a June 19 News-American article about a bail hearing for Wyche, “police obtained inside information about the murder from former Black Panthers Carol Ann Martin and Donald Vaughn.” But the two main witnesses for the state at Wyche’s trial, whom the News-American referred to as “informants,” were Panthers Arnold Loney and Mahoney Kebe.
When it was Gibson’s turn to present his defense, he had plenty to work with.
“I’m not going to commit defamation, but I believe one of the primary witnesses for the state was, in fact, the person who killed Anderson,” Gibson says. “And at the trial that person testified, and I put the shotgun in their own [hands].”
In court, Gibson presented autopsy evidence that the person who killed Anderson was right-handed. But Wyche was a lefty. “Left-handed people hold guns [differently] especially a rifle,” Gibson says. “And it was fairly clear that [Anderson] was kneeling and they shot down to a kneeling guy, and [from the angle of the shot] it was a right-handed person.”
And then there were the various, often conflicting accounts of the events of July 11 and 12, 1969, as presented in court. “There was some inconsistency between Loney, Kebe, Vaughn, and the police as to who the driver of the car was, and who was in the car,” Gibson says. “[What] the weather was on that evening, [whether] their weapons were already there [at the murder scene] or not, and how many guns there were.”
Hilary Caplan, a former associate judge for the Baltimore City Circuit Court, served as assistant state’s attorney on Wyche’s trial. “There were some details that were at odds, but the main theory of the state’s case and how the murder took place was corroborated by all three of them,” Caplan says now. “If you cover courts, you know that there are always inconsistencies in witnesses’ testimonies.” Caplan also contends that Loney and Kebe took lie-detector tests, which he says they passed.
Coates admits that he didn’t have high hopes for the Wyche case initially. “The Panthers had cases up the yang, so we had exhausted, pretty much, the supply of black lawyers in this town, and quite a few of the white ones also,” he remembers. “And most people didn’t want to take on our cases. It just so happened that Charlie Wyche was married [to] or dating a woman who was the head of the Welfare Rights Organization in this town at that time. She got Larry Gibson to take on Charlie’s case. But we thought that case was lost.
“But once Larry got in there and started opening things up, he quickly began to question everything that the government was saying.”
In addition to introducing evidence about the shooter being right-handed and Wyche being left-handed, and the inconsistencies in Kebe and Loney’s stories, Gibson says he was also able to establish that Wyche’s girlfriend’s birthday was the day that the murder was supposed to have occurred. Gibson can’t remember the exact piece of evidence he presented—he thinks it may have been a receipt from a Two Guys store—but he was able to offer an alibi that would have precluded Wyche from having participated in the torture and murder of Eugene Anderson. After deliberating for two hours, the News-American reported, the jury acquitted Wyche of all charges.
Gibson says he was glad to vindicate Wyche because that was part of his job. But Coates says Gibson’s win was more important than that. Wyche’s trial revealed that Kebe and Loney weren’t just witnesses who turned state’s evidence to evade charges.
“Were they [police] agents?” Coates asks. “Yes. In that trial, they testified how they would report back to their controllers.”
According to the 1980 book The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America’s Political Intelligence System, by Frank J. Donner, Kebe, Vaughn, and Loney “were turned over to the Baltimore police intelligence unit, headed by Major Maurice DuBois, who had been [an FBI] agent for 20 years. All three witnesses turned out to be Bureau informers and received immunity, free room and board, and a salary—an extravagance in view of their confused testimony.” (DuBois could not be located for this article.)
“What Larry Gibson exposed in court [were] the very things the Panthers were trying to get people to see in the streets,” Coates says. “That the police would do anything to maintain the status quo. They didn’t care about freedoms, justice, equality, or the truth. And they didn’t care about killing black people. I don’t think there are any other [Panther-related] cases in the country where the police were caught red-handed.”
Coates’ theory is that agents of the police who had infiltrated the Baltimore Black Panther Party were, in fact, behind Anderson’s murder, perhaps to make a serious crime stick to the branch’s members.
Caplan says he believes that the Panthers’ New York lawyer, Arthur Turco, was the ringleader in the commission of this crime. “He was apparently in the house when the torture and the murder took place and was part of the conspiracy to kill and remove the body,” Caplan says. And one of the state’s witnesses at Wyche’s trial implicated the attorney. “If you knew Kebe, Vaughn, and Loney, you would not believe that they were the leaders, that others were,” Caplan adds. But Caplan had tried Turco a few months earlier on murder and other charges in relation to Anderson’s death; the result was a hung jury, although Caplan says, “We had a 10-2 [decision] for conviction.”
Coates says that Turco couldn’t have ordered Anderson’s death because the lawyer was white. “We made alliances and coalitions with white people,” Coates says, “but they could not be admitted to the party.
He adds that, from the state’s point of view, the theory of Turco masterminding Anderson’s death made sense: “They thought it was believable that someone white had ordered black people to do this. That suited their racist notion of how the world worked—that this white lawyer must have been in charge.”
After Wyche was acquitted, all of the other charges against the other Panthers regarding Anderson’s murder more or less “evaporated,” Coates says. Meanwhile, Young—not even a full-fledged Panther, just a sympathizer—was the only suspect who served any time.
Neither Gibson nor any of the former Panthers interviewed for this story knows what happened to Wyche; he could not be located for this article. City Paper also was unable to locate Kebe, Loney, Martin, or Vaughn. But while Gibson thinks back to the details of the Wyche trial and his Panther-defending days, he comes out with a tidbit of information that surprises even Coates when he hears of it.
“Hart!” Gibson shouts out after a reporter tries to jog his memory of whether or not he called Warren Hart to testify. Hart was the Baltimore Black Panther Party’s first defense captain who lost his position after representatives of the national leadership visited the slacking Baltimore branch on July 4, 1969, a week before Anderson’s murder.
Gibson didn’t call Hart to the stand, he says, but he does remember another interesting fact about the former Panther. Gibson doesn’t remember all the details—he thinks that Hart and some members of the Soul School, a black nationalist group that Gibson had represented had been arrested at a demonstration. But he says he clearly remembers going to the Western District police station to represent some clients upon their release and wound up holding a bag with Hart’s personal effects. “And in it was a National Security Agency employee card [of some kind],” Gibson says. “It was about the size of a driver’s license. I think it even had an NSA seal of some sort.
“This one I saw with my own eyes.”
NSA spokeswoman Marci Green says that due to “privacy issues,” the agency can’t confirm or deny Hart’s employment.
As the furor surrounding the Anderson case began to wind down in the summer of 1971, life returned to something like normal for the Baltimore Panthers. Coates says he was working hard as defense captain. The breakfast program was flourishing, and the Panthers had even worked to help to start a People’s Free Health Clinic on Greenmount Avenue. But things would not stay stable for long.
“There were elements in the [national] Black Panther Party that did not like what [seemed] to them as a single focus around the Baltimore Panthers,” Coates says, rather than on the national party’s agenda. “They felt that I was too focused,” he adds. Panther leadership called for Coates to come to California in November 1971. “And so I was no longer the defense captain” in Baltimore, he says.
At that time, Coates says, the philosophy of the party had begun to change from propagating local branches and chapters. National Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton’s “thing was to consolidate in Oakland, and to take Oakland over as a city,” Coates says. “It was a strategy that he felt that you could bring Panthers in from all over the country, and you could build a power base in one city—like Oakland as an example—and then you could build out from there.
“It was a stupid theory,” Coates continues. “What that meant was that you would pull in the stronger people that you had in your chapters. One of the things [that got] me to California was that someone else was going to take over in Baltimore, and that someone else was going to take care of the people that were here in Baltimore.” He says that did not happen.
In December 1971, Steve McCutchen was getting out of jail, released when charges against him in the Anderson case were dropped. He returned to the Baltimore branch until he and his comrades were given the directive in March 1972 to close the branch and move to Oakland.
McCutchen served as a member of the party in Oakland for the next seven years. During that time, he says, the Panthers saw political growth: The party ran Panther Elaine Brown for city council, and Bobby Seale came in second in his 1973 run for mayor of Oakland. But unsavory rumors were flying about Newton—his alleged murder of Betty Van Patter in 1974, murmurs about him stealing money from drug dealers—and as the revolutionary heat of the ’60s and early ’70s began to cool, more and more members left the party. McCutchen wound up leaving the BPP in 1979; the community activities, such as the free-breakfast program, had all but vanished, and with them went his interest. The party itself started to fizzle out after the closure of the Panther-run Oakland Community School in 1982. McCutchen works as a schoolteacher in Oakland to this day.
Connie Felder’s revolutionary marriage to McCutchen faded. In search of new life, she moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles for a time, but came back to her hometown in the late ’80s. After his five-year stint in prison, Irving Ochiki Young wound up working for Baltimore’s parking meter division, and now runs a home-improvement business.
When Coates got to California in 1971, he says he soon realized that there were things that he was missing out on at home. His family, first, and “there were other Panthers on trial here,” he says, mentioning Johnson, Powell, and Conway. So in 1972, Coates says he left the Black Panther Party and California behind, and he, too, came home to Baltimore.
During the course of talking about their lives in the Black Panther Party, current events were on a few of these ex-Panthers’ minds. They all believe that COINTELPRO still exists to some extent; the recent controversy over President Bush’s authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens’ communications without a warrant only underlines their concern. And with the nation engaged in a “war on terror” and, in some sectors, unfriendly to dissent, some of them wonder if the Panthers would, on some level, be considered domestic terrorists today.
There is a Texas-based New Black Panther Party, but national Black Panther Party co-founder and former chairman Bobby Seale denounces it. The New Black Panthers, he says, have “hijacked their name out of history” but aren’t standing up to the same ideals.
“The problem with the so-called New Black Panthers,” Seale says, is “they’ve never, ever put up one program that served the people tangibly. Like the free breakfast for children program, like the free health clinics. And then they came out with a bunch of racist rhetoric.
“The Black Panther Party was about all power to all the people,” Seale says. “Whether you’re white, black, blue, red, green, yellow, polka dot. We knew and defined the enemy as the avaricious, corporate money-rich who controlled who perpetuated oppression over all of the people.”
“The person who is white who lives across the street from you is not your enemy,” Coates adds. “Now the system that we live under, the system that continues to give more power or more privilege to a white person—that’s what you should be looking at.”
Still, Coates says he feels the Panthers’ time has passed. “The Black Panther Party was a phenomena of that time, and of this time you will have other phenomena,” he says. “Like Nat Turner was a phenomena of that time.
“The conditions of today are already birthing our response of today,” he continues. “Now whether or not that response will get on a national stage, and an international stage, like the Panthers did in their time, I don’t know.”
Then the man who was once an “ambivalent” community worker sitting in his bed, wondering how he could get out of moving those guns from Aisquith Street to Gay Street, is asked another important question: Would he do it all again?
“I [would] have no choice,” Coates says. “History calls.”
Marshall “Eddie” Conway wholeheartedly believes another revolution could spring up: “As long as there’s a sense in the communities of people wanting to make changes, even though they may have differences in ideologies, there’s always a possibility that such an organization can form again.” But when asked if he would join the revolution again, Conway is the ambivalent one. After all, he’s been in prison for 36 years for a crime he says he did not commit.
“Knowing what I know now?” he begins. “In my heart, I would have to say that I would have joined even knowing the consequences of it. But rationally, even knowing how corrupt the government was, and still is, I certainly would have had second thoughts about getting involved to the extent that I did.”
Irving Ochiki Young is the only former Panther interviewed for this article who says that being associated with the Panthers just wasn’t worth it for him. He will never get back the five years of his life he spent in prison. He admits he was searching for a bit of brotherhood that he could have sought elsewhere. “I wish I had just joined a fraternity,” he says.
McCutchen, the former diarist, is short on words. Sure, he thinks a similar organization could pop up again. And if a revolution were to be happen, he says, he’d be ready: “I’ve had my door kicked in before.”
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