The Black Panthers and the Police:
A Pattern of Genocide?


February 13, 1971

by Edward Jay Epstein

Between 4:40 and 4:52 A.M. on December 4, 1969, plainclothes police in Chicago, while executing a search warrant for illegal weapons, shot to death Fred Hampton, the twenty-one-year-old chairman of the Black Panther Party of Illinois, and Mark Clark, a member of the Party, in Hampton's apartment. Four days later, at about the same hour of the morning, the Los Angeles Special Weapons Tactics Team, dressed in black jumpsuits and black hats, moved on the Black Panther Party headquarters in that city with another search warrant for illegal weapons and, in a heated gun battle, shot and seriously wounded three more Panthers. Commenting on these events, in San Francisco, Charles R. Garry, chief counsel and spokesman for the Black Panther Party, whose membership at the time was estimated at between eight hundred and twelve hundred, declared to the press that Hampton and Clark were "in fact the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth Panthers murdered by the police," and that the deaths and the raids were all "part and package of a national scheme by various agencies of the government to destroy and commit genocide upon members of the Black Panther Party."

Garry's assertion that twenty-eight members of the controversial black-militant group had been killed by the police was widely reported. On December 7 and December 9, 1969, the New York Times reported as an established fact, without giving any source for the figure or qualifying it in any way, that twenty-eight Panthers had been killed hy police since January, 1968. On December 9, 1969, the Washington Post stated flatly, "A total of 28 Panthers have died in clashes with police since January 1, 1968." In a later article, the Post declared, "Between a dozen and 30 Panthers have been killed in these confrontations."

On the basis of what had been reported about the police killings and predawn raids, civil-rights leaders expressed an understandable concern. Roy Innis, director of the Congress of Racial Equality, called for an immediate investigation of "the death of 28 Black Panther members killed in clashes with the police since January, 1968." Ralph Abernathy, who succeeded Martin Luther King, Jr., as the chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, attributed the death of Panther leaders to "a calculated design of genocide in this country." Julian Bond, a member of the Georgia state legislature, said, "The Black Panthers are being decimated by political assassination arranged by the federal police apparatus." And Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League, urgently requested the Attorney General to convene federal grand juries in those "jurisdictions where nearly 30 Panthers have been murdered by law-enforcement officials."

Garry's theory about "a national scheme ... to destroy" the Black Panthers was also taken up by the press. Pointing to a "growing feeling (particularly in the black community)" that the "Federal Administration has had a hand in the recent wave of raids, arrests and shoot-outs," an article in the Times by John Kifner concluded that statements made by officials of the Nixon Administration "appear to have at least contributed to a climate of opinion among local police . . . that a virtual open season has been declared on the Panthers." Time reported, on December 12, 1969, that "a series of gun battles between Panthers and police throughout the nation" amounted to a "lethal undeclared war," and concluded, "Whether or not there is a concerted police campaign, the ranks of Panther leadership have been decimated in the past two years." In the very next issue, Time, repeating Garry's claim that "28 Panthers have died in police gunfire," asked, "Specifically, are the raids against Panther offices part of a national design to destroy the Panther leadership?"

The answer was more or less left open. That same week, Newsweek began a news report entitled "Too Late for the Panthers?" with the same question: "Is there some sort of government conspiracy afoot to exterminate the Black Panthers?" The article then proceeded to portray a guerrilla war between “the gun-toting Panthers and the police," in which the Panther "hierarchy around the country has been all but decimated over the past year," and concluded that "there is no doubt that the police around the nation have made the Panthers a prime target in the past two years . . ." A few weeks later, Newsweek reported that "the cop on the beat has been joined by Attorney General John Mitchell's Justice Department, which believe the Panthers to be a menace to national security and has accordingly escalated the drive against them"-- a drive that "has taken a fearful toll of the Panthers." The Washington Post, noting in an editorial that the "carnage has been terrible" in the "urban guerrilla warfare" between Panthers and police, concluded that "recent events" had given "added currency" to the Panther charge that "there is a national campaign under way to eradicate them by any means, legal or extra-legal." Picking up the theme in his syndicated column, Carl T. Rowan observed, "We have seen this nationally orchestrated police campaign to turn the guns on the Panthers and wipe them out," and referred to an "obvious conspiracy of police actions across the country that has produced the alleged killings of 28 Black Panthers." The Nation, in an editorial titled "Marked for Extinction," asserted, "It is becoming increasingly apparent that a campaign of repression and assassination is being carried out against the Black Panthers." Evcn a paper as cautious as the Christian Science Monitor, after a telephone interview with Garry, cited the Panther charge of "police murder" and “genocide" and expressed "a growing suspicion that something more than isolated local police action was involved."

Confusion about the alleged murders began to set in early, and on December 21, 1969, the Times reported that Garry had put the number of Panthers killed by the police at twelve, although it later returned to the figure of twenty-eight. While an Associated Press dispatch in the San Francisco Examiner on December 9th reported that twenty-seven panthers had been killed by police in "Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Detroit and Indianopolis,” a UPI dispatch, on December 12th, listed twenty Panthers killed in "cold blood" by police in Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, San Diego, New Haven and Chicago. Life, in a single issuethat of February 6, 1990, presented three figures: Eldrige Cleaver, a Black Panther official was quoted as saying that the police “ambush” had led to “28 murders of Panthers,” but, at another point, the magazine declared “at least 19 Panthers are dead," adding parentheses, that "it is uncertan more than a dozen have died of police bullets." While articles in the New Republic, Ramparts, and The New Statesman have, at various times, put the figure at twenty, an article in Newsday by Patrick Owens asserted that no more than ten Panthers had been killed by police. The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois declared, according to the Washington Post, that twenty-eight Panthers had died in clashes with police since January 1, 1968, while the Los Angeles branch of the same organization said that it was possible to document twelve cases in which Panthers had been killed in such encounters. In a column in the Post, a few days earlier, Nicholas von Hoffman had written "The Panthers alone claim that 28 of their top people have been murdered in the past couple of years and there is no stong prima facie reason to disbelieve them."

Even one victim of deliberate police murder would be too many, but if twenty-eight Panthers had been murdered by the police in two years, as Garry claimed and many publcations reported, it might indeed represent a pattern of systematic destruction. The implications would be so dreadful that one would expect the figures to be checked out with the utmost scruple. Since the number of Panthers killed would seem to be an ascertainable fact, how can such widely differing figures be accounted for?


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