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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

J. Edgar Hoover and the Black Panther Party--background for the life of Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter

This is a photo of Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, (1942-1969) who died at the age of 26 in a shoot out at UCLA. 

Yup. It was a shoot-out at Campbell Hall, in the Black Student Union, during a meeting to create a balanced faculty in the African-American studies department. 

I have looked hard for background on Alprentice. I know he was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and at some point, moved to Los Angeles, probably as a child. In the late fifties, he became a member of a Slauson street gang, then moved up to the Slauson Renegades, the inner circle of that gang. Ultimately, he was the leader of the Slausons, which had, at that time, over 5,000 members. He was known in those days as the Mayor of the Ghetto. 

Then, he was sentenced to four years for armed robbery. Sent to Soledad, he was exposed to the teachings of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and he converted, but after his release in 1963--he was twenty-one--he met Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panthers, left Islam, and instead joined the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. 

It's important here to try to lay some groundwork for inner city Northern blacks in the early sixties. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (SCLC) the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, (SNCC) etc., were still focused on the Jim Crow South, where blacks had been subjugated legally since the end of slavery, it was nearly impossible for them to vote, and lynchings were status quo. 

In Northern Cities, the issues were different. People of color were kept packed in isolated neighborhoods, by landlords who refused to rent to you, realtors who refused to sell homes in white neighborhoods and communities who might literally blow your house up or burn it down if you moved in. If you managed to buy a home you usually could not take out loans, as white residents of their town did, in order to improve that house, because banks had redlines drawn on their maps around Black neighborhood and refused to give loans. As for jobs--most unions were just beginning to let you be a member, which still put you in the last hired first fired role, and other than union jobs, you were often restricted to low-paying labor. 

Add to that the police department, which was staffed by people who had been raised to be racist, like most of the rest of the white population at the time. We've all been learning about how white people in general and police officers in particular frequently mis-read African-Americans as huge and impossibly dangerous (If you're interested in teasing out some of your own biases, you can take some interesting tests online at That was obviously true in the past as well, and in Oakland and in Los Angeles, as in many other parts of the north, people in what were then called Negro neighborhoods were used to being roughed up by the police, if not killed by them. 

When we moved to South Central Los Angeles, we heard story after story from our neighbors about police brutality they had and continue to experience. This was eye-opening to me, who had been raised in white suburbia, at a time when Jews were beginning to be considered white. I had been taught that the police officer was my friend, someone to turn to if I were lost, someone who would probably give me ice-cream while I waited for my mama to come and rescue me. 

Then, I heard our neighborhood stories, and I witnessed it myself--a police officer harassing our neighbor who was walking the dogs with us one night after having us over for dinner, and multiple officers profoundly and repeatedly harassing a beloved teenaged neighbor in a way that frightened us so deeply that it was part of why we moved. I became deeply aware that my childhood ideas were not--and still are not--the usual experience for children of color, who often see the adults around them humiliated or handled brutally by police--much like Jews in Eastern Europe even before Hitler, where men were routinely humiliated in front of their families, with no kind of practical recourse, since resistance meant death, rape for their women folk, etc. (Although not resisting might lead to the same results.) 

Martin Luther King was a great leader. And he was pushed forward by impatient young men and women of SNNC. And he was both pushed and supported by an army of mostly unmentioned women who forced, organized and publicized on the ground the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The South's non-violent protests proved highly effective, largely because of this mountain of planning, the support of LBJ, who was a passionate racial activist president and consummate bully politician, and the aforementioned great inspiration of MLK's leadership--though none of that would have made a difference if not for the fact that television brought Southern Brutality into the homes of millions of white Americans, as it was their shamed awareness that allowed change to come. 

But members of SNNC, reeling from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, were already growing impatient with the slow pace of social change and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and the Black Panther party had already chosen a more in-your-face approach when Martin Luther King finally turned his eyes to the poverty of northern cities, just before he was assassinated. They founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and they scared the heck out of white America. Armed with Marxist rhetoric as well as bristling with guns, they told the world they were tired of being roughed up by the police, and would fight fire with fire to defend their own. The Panthers were rooted in Marxist ideology and inspired by the liberation theories of countries around the world, especially South and Central America and Africa. They studied law, started schools, free breakfasts for poor children, but they also "shadowed" police officers, carrying the California Penal code and toting shot guns. 

And that will have to be that, for today. Next time--I hope to get to Ronald Reagan throwing all his political weight--you won't believe this-- in support of gun control. 

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