Former member Elaine Brown talks about the savage attacks on the Black Panther Party in 1969, from the January murders of Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins through the LAPD SWAT team siege to the COINTELPRO murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
Forty-five years ago last week, two young members of the Black Panther Party, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins, were slain on the campus of UCLA. Students at the time, Carter and Huggins were shot during a meeting about the formation of a black studies department. The killings at Campbell Hall appeared to be a flashpoint in a supposed power struggle between the Panthers and the Maulana “Ron” Karenga-led group, Us. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, however, was keen to exploit and heighten tensions between the groups before the incident.
In September 1968, a few months before Carter’s and Huggins’ deaths, the Black Panther Party had grown nationally across the United States to the extent that Hoover, as head of the FBI, designated the group as “the most dangerous threat to the internal security of the country.” The much-cited classification was followed in 1969 with an aggressive implementation of the counter-intelligence program aimed at dismantling the party, commonly known as COINTELPRO. The year began with the killings of Carter and Huggins in Los Angeles and ended with the murder of Chairman Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago.
Elaine Brown, a member of the Southern California chapter of the party at the time and the first woman to go on and lead it, remembers well the tumult of that year, one she describes as “absolute terror.”
Gabriel San Roman for Truthout: What did 1969 mean for the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party in terms of police repression?
Elaine Brown: In Southern California, we took some very heavy hits from the police. The most striking thing we can start out with is that the Los Angeles Police Department formed something called the Special Weapons And Tactics team, known as SWAT. That’s important historically because there were no such urban guerrilla, counterinsurgency, armylike entities in any police department prior to that. LAPD was unique in forming that and set a model. Their whole purpose was to attack the Black Panther Party. On their insignia they have “41st,” which references where they raided our offices, at 41st and Central.
Looking back, the siege of ’69 started the month before the new year, did it not?
In December of 1968, one of our comrades, Frank “Franco” Diggs, was killed in an alley in Long Beach. We, to this minute, can’t trace how that happened. Franco was one of the key figures in the formation of the chapter and probably one of the people closest to Bunchy Carter, who was the founder and had previously been one of the main leaders of the Slausons, a street organization, a gang, the second-largest in the nation. The year really started out with the murder of Franco Diggs. And then on January 17, at UCLA, John Huggins, deputy chairman, and Carter were assassinated by members of Ron Karenga’s Us organization, or a member at least, that we know of. Interestingly, that assassin was able to escape prosecution – and the United States – and ended up in Guyana. Later the “Stiner brothers,” who were also Us members that were indicted and convicted as conspirators in the murders, were sentenced (to) San Quentin prison. Miraculously, both of them escaped and also ended up in Guyana.
Was there the suspicion that this UCLA slaying came out of COINTELPRO?
There’s testimony from a former FBI informant and other testimonies that suggested there was direct FBI involvement in this assassination. The Black Panther Party at the time and I would say today say that this was absolutely an act carried out by COINTELPRO. That was the beginning of a raging year. This year, of course, was an important year, because J. Edgar Hoover had in 1968 declared publicly that the Black Panther Party was the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States. This is a rather infamous quote of his. This was Hoover’s pledge and declaration. So 1969 was the year we were supposed to be wiped out, and we almost were.
And as the year came to a close, there was a literal siege of the Southern California chapter’s office. What were your recollections of that?
In our chapter, we had two members of the San Diego branch who were shot and killed selling newspapers. We had a number of other people killed that year, like Nathaniel Clark. Then, as we got toward the end of the year, we had the assault on our office. I think it still exists as the most violent and longest assault on any citizen organization ever in the history of the country – including the assault on the MOVE organization by the Philadelphia police and the SLA in Los Angeles. The assault on our office lasted over 5½ hours with over 300 LAPD and SWAT team members hitting it with everything from grenades to helicopter rifle guns. There were 11 people in our office, of which two were women. They were able to defend the office and their lives, though they did end up going up to prison. Ironically, nobody was ever ultimately convicted of any real crime, so we have to ask ourselves why did the LAPD even come to the door in the first place? Typically, the excuse was they had a warrant for some guns suspected to be in the office.
What followed after that brought the year of repression against the party to a close?
In Chicago, within days of the LA office raid, was the brutal murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in the Illinois chapter. Hampton was the leader. This is the most confirmed case that the FBI orchestrated the murder of two people in the Black Panther Party. The target of that murder was Fred Hampton. This is where we have irrefutable documents to show that a person who came into the party named William O’Neal was collaborating with the police and was actually recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the party. This guy specifically came in to be an informant and even more significantly to be a provocateur, meaning O’Neal was there to instigate certain kinds of acts and behavior that would jeopardize and otherwise undermine the party. For example, O’Neal rose to become security chief, believe it or not, and ended up putting up this rigged electric chair, an incredibly horrible thing that the central committee had to have removed, but it was there, supposedly, in case someone was suspected of being an agent. So that’s how the year ended in December of 1969. In between, there were all of these events and raids on other offices across the country, but these are the most startling ones. Our chapter really took a very heavy hit. There were just so many conflicts and acts of aggression on the party by the police that it was just a year of absolute terror.