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Black Against Black: The Agony of Panthermania

As things stand today, according to Steve Trott, "The name US and Karenga are mud at UCLA. People trying to leave the organization get their apartments firebombed. Jimeni Jomo was recently shot after quitting US. Karenga, when he's been seen, looks like he's going crazy or spacing out on dope. The Panthers in Southern California are a pretty small group of leftovers now. Mostly misfits—angry, unhappy, low-IQ kids. It's sad."

John Huggins became a revolutionary martyr. His bravura death sent shock waves across three thousand miles into the torpid cellars of obediently middle-class young black men with a lust for the apocalypse, young men like Junius Jones.

Right now, his father says, Junius is probably downstairs running a picture through his mind of Huggins and his Magnum on the floor of UCLA . . .

. . . John with a ragged dumdum hole through his chest, drowning in the blood swamp coming up his mouth, still able to lift a gun out of his belt by sheer force of training in self-defense. Able to squeeze that trigger again and again in post-mortem spasms. This was no whimper-tongued white-shoe Yalie copout. This was really it! A half-dead black man and his weapon united in a choreography so exquisite, so instinctual, that the two blasted on beyond death.

". . .'I'm glad to be back at school for one reason,' Junius said, staring ferociously. 'To blow up the place.'. . ."

The revolutionary funeral is a prime recruiting event. When John Huggins came home from college in a pine box, accompanied by his vengeful wife Ericka and their daughter, a whisper of a thing less than a month old, the spark of Panthermania was set off in New Haven. His body arrived by train on January 23, 1969.

"John Huggins? Killed in a militant-type action in California?" whistled his childhood friend, picking up the newspaper outside Yale Medical School. "I knew John was naïve, but I would have pictured him as last in line to fight with militant tactics."

A genteel white doyen got on the phone to explain John's death to her out-of-town friends. "The shocking thing is that the Huggins family is so clearly social class Number One black. They won't talk to anyone about it. The whole thing, from John's marriage to Ericka to John's death, they see as an unmitigated disaster."

The Hugginses, despite their private bitterness toward Panther ideology, did not have John's hair cut or put him in a gray Congregational suit. They bought him a black leather jacket and a beret. Bridgeport had the only Panther chapter in Connecticut at the time. Black-booted girls and men in leather body jackets began to turn up at the funeral parlor, and by the time big-shot Panthers came from Oakland and L. A., John Huggins was laid out for a full-dress Panther burial.

Two hundred people attended his wake, only a third of them white. Warren Kimbro, soon to become captain of New Haven's first Panther chapter, read excerpts from Eldridge Cleaver—the oddly comforting description of a clash in 1967 between Panthers and Oakland police. At the end of the service, as is the custom in military funerals, the pallbearers snapped the Panther flag into a three-cornered pillow and presented it to John's parents in place of their son.

The Huggins funeral caught the imagination of young black New Haven like nothing before or since. Black militants who had presided over the local civil-rights scene felt suddenly old there. They could see their leadership—indeed their whole era of non-violent protest—passing overnight into ridicule.

Now in William's house I ask if Junius has his notebook downstairs with him.

"Junius always has his notebook with him. He says it's his only key to reality."

What strikes home is that today it is natural to think about a very bright and bothered adolescent boy in terms of shooting. The words that pertain are homicide, suicide, genocide. At one time these words had hightly specific meanings. They have been beaten up in courtrooms and whipped around in the over-and underground press until even these words have become murky, homogenized. We find ourselves in a country which can no longer accurately distinguish between who is doing the killing, and who is being killed, or killing himself.

And so we sit inside William's red shingle house, careful to speak in the conditional, and we pretend not to wonder what Junius is clicking downstairs. His father listens. The worry he does not display.

"How would you feel if one of your friends, say, had a son who was in the Panther Party? Say he was given the order to assassinate someone?"

William pushes back from the dinner table. "Well, I don't believe in murder under any circumstances. But I know—I can't say I know, but I can see—that the feeling of the average member of the Black Panther Party is that they're at war. And they're executin' themselves in the same way as if they were in battle in Vietnam. Some of the fellas are veterans of the Vietnam war. They been taught to kill. They came back, conditions weren't what they expected and they feel that they're at war. Right here."


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