Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Consequences of Panthermania

Early local headlines did not improve the Panther image. Unfolding in newspapers dropped near the Dellwood Milk box each morning were such improbable images as:


Stunned by bizarre testimony, New Haveners began to ask questions. Had this been the work of an efficient, nationally controlled paramilitary organization? Or was it simply Amateur Night in New Haven? Was Alex Rackley murdered by a chain of orders systematically handed down from the top? Or by nothing more than flailing egos of the rank and file in a fit of braggadocio?

It was hardly a proud moment for the Black Panther Party. Determined to protect Seale from a conspiracy rap, the party started out heaping abuse on George Sams as a police informer. But the Panthers had a hard time making anybody, including their own lawyers, believe it.

Was Rackley "iced" on the basis of casually dropped kitchen rhetoric by Chairman Seale? Or because George Sams was desperate to ingratiate himself with his old friend Stokely Carmichael so together they could take over the party (as the defense suggested)? Or, as the Panther newspaper had decided, because Sams was "a crazy boot-licking nigger" (". . . Our diagnosis from the perspective of revolutionary psychiatry")? Or because George Sams was simply a scared loser with an 83 IQ and a Swiss cheese brain who did not know what else to do?

Chairman Seale, advised of Warren Kimbro's non-implicating testimony, rejoiced: "That puts the State up ----s creek, doesn't it?"

But the party itself was ultimately moved to give a formal statement:

"The Black Panther Party has to stand in judgment [by] the people, because in that period of our party's development, we allowed a maniac such as George Sams to come into our party."

From the outset the New Haven trial was a political dud. But as an exhibition of the weaknesses inherent in any revolutionary organization, it was a very instructive trial indeed. The Black Panther Party here and across the nation faces two threats that have plagued counterparts throughout history:

(1) Rivalry for leadership. The transfer of power within an elected party is generally orderly, and slow. By nature the followers of a revolutionary group look to their most extreme members for leadership. As a more militant warrior emerges to catch the imagination of the cause, the old leadership is impugned, attacked as weak, either expelled or killed. With the transfer of power left to this turbulent process, a revolutionary party is always in danger of collapse through internal attack. The fact is, Black Panthers are scorned by most other black power groups, the Muslims in particular. Members of US, the black nationalist group, have killed Panthers. Eldridge Cleaver, in sanctuary in Algeria, is regarded most dubiously beyond the Panther faithful. Many militants go by this rule of thumb: No black fugitive gets out of the country. He is let out of the country.

(2) Informers and paranoia. Informers, traditionally the government's most effective weapon against a rebellious party, serve two purposes. They provide information and induce the more devastating Infiltration Reflex. Innocents and hangers-on are suspected and tortured or killed in the manner of Alex Rackley.

As real and imagined informers build paranoia within the revolutionary cadre, the rebels begin turning one another in. Panthers have already testified against rival black militants. In New Haven they were being called upon to testify against one another.

There is one "revolutionary" organization in this country which has beaten the game. The Mafia doesn't fool around with oaths and ideological loyalty. To belong you have to "make your bones." Kill somebody. With that tie, the Mafia has you forever.

If the Black Panther party determines to survive at all costs, it may copy the Mafia technique. To belong, one may have to kill a cop.

The outcome of the New Haven Panther trial was determined by the first move in the chain of events leading to the trial.

"There are no Panthers in Connecticut except Ericka," was the declaration from national headquarters. When Landon Williams and Rory Hithe were dispatched to purge the East Coast chapters, the chain of paranoia and internal mistrust was set in motion. Now in the Superior Courthouse of New Haven one year and three months later the rule was: every man for himself.

The defense of the New Haven eight was organized around this premise. This was not to be any New Wave conspiracy trial. Politics would not come before people. Defense attorney Theodore Koskoff, an officer of the National Trial Lawyers' Association, set out to prove the system could work, even for a black revolutionary. Providing he dresses nice and plays it straight.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift