Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Consequences of Panthermania

Each day the New Haven trial became less an exhibition of gross racism and political injustice, and more a Rabelaisian ballad of individual human desperation, fear and fallibility.

August. George Sams is doing a little singing downtown. In fact he is spilling the guts of the Black Panther Party all over the sidewalks of New Haven. The courtroom is small, orderly, square. Judge Harold Mulvey maintains a mild presence. There is no glare. Only a soft cosmetic whiteness that filters down from square frosted ceiling lights.

George Sams enters to testify, cool as tap shoes. In his navy blue blazer with padded shoulders he swings within inches of the defense table to outface Lonnie McLucas on his way to the stand. Lonnie is dressed to perfection. But Sams is improving every day.

"Who's his tailor?" an attorney whispers to McLucas.

Now defense attorney Koskoff leads George Sams through an account of his travels over the three months following the murder. It's a dizzying journey.

Koskoff: You left Orchard Street in a car with Landon Williams and Rory Hithe, drove to Kennedy Airport and boarded a shuttle. Where did you go then?

Sams: To Washington.

Koskoff: Landon wanted you to get records of Stokely Carmichael from a man named Jann in Washington, right?

Sams: Yes . . . and to get the names of contacts who were counter-revolutionary to the Panther Party so we could patrol the East Coast.

Koskoff: Did you get the records?

Sams: No.

Koskoff: Did you get Jann's secretary?

Sams: No.

Koskoff: As a matter of fact, the Black Panther Party never trusted you, right?

Sams: No, they trusted me.

Koskoff: Didn't you tell Sergeant DeRosa that Stokely Carmichael was trying to take over the party?

Sams: No . . .

While the jury is shuffled in and out of hearing range, the defense and prosecution haggle with George Sams over how many times he had been expelled by the party—according to his own previously recorded statement. Judge Mulvey decides to hear the tape in his private chambers. Koskoff returns to pursue the same line, hoping to establish Sams' own mental imbalance as the singular motive for the murder. Meanwhile, he is demolishing the image of Panther Party discipline . . .

". . . What really appeals about Panthers is summed up by Lonnie's cousin: 'Those cats do more travelin' than rich folks!'. . ."

Koskoff: Weren't you afraid to come back to New Haven without the records and to tell Landon you didn't get them?

Sams: Yes, a little afraid.

It is established Sams hopped a taxi from Washington to New Jersey, then to "Mr. Krunstler's" office [William Kunstler] in Manhattan, spent the night at Mr. Kunstler's ladyfriend's house in Greenwich Village, and then sped off for Chicago with Rory and Landon.

Koskoff: How'd you go this time?

Sams: Mustang. [Murmurs of approval, in spite of themselves, come from Panther supporters in the spectator section.]

Sams: We went to headquarters in Chicago to investigate the party policies and ideology.

Koskoff: How long did you stay in headquarters?

Sams: Twenty minutes.

Koskoff, the impresario, winds up in his starched collar to give this one everything he's got:

It took you twenty minutes to investigate the party ideology?

Koskoff continues to lead Sams on his incredible journey . . .

Sams: That Sunday we pulled out and went to the Panther houses in Detroit. There was a lot of problems going on there. National hadn't classified the chapter. We found a lot of renegades and counter-revolutionaries running around and it was clear to everybody there wasn't a total Panther in Detroit.

Bizarre. By Sams' account virtually every Panther chapter in America was suspect. Sams himself spent several days under house arrest in Chicago, then claims to have walked out with a .38 revolver one evening and passed, unrecognized, through a line of FBI agents surrounding the house. He fled to Canada disguised in a preacher's suit.

Sams: I got my own place till I got captured. Somewhere 'roun' two and a half months later.

Koskoff: What were you doing in Canada?

Sams: Running.

Koskoff: How did you live?

Sams: People supported me. Some of them kids in SDS, the ones that split up over that Yugoslavia thing, and some people in the Communist Party— they was all arguing with each other and supportin' me. Just a buncha liberals, you know.

The press section breaks up. Even the jurors snicker. The front line of Panther spectators is convulsed with laughter and the court, summarily, is recessed . . . Just a buncha liberals . . . Dynamite!

Recess. Lonnie's cousin from Port Chester is stretching his legs on the Green. He is a tall, friendly looking man in his late twenties and the testimony has obviously knocked him out. Port Chester, he says apologetically, isn't hip to the Panthers yet.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift