Huey P. Newton is freed on Aug. 5, 1970, at the Aladema County Courthouse. (KQED Archives)
When Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton was released from Oakland’s Alameda County Courthouse 50 years ago, on Aug. 5, 1970, he scaled the top of a car and looked out to the crowd of people gathered in support.
Footage shows all eyes on Newton. He'd later tell Rolling Stone that taking off his prison-issue shirt wasn’t necessarily intended to be a symbolic gesture; it was just the consequence of it being a hot day in August. Nevertheless, Newton stood atop the automobile, shirtless, arm muscles big enough to lift the courthouse he just walked out of, as he addressed the crowd. News cameras rolled as he told those within earshot his soft-spoken words: “You have the power, and the power is with the people.”
Last month, on Sunday, July 26, I drove two circles around the Alameda County Courthouse to observe the damage from the night before. The windows were busted, the walls of the joint were tattooed with anti-police graffiti, and burn marks remained from a fire started just inside of the building’s main entry (it was extinguished before causing any major damage). The damage occurred after a protest spearheaded by a group of people said to be in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon. The people who actually vandalized the courthouse, and those who did a number on the federal building and Oakland Police headquarters nearby, remain unidentified.
I took a picture of the courthouse that Sunday morning and posted it on social media. Many responses hypothesized about the people who did the damage, where they were from, and what their intentions were. Journalist Rasheed Shabazz responded by wondering: where’s the “Free Huey” message?
50 years after Huey was freed, that same courthouse is one of the many battlegrounds in the current fight for liberation and justice—but is it the same fight?
Around 5am on Oct. 28, 1967, Huey P. Newton was driving a Volkswagen with passenger Gene McKinney when he hit the corner of 7th and Willow Street in West Oakland, according to court documents. That's where he was pulled over by Oakland Police Officer John Frey; the officer called for backup immediately, which brought Officer Herbert Heanes to the scene.
From there, the details get sketchy. There’s a story of Newton being asked to exit his car, and him doing so, law book in hand. There's a report that Officer Frey might've called Newton a derogatory term after telling Newton where he could shove that law book. From all accounts I’ve read, commotion ensued from that point. Shots were fired and Newton was hit in the abdomen. Both officers were hit multiple times. Officer Frey died from his wounds. Officer Heanes survived.
The only fired rounds of ammunition retrieved from the scene were police-issued.
Huey, reportedly in and out of consciousness, ended up at Kaiser hospital, where he was simultaneously arrested and treated for his wounds. Photos show him handcuffed to a medical bed.
In 1968, Newton went to trial and was found guilty of manslaughter. His attorney, Charles Garry, brought the case to the California Courts of Appeal. In May of 1970, it was found that the judge in the first trial held back relevant information to the jury—namely, that Newton's contention that he was unconscious at the time Officer Frey was shot constituted a complete defense of manslaughter.
Police brutality, shoddy evidence and a court system failing to do its job. Similar circumstances exist nowadays.
The killing of George Floyd, during which multiple officers not only abused their power but also failed to check their coworker, showed that it's not just about one bad cop. The death of Breonna Taylor, in which officers abused their power and those in higher office have failed to bring justice, proves that the issues go beyond the officers patrolling the streets.
And here in the Bay Area, there's a long list of similar evidence: you can see recent examples in the California Highway Patrol withholding details in the killing of Erik Salgado in East Oakland, and the Vallejo Police Department destroying evidence in the killing of Sean Monterrosa.
The larger context of Huey P. Newton's arrest was an all-out war waged on the Black Panther Party, Black Nationalists and Communists, concentrated in the counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), which was spearheaded by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
This led to the spread of misinformation and the insurgence of agent provocateurs in numerous groups. It also led to the incarceration of numerous Black Panther members and the killings of Black Panther leaders Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, Sr.
It's a stretch to say that unmarked federal agents at protests in Portland and New York are any comparison to the FBI's massive effort to stop the rise of a singular "Black Messiah," one of the goals of COINTELPRO. But there's something eerily similar about the federal government turning on its own people for the act of holding the government accountable.
Footage of the federal troops in Portland shocked many, but realistically, it was a natural result of years of heightened state oppression. In 1970, when Newton was released after serving over two years at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, California's prison population was 25,033. It would decline to 16,970 in 1972 before skyrocketing over the next four decades.
Over-policing, over-sentencing, "three strikes" laws, the cocaine/crack disparity and mandatory minimums, combined with the demonization of African American youth in the media (see: "superpredators"), all made for a prolonged prison boom.
For years, the conditions of California’s jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers and ICE facilities have been somewhere between poor and uninhabitable. They have seen prison strikes, riots, and numerous deaths. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the health conditions at California’s prisons constituted a violation of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights protecting them from cruel and unusual punishment. The state was ordered to cut its prison population down from a high of over 160,000 to 110,000, or 137.5% of its capacity.
A decade later, after numerous legislative changes, a process called "realignment," and expedited releases in effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, just last month the overall prison population dropped below 100,000 for the first time in three decades. As of last week, California's prison population is at 114% of its capacity—meaning that although it's finally well below federal guidelines, there are still more people behind bars than they were designed to hold.
Because of that, this past weekend a group by the name No Justice Under Capitalism helped to organize protests at San Quentin, where inside the facility about 1/3 of the population has reportedly contracted COVID, and over 22 people have died from the virus. Also, last week, demonstrators gathered in front of Governor Gavin Newsom’s house to protest conditions faced by people in California's prisons and ICE custody. The 14 protestors were then arrested, and experienced the conditions firsthand.
The graffiti on the courthouse that Sunday morning in July was markedly different than everything else that's adorned the walls of downtown Oakland over the past few months. Earlier this summer, in response to threats of vandalism, businesses covered their windows with plywood, providing the perfect canvas for artists to express themselves. In the open-air art gallery were raised painted images of Black fists, the names of those slain by police officers, and a mural or two bearing the Black Panther logo.
Although Oakland has no permanent monument dedicated to the Black Panther Party, the ideals the party stood for are alive today. They're shown through the city's arts and culture, if nowhere else.
A plaque on 55th and Market, dedicated to the Black Panthers’ efforts to establish a crossing light for schoolchildren at the former site of Santa Fe Elementary School. A portion of DeFremery Park officially dedicated to Lil Bobby Hutton, the first and youngest Black Panther to be killed by the police.
There are multiple murals around the town honoring the Panthers’ legacy, many of them done by artist Refa-1. And with guidance from Black Panther leader Ericka Huggins, Jilchristina Vest is developing a mural in West Oakland dedicated to the women of the party.
Last month, council member Lynette McElhaney introduced a resolution to rename 9th Street between Center Street and Chester Street—the place where Newton was shot and killed in 1989—as "Dr. Huey P. Newton Way."
The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, with the support of Huey's widow Fredrika Newton, is currently pushing for a permanent monument honoring Huey in front of the courthouse, among other things.
And the Oakland Museum of California is currently remodeling its building and creating an entrance/exit not too far from the proposed monument site. The OMCA knows the impact of the Panthers' legacy: their 50th anniversary exhibition dedicated to the Party attracted the highest number of attendees in the museum's history.
Ericka Huggins is still active, working in education. Joan Tarika Lewis is using social media to remain engaged in arts, culture and politics. Fred Hampton Jr. is pushing to preserve his father's childhood house in Chicago. And Black Panther archivist Billy X Jennings tells me he would've helped organize a celebration in honor of Dr. Huey P. Newton today if it weren't for precautions around large gatherings.
Rickey Vincent, radio host and author of Party Music, a book about the Black Panther Party's house band The Lumpen, told me he's noticed a few drastic differences between the two eras of protest. For starters, there is no clear leader of this current movement, no "Black Messiah," for better or for worse. And secondly, while Newton himself advocated for freeing all political prisoners, there is no clear end goal, as there was with the Free Huey movement.
At this point, the phrase "Black Lives Matter" has lost whatever teeth it had to start with. Calls to defund the police, while attention-grabbing, remain a nuanced goal, with room for contention. Still, clear end goals exist with specific actionable demands that everyday people can understand, like instructions to call the District Attorney's office and demand justice for Breonna Taylor—that's where actual change comes from.
What if we focused the next 50 years on specific actionable items to change the justice and prison systems? Now that'd be a monumental change to the function of the Alameda County Courthouse. And it'd honor Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party in the best way possible—to truly bring the power to the people.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.