The Golden Gate has Iron Bars: Challenging California’s Progressive Reputation Part II
By Broderick Dunlap
The Beginning of the End
Even though these organizations endured scrutiny, harassment, constant police surveillance, interference, and infiltration from government agencies, they did not go away. In 1967, Huey Newton wrote “In Defense of Self-Defense: Executive Mandate Number One” in response to the proposed Mulford Gun Bill, that would repeal the current open carry laws. This bill came at the height of civil rights era riots in reaction to racist attacks that were taking place in Black communities all over the country. Newton believed the new legislation proposed by then California Governor Ronald Reagan, was a direct response to the BPP’s armed direct action at the capitol while state assembly members were meeting. In this statement, delivered by BPP co-founder Bobby Seale at the Capitol in Sacramento, Newton explicitly described the Mulford Act as a piece of racist legislation. He said:
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense calls upon the American people in general and the Black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California legislature, which is now considering legislation aimed at keeping the Black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of Black people.
He listed the atrocities carried out by the United States government domestically and abroad: internment camps for Japanese citizens during World War II, slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, and the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The government disliked the idea of having armed Black and Chicano youth patrolling their neighborhoods. California Governor, and future President, Ronald Reagan proposed the Mulford Gun Bill almost immediately after the BPP’s armed protest at the capitol in 1967. Although this bill was purportedly a public safety bill, Reagan’s real intention was to disarm the BPP, specifically, and other groups like them. Not only did the Mulford Bill disarm the BPP and Brown Berets, it also criminalized these organizations for being armed. Carrying a gun was now a crime, and it gave the police another reason to harass members of these groups.
Although state and local government agencies were not fond of armed youth of color leading protests in poor neighborhoods, the real reason these groups became the primary target of the FBI was their anti-capitalist ideology and anti-war stance. In order to neutralize this perceived threat Hoover created the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). A program whose sole purpose was to take out any Black leader or organization deemed to be a “Black Messiah.”
While the United States preaches political freedom, it is flagrantly anti-socialist and anti-communist and often disparages anyone who publicly endorses these political ideologies. The BPP and the Berets both openly opposed the Vietnam war, which they decried as unjust and unnecessary. They also pointed out the disparities in the draft which disproportionately shipped off young men of color from poor and working-class families to fight. Point number six in the Black Panthers’ ten-point program was:
We want all black men to be exempt from military service. We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people are being victimized the white racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and racist military, by whatever means necessary.
As the anti-war movement grew, politicians began to find other ways to discredit the leaders behind these movements. “Law and Order” rhetoric had become the norm for up and coming politicians; they demonized the civil unrest that stemmed from protest and depicted people of color as violent, unruly drug users, and hippies. Instead of acknowledging that these protests and riots were often agitated by the police, or that these mass movements were a response to police brutality and socioeconomic and racial disparities, politicians focused on the riots themselves as evidence of criminality and anarchy. During Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign he ran an ad that was a clear attack on protests and activists’ groups. It said: “It is time for an honest look at the problem of order in the United States. Dissent is a necessary ingredient of change, but in a system of government that provides for peaceful change, there is no cause that justifies resorting to violence.”
This was a popular sentiment among most Americans. According to a Gallup poll, 81 percent of those surveyed believed that “law and order has broken down in this country” and they believed it was primarily the fault of “communists and negroes who start riots.” This led to a concerted effort to quell any form of civil unrest, including the formation of the first ever SWAT team in order to neutralize the Los Angeles chapter of the BPP.
Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign played on conservative anxieties about changes underway in American society, wherein women and people of color were taking more visible roles in politics and professional life, and many middle class whites thought those who didn’t look like them were affiliated with sinister, foreign, communist forces. Nixon appealed to the “silent majority,” those who were not vocal against the Vietnam war, who were not part of the counterculture, and who worried that the vocal cries of a minority would trample their own rights.
Typically white, blue collar workers, these Americans saw the protest of this era as irrational and did not tend to take an active role in politics. They supported the status quo and feared challenges to tradition. In mobilizing his “silent majority” as one faction, Nixon effectively made it easy to criminalize groups like the BPP and Brown Berets. As Nixon dismissed these people as drug users, he introduced the “war on drugs” and declared drugs “public enemy number one.” Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, John Ehrlichman, stated explicitly, who the target of the drug war was:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
The Nixon election marked the demise of the BPP and Brown Berets. With Black Panthers and Brown Beret members assumed to be drug users, the police made their neighborhoods their primary target during this war on drugs. It is difficult to say exactly when the Brown Berets came to an end, but the BPP does have a watershed moment when their party began to decline. In 1977, Huey Newton went on trial for the murder of a prostitute, it is unclear whether these charges were founded in any truth or fabricated by the FBI during the COINTELPRO attacks. Regardless of the accuracy of these accusations, Newton’s image, and the Party’s image, suffered irreparable damage. Aaron Dixon, a BPP chapter captain and founder, recalled a run-in with the once-respected comedian Bill Cosby. Cosby said “Huey Newton is nothing but a two-bit gangster… He’s a murderer and a two-bit thug!” This was a popular sentiment among not only the average white person, but with the Black middle-class as well, and it had dangerous consequences. Not only was Newton perceived as a dangerous criminal, but most Black males were stereotyped in that way as well. When combined with the war on drugs, this led to a higher police presence in Black and Chicano neighborhoods. However, the war on drugs did not reach its peak until former California Governor Ronald Reagan was elected President.
The Wars at Home
Over time it has become clear that Ronald Reagan was a racist. In a recently-released taped conversation with President Nixon while he was still Governor of California, Reagan let it be known how he felt about African countries and their leaders. He was angry that The People’s Republic of China had become a recognized country by the United Nations (UN) and he blamed African nations and jeered, “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Instead of rebuking his virulent racism, Nixon responded with a big laugh.
Reagan already had a reputation for being “tough on crime” based on his previous racist attacks on the BPP. As California governor, Reagan had passed the Mulford Act of 1967, that had weakened them and rendered their self-defense programs nearly ineffective. Like his predecessor Nixon, Reagan used dog-whistle language, racist rhetoric attached to certain ethnic groups, to secure votes from conservatives and ordinary citizens who bought into the violent-activist trope.
Ronald Reagan built his career on the criminalizing and stereotyping of people of color. This wasn’t just limited to members of the BPP, though. For example, Reagan caricatured Black women as “welfare queen[s]… lazy, greedy, Black ghetto mother[s].” Reagan used this caricature to successfully pit working-class people against each other for his own personal gain. By implying that it was the “welfare queens” who used up all the resources while the honest poor and working-class white family struggled to get by, Reagan was able to harvest that misguided anger into a strong voter base for the Republican party. While dehumanizing Black women, Reagan also targeted Black men with the resurrection of the old “human predator” trope. He did this in an attempt to gain national support for his new drug war and used the media as his primary tool to do so.
As the war on drugs intensified, “thousands of stories about the crack crisis flooded the airwaves and the stories had a clear racial subtext.” The human predator was described as “a staring face… a face that belongs to a frightening reality of time: the face of the human predator.” As vague as that statement might sound, the underlying message was that this human predator was embodied by poor men of color. Black men, specifically.
Once Reagan was elected President, he kept his campaign promises and funded law enforcement agencies like never before. Anti-drug budgets ballooned over the span of just four years. The FBI’s budget grew from $8 million to $95 million and the Department of Defense’s anti-drug budget grew from $33 million to $1.042 billion over the span of a decade. Reagan funded the war on drugs by pulling funds from drug treatment programs and the Department of Education. Two of the demands made by both the Brown Berets and BPP concerned public health and education; Regan, who was the governor at the time of the founding of these groups, defunded both of these things nationwide in an unfortunate twist of irony, or in a deliberate act of retribution.
An unforeseen consequence of the unrest during the Civil Rights Movement was that businesses began to leave urban areas because these urban neighborhoods were now seen as dangerous. The economic turmoil and high unemployment that followed occurred simultaneously with the “war on drugs.” With limited job opportunities, many people in these communities felt their only option was to sell drugs; and with the introduction of new drugs like crack cocaine, selling drugs also became highly profitable. The saturation of drugs in inner-city communities justified the presence of law enforcement agencies in these neighborhoods and the expanding of their budgets led to a cycle of over-policing and criminalization in Black and Chicano neighborhoods.
By 1987 the war on drugs was in full swing. In September 1986, the Senate proposed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act carried some of the harshest penalties our criminal justice system has, such as: life in prison and the death penalty. Drug related charges now carried heavier sentences than some violent crimes and, according to Michelle Alexander, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act included “more severe punishment for distribution of crack, associated with blacks, than powder cocaine, associated with whites.”
While crack was basically just the cheaper version of powder cocaine, the media portrayed the former to be much more dangerous than the latter. According to Alexander, crack was described as “instantly addicting” and a “plague” in the Black community. Another flaw in this new legislation was that it made no distinction between whether someone was a drug dealer or a drug user. Anyone caught in the possession of cocaine had to serve a mandatory minimum of five years in prison.
With the criminalization of drug addiction, and with the draining of drug treatment program budgets to fund the war on drugs, this new legislation only exacerbated the public health problems that groups like the BPP and Brown Berets were attempting to solve.
While the Civil Rights Movement culminated in a number of tangible successes, like desegregation and the right to vote, the BPP and Brown Berets were focused on the unresolved issues of education, housing, and police brutality. Instead of addressing the issues that caused dissent within these communities, the government attacked and criminalized them. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was a culmination of over twenty years of demonizing, discrediting, and criminalizing the dissent of poor and working-class communities of color. The cycle of criminalization and over-policing resulted in the justification of the growing number of people of color being incarcerated.