The FBI could not help but take notice when militant black leaders converged on Oakland, California, from all across the nation in mid-February 1968 to meet with 10,000 local supporters. It was a fund-raising birthday party for Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party's Minister of Defense. For almost a year, the Panther Party's popular biweekly newspaper featured Newton seated on a wicker throne with a rifle in one hand and a shield in the other. Now the empty throne stood in for Newton. The honoree paced back and forth in an isolation cell in the Alameda County Jail just a few miles to the north. Newton was charged with murdering a police officer, wounding another and kidnapping a bystander at gunpoint—all while on parole that prohibited him from even carrying a firearm. Most people gathered in the Oakland Arena on February 17, 1968, expected the twenty-six-year-old, self-proclaimed revolutionary to be convicted and sentenced to death for shooting the officer. Militant Malcolm X disciples joined white radicals and nervous local black community members on common ground—a rally to raise some of the anticipated $100,000 defense costs for the Newton murder trial. His lawyers cultivated grassroots support to prevent the outspoken critic of police brutality from going to the gas chamber. Comrades like Panther spokesman Eldridge Cleaver did not believe the pretrial publicity portraying Newton as a victim, but thought it useful propaganda; while conservative and mainstream newspapers denounced Newton as a cop killer, his militant followers celebrated the shooting death of a racist “pig.” For many of them, his guilt was never in question, but it didn't matter; in fact, some considered the shooting a long-awaited signal from the revolutionary leader. A capacity crowd came to hear SNCC leaders: the incendiary H. Rap Brown, “black power” champion Stokely Carmichael, and organizer James Forman. Though the black separatists mistrusted them, leaders of the white radical Peace ...
Lise Pearlman was an undergraduate at Yale during the Bobby Seale trial in New Haven and has lived most of her adult life in Oakland where the 1968 Huey Newton murder trial took place. She arrived in the fall of 1971 between Newton's second and third trials for the killing of Officer Frey. Now a retired judge, she practices as a mediator.
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