Nigel Lanclos-Jones, 13, left, from Tacoma, and his friend
Ruwan Chapple, 13, of Seattle, look at a vintage Black Panthers
poster from 1969. They attended a Panthers reunion yesterday
at Garfield Community Center in Seattle.
ears after they laid down their guns and focused on community activism, former Black Panthers are on another mission: sharing their history with a younger generation.
A dozen former members of the Black Panther Party from Seattle and Oakland came here for a reunion Friday and yesterday, the first of its kind outside California. More than 400 people attended speeches, teach-ins, a film festival and musical performances at Seattle Central Community College, Seattle University and Garfield Community Center.
Elmer Dixon, the Seattle party's minister of defense, described how the group reinforced a house at 20th Avenue and Spruce Street with steel, sandbags and manhole covers to make it impregnable in case of a police raid.
"The cops were shocked. Our body armor was better than theirs," he told a laughing audience at Garfield yesterday.Panthers also could call on supporters, including whites, to surround the police, he said. For about 11 months, party members patrolled the streets with rifles.
Former party leaders no longer encourage taking up arms. Today, the old stories provide street credibility for another message: that young people ought to be building what the old Panthers called "survival projects."
Bobby Seale, who co-founded the Panthers in Oakland with Huey P. Newton, called the Seattle chapter "probably the most dynamic and most profound" because of its humanitarian work.
• Its Sydney Miller Health Clinic screened thousands of people for sickle-cell anemia, then checked 268 prisoners at Walla Walla, said Leon "Valentine" Hobbs, a former bodyguard to Seale. The clinic still operates, with government funding, as the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center.
• Party leaders trained themselves to use pesticides and rid homes of roaches.
• Panthers served hot breakfasts to children near the old Colman School. Food banks and feeding programs spread to four public-housing sites.
"The first food bank and clothing bank — they're everywhere now — the first one was funded by the Black Panther Party," said Metropolitan King County Councilman Larry Gossett, who thanked the group yesterday "on behalf of the 1.8 million people who reside in Martin Luther King County."
• A free van service took families to visit inmates.
• "Liberation Schools" in the summer included lessons in revolutionary thought and the black struggle against slavery.
By mid-1969, a year after they started, local Panthers left their guns at home and focused primarily on such service projects.
Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman refused to allow the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to raid the party headquarters here in 1970, as happened in Chicago and Los Angeles. "They did have some guns, but they did not pose a threat to anyone in our city," he said in a 1986 Seattle Times interview.
However, in their early months, Black Panthers did commit sporadic arsons and fired weapons at police and fire stations, acknowledges former party captain Aaron Dixon, brother of Elmer. He said these were "ambushes" in response to government violence. But much of Seattle's unrest, including a riot in July 1968, was caused by others who were simply looking to lash out, he said.
"Had the Black Panther Party not come along, those riots would have continued," Aaron Dixon said. "Individual blacks would have responded with racism. They would have gone after individual white people. It would have turned into racial conflict."
Seale praised the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, which drew tens of thousands into the streets to denounce global capitalism, pollution and exploitation of labor.
"I was hoping this new movement would start. That's what we need. We need another high-profile, progressive movement."
Shamseddin Williams, the son of a Seattle party member, and Sylva Jones, a legal-aid worker, helped organize the reunion in hopes that young people will sign up for yet-undetermined community projects, open to all races.
One challenge for the black community is dispersal, caused by high housing costs and gentrification. In the last census, only 8.4 percent of Seattle residents were African American.
Williams suggested that black men form an on-call group to mentor or tutor young people who don't have role models nearby. Other ideas include groups to study anti-colonialism, the Civil War and slave revolts.
"We're not looking to start a new movement," Aaron Dixon emphasized. "A movement is not something you can plan."