By Wendell Stamps
Growing up in deep East Oakland when the Black Panthers Party came to be, I saw a change in the community. Gone were the roving gangs of teens walking the street at night with the need to claim and protect their turf. There was new meaning to the black leather jackets and the black beret. The East Oakland headquarters for the Black Panther Party was located across the street from my second home for many years, the Boys and Girls club. The news that the Panthers were behind the community breakfast program gave the organization respect and credit in the neighborhood. The word that they were at war with the Oakland Police was a concern for my mother. She feared that meant there would be more violence in the neighborhood or on our block.
Huey Newton, co-founder and Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party moved into a relative’s house next door to my family home. The vibe of the block changed. There was a constant flow of traffic up and down my block including more black and white Oakland Police patrol cars. I was in middle school and too young to know Huey Newton, but old enough to know that he was a prominent component in the organization that had gained great influence in the Black communities of Oakland.
On April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, the word on the streets of Oakland was to stay home, to stay off the streets. On April 6, Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver led a retaliatory assault on the Oakland police. This action ended up with members of the Panthers exchanging gunfire with the Oakland Police. Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Hutton became trapped in the basement of a house in West Oakland, surrounded by the police, FBI, and other agencies. They were ordered to come out of the basement of the house without clothing. Bobby Hutton refused to remove his pants and walked out of the basement with his hands up shirtless, the pockets of his pants turned out. When he was spotted, law enforcement opened fire resulting in Bobby Hutton being killed and leaving Eldridge Clever wounded. What happened that night was shared with me by an Oakland Police sergeant who was there at the scene.
In April of 1969, at 15, I joined Synanon as a Notion, soon moving in for what was supposed to have been six months. During my early days, I met an Oakland police sergeant who was hanging out at the front desk drinking coffee and talking with Wilbur Beckham. Surprisingly, the sergeant engaged with me. The sergeant shared his participation in what Synanon was calling the Cops and Robbers games. These Synanon Games happened late at night and included members of the Black Panther Party and the Oakland Police. The sergeant shared that the goal of these sessions was to reduce the animosity between the Black Panther Party and the Oakland Police.
He spoke about being on-site during the police action when Bobby Hutton was killed. He offered to show me and another resident the location of the police action the next afternoon. We met at the Oakland house front desk and rode in the sergeant’s personal car to the West Oakland site. The car stopped in front of three houses that sat empty. The sight of the shoot-out had a lifelong impact on me as there were not more than three inches between bullet holes in the front side of all three buildings. The buildings were skeletal and had stood empty for more than a year. Like trees that had been devastated by woodpeckers, the entire block was still vacant.
The sergeant stated that when Bobby Hutton walked out of the basement with his pants on someone yelled “gun” and all hell broke loose. The visual of those three shot up houses is something that I will never forget.
Little did I know the significance of a seemingly random interaction with a retiring police sergeant, who had witnessed a historical event, and the impact it would have on my life. The sergeant himself had unanswered questions and was uneasy about this event. I am not sure why he was motivated for us to bear witness with him.
Bobby Hutton was only two years older than me. Never had I been so viscerally aware of the danger I faced because of my skin color. This was my first encounter with death. I have not shared this with anyone since it happened 53 years ago. It had been my first interaction with a police officer. The second happened almost a month later when I walked a few blocks away from the Athens Club excited to spend my first WAM. A street cop was parked on the street as I passed, with his baton in his hand.
“What you looking at Nigger” he growled slapping his palm with the stick.
I looked down and moved on.I don’t remember who was involved with organizing the sessions that included the Black Panther Party and the Oakland Police. The impact of his little-known community activism in then one of the most volatile areas in the country is also little known. As a teenager just a few years younger than Bobby Hutton, I gained a new understanding of the gravity of what the Oakland African American community faced in regards to law enforcement. It also gave me another perspective of Synanon’s willingness to take the chance of ending up with an unfavorable reputation with either of these organizations.