An insider's take on the Black Panthers
The group's former security head writes about life with Newton and the Black Panthers, but offers little reflection.
Few groups in the 1960s counterculture enjoyed more cultural cachet – or a bigger cache of weapons – than the Black Panther Party.
Their threats of armed revolution and shootouts with police attracted a loyal fan base in both inner cities and Hollywood, while frightening white Middle America.
The Black Panthers have long since faded into little more than an occasional hip-hop music lyric, their former leader, Huey Newton, shot dead 17 years ago by an Oakland drug dealer.
Just in time for the Black Panthers' 40th anniversary next month, Flores A. Forbes, the group's former head of security, has come out with the latest in a series of recent insider accounts, this one entitled Will You Die With Me?
Forbes's trajectory is certainly remarkable: He was a 14-year-old growing up on a stable San Diego block of two-parent families when the Black Panthers were founded in Oakland in 1966. While his brother went off to college at UCLA, Forbes's run-ins with police drew him to the Panthers instead.
He headed Panther security at age 20, was a fugitive, and was presumed dead before 30. He broke with the Panthers after emerging from prison five years later and went on to become an NYU-educated urban planner. "I was born in 1985 at the age of thirty-three, five years removed from my life as a fugitive," Forbes writes.
Those hoping for Forbes to offer the kind of reflection that transformation might make possible will be disappointed. His book reads instead like the diary of a street gang member relishing a thuggish past.
He talks plenty about the arsenal of weapons he helped to maintain, the gun ports and hidden tunnels he helped to build in their safe houses, and the drug dealers he helped to shake down to fund the Black Panthers.
You can feel the thick cloud of paranoia hanging over Forbes as he worries about potential police raids, rival Black Nationalist groups, and internal power struggles.
But Forbes talks little about the Black Panthers beyond what he saw with his own two eyes. There's nothing about seminal moments in Panther history like Newton's trial, and very little even about Bobby Seale's 1972 run for mayor of Oakland beyond what Forbes did as head of his security detail. Nor does he write much about the Panthers' positive contributions, like free breakfasts for inner-city children.
Even more disappointing is his inability to step back and reflect on the movement and its leaders, despite the fact that they meant so much to him. Forbes gives little sense that he's spent much time in the years since he left thinking about his role in the Panthers and what it achieved.
He describes – but never questions – violence, sexism, and the extortion of drug dealers who were exploiting the African-Americans the Panthers purported to help. Today, the talk of revolution and some of the items on the Black Panther agenda – such as taking over the city of Oakland and seizing its port – sound naive or downright preposterous.
Now that Forbes practices a more traditional approach to improving cities as an urban planner, readers are left wondering whether he regrets his more violent past.
Nowhere is his lack of reflection more obvious than in his treatment of Newton. He highlights many instances of Newton's erratic leadership and self-destructive behavior – such as pistol-whipping his tailor – that culminate in his 1989 murder.
One glaring example is the description Forbes offers of Newton's plush penthouse apartment where he entertained Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. Forbes never questions or even notes the gap between Newton's Marxist revolutionary rhetoric and his luxurious lifestyle.
Ultimately, Forbes broke with the Panthers to save himself but, even two decades later, he can't let go of his emotional attachment to those he left behind. Forbes's undying loyalty might be admirable, but his memoir suffers for it.
• Seth Stern is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly in Washington D.C.