I remember vividly an episode in the mid-70s, when one of the Panther arms caches, a house on 29th Street in East Oakland, was raided by the police and 1,000 weapons including machine guns, grenade launchers and anti-tank guns were uncovered. Party attorney Charles Garry held a press conference at which he claimed that the weapons were planted by the police and that the 29th Street house was a dormitory for teachers at the Panther school (which it also, in fact, was). Then Garry denounced the police raid as just one more repressive act in the ongoing government conspiracy to discredit the Panthers and destroy militant black leadership. Of course, all right thinking progressives rallied to the Panthers’ support.
And right thinking progressives are still rallying. How to explain the spectacle attending the reception of Elaine’s book? After all, this is not pre-glasnost Russia, where crimes were made to disappear into a politically controlled void. The story of the Panthers’ crimes is not unknown. But it is either uninteresting or unbelievable to a progressive culture that still regards white racism as the primary cause of all ills in black America, and militant thugs like the Panthers as mere victims of politically inspired repression.
The existence of a Murder Incorporated in the heart of the American Left is something the Left really doesn’t want to know or think about. Such knowledge would refute its most cherished self-understandings and beliefs. It would undermine the sense of righteous indignation that is the crucial starting point of a progressive attitude. It would explode the myths on which the attitude depends.
In the last two decades, for example, a vast literature has been produced on the “repression of the Panthers” by the F.B.I. The “Cointelpro” program to destabilize militant organizations and J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous memo about the dangers of a “black messiah” are more familiar to today’s college students probably than the operations of the K.G.B. or the text of Magna Carta. In A Taste of Power, Elaine Brown constantly invokes the F.B.I. specter (as she did while leader of the Party) to justify Panther outrages and make them “understandable” as the hyper-reflexes of a necessary paranoia, produced by the pervasive government threat. A variation of this myth is the basic underpinning of the radical mind-set. Like Oliver Stone’s fantasies of military-industrial conspiracy, it justifies the radical’s limitless rage against America itself.
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