Tour guide Hilliard instead stressed the Panthers’ “idealism” and explained that “the point to be made is that when you fall below history, as happened with women and slaves, you’re really nothing. So the point we’re trying to make here is to not be written out of history but to be a part of history.” The enthusiastic audience for these pieties included the sitting mayor of Oakland, members of the Oakland City Council, the Oakland Board of Education (the same that adopted “Ebonics” as an “official language”) and former California Gov. Jerry Brown, now running for mayor of Oakland.
A straight-faced account of the “Tour of Panther Sites” appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle complete with accompanying tour map. It began: “The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was about politics, as its name implies, not about destruction.” None of the missing pieces of Panther history were alluded to in the Chronicle account, nor in similar credulous reports on National Public Radio and in the New York Times.
This was more than a case of collective amnesia. After all, America is not a “progressive” police state like the Soviet Union once was, where you can simply erase the historical record. It’s not as if the sordid history of the Panthers, a homicidal street gang — albeit with political pretensions — is not widely known. But as Michael Kelly recently observed in the New Republic, the journalistic ranks are filled with veterans of the counterculture who consider themselves progressive and supported the revolutions of that time. They have taken it upon themselves to protect the Panther myth and, more importantly, the progressive cause the myth supports. The result is a national media (right up to and including the once august New York Times) that acts to “institutionalize the myth of the Panthers” and of the “progressive” ’60s.
This mentality was on full display in the national coverage of Black Panther Geronimo Pratt’s release from prison, on a technicality, last July. Although Pratt had been convicted of an unusually cold-blooded murder, not a single reporter interviewed prosecutors on the case, let alone Pratt’s chief accuser, a former Black Panther named Julius Butler, in an effort to gain a reasonably balanced view. Nor did a single reporter bother to look at the court records in the case, which prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Pratt did murder elementary school teacher Caroline Olsen on a Santa Monica tennis court 29 years ago. Instead, the press repeated Johnnie Cochran’s fantasies about an FBI-LAPD conspiracy to frame Pratt, despite the fact that the evidence originally presented at trial shows that there could not have been such a conspiracy. While ignoring Pratt’s prosecutors, the press amplified the claims of his fans, who viewed him as an “American Nelson Mandela” and a new progressive hero. After his release, journalists followed him deferentially on his own tour of college campuses and dutifully reported the book and film deals he was negotiating, which will undoubtedly further lionize his criminal life.
And so history repeats itself — as Hegel once said, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Today’s progressives are like the Bourbons, of whom it was once said, “They learn nothing and forget nothing.”