Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Robert Avakian

Panther shootout – whose game was it?

Published: Movement newspaper, Vol. 5, No. 1, January 1969.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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On Tuesday, November 19, at about noon, a converted bakery truck, donated to the Black Panther Party for use in delivering its weekly newspaper, pulled into a gas station on Third Street in San Francisco. The truck – which bore the words “Black Panther” and “Black Community News Service” and was plastered with posters calling for the defense of Eldridge Cleaver – had just completed delivering Panther newspapers in the nearby Hunters Point and Potrero Hill ghettoes and was headed for a Panther meeting in Oakland, across the San Francisco Bay.

When the truck pulled into the gas station, William Lee Brent, a Panther captain and one of the passengers in the front seat, got out and ordered two dollars worth of gas from an attendant, then, according to Henry George, another attendant at the station, Brent walked over to George and asked him for change for a quarter. Brent and George walked over to the cash box, some twenty feet away, and George opened the box and started to make change for Brent’s quarter.

At that point, according to George – a talkative white kid, about 20 – Brent insisted “I want all of it (the money in the cash box).” George told me he was confused at first and mumbled something unintelligible in response. Brent then pulled aside his coat to reveal a pistol and demanded “I want all the money.” George answered “It’s not mine to give,” whereupon Brent pulled what George described as a “.45” out of his belt and, pointing it at George, repeated “Give me all the money.” George, of course, complied with this request and then Brent, who, according to George, was very calm during the entire episode, took the money, returned his gun to his belt, fastened his coat back over the gun, walked back to the truck and paid the other attendant two dollars, out of the 80 dollars he had just taken from George.

Brent got back in the truck and it pulled out of the station, while George and the other attendant copied down its license plate number. In response to my direct question, George said that it was entirely possible that the other people in the truck knew nothing about the hold-up pulled off by Brent. In fact, George recalled, during the time that Brent was raiding the cashbox, one of the passengers in the truck got out and went into the restroom. You would hardly expect someone to be caught with his pants down, if he were involved in a robbery and quick getaway.

Near the Pig Station

From the gas station, the truck proceeded along Third Street onto the freeway which leads to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. For some reason, however, instead of continuing onto the Bay Bridge, the driver of the truck, Wilfred Holiday known as “Captain Crutch” because of his rank in the Panthers and a marked limp – took the last San Francisco exit off the freeway onto Seventh Street, only a few blocks from the San Francisco Pig Station. The Panther truck, whose description was by now broadcast over the police radio as the getaway vehicle in a robbery, was almost immediately recognized by plainclothes pigs, who were driving their prowl car in the area.

They pulled the Panther truck over and one of the pigs, Robert Flynn, drew his gun and ordered Holiday out of the truck. Flynn had Holiday spread over the side of the truck, frisking him, when Brent apparently leapt from the truck, with his gun drawn, and fired at Flynn, who crumbled to the ground, seriously wounded. At this point, the other pig, Lieutenant Dermott Creedon, jumped from the prowl car with his gun and he was immediately struck by several bullets from Brent’s gun. Creedon, too, was critically wounded. At this point “Crutch”, Brent and the third Panther in the front seat of the truck, 19 year old Harrill Hill, took off running.

But a third pig, Sgt. Michael O’Mahoney, who, according to the police, bad been “hitchhiking” in the car with Creedon and Flynn, took out after Holiday, Hill and Brent. After exchanging gunfire with them – in which O’Mahoney was slightly wounded in the hand – he managed to chase them into a dead-end alley. By this time police reinforcements had already arrived and Brent, Hill, and Holiday had no choice but to surrender.

They were captured without another shot being fired. In the meantime, pigs had surrounded the Panther truck and arrested five Panthers, including Raymond Lewis, editor of the Panther paper, who were trapped inside. None of these five had any weapon and no guns were found in the back of the truck. In fact, only one gun was confiscated by police, the .9 millimeter pistol fired by Brent and found on his possession. Still, all 8 people in the truck were first charged with armed robbery and assault with intent to commit murder.

“Big Al”

As if this whole incident did not already smell foul enough, Mayor Benito “Big Al” Alioto of San Francisco immediately called a press conference. He announced that he was formally requesting the San Francisco Grand Jury to conduct an investigation of the leaders of the Black Panther Party to determine whether they were guilty of conspiracy to murder policemen – whether, as Alioto framed it, there were concrete Panther plans to shoot at any policemen that stopped them. This action by Alioto was coupled with the fact that the November 19 incident came just eight days before Eldridge Cleaver was to surrender himself to the California Adult Authority. It was also in the midst of the heightening struggle at San Francisco State, at which Panther Minister of Education, George Murray, was a central figure. This context made the entire episode very suspicious.

At this point, however, events began to turn back on Alioto and the San Francisco pigs. Panther leaders; Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver publicly charged that the hold-up shootout was the work of police agents, not of Panthers. Who could really believe that Panthers would be so stupid as to pull a robbery in broad daylight, with several witnesses, using a truck with the words “Black Panther” on it for a “getaway vehicle.” The only other possible explanation, they noted, was that Brent was simply a kook. He violated several cardinal principles of the Panther Party, including the prohibition against carrying concealed weapons during mass political work, such as distributing the Party’s newspaper.

Then, strangely, the Grand Jury met and refused Alioto’s request for a conspiracy investigation of the Panther leadership. And two days later the District Attorney’s office dropped charges against everyone but Brent, Holiday and Hill, the three who were in the front seat of the truck at the time of the robbery and the shootout.

Police Agent?

Those who have worked with the Panthers and with Brent in particular find it difficult to accept the notion that he is a police agent; but it is even more difficult to believe that he is a kook who went berserk. It is true that Brent seemed very politically uptight, stable, disciplined and generally possessed the attributes of a solid revolutionary.

But it hardly needs mentioning that these are also the attributes of a good police agent, who – as everyone who has participated in an organization that is infiltrated by finks knows – are almost always the hardest working and seemingly the most dedicated people around. This is one of the safest ways to avoid suspicion. And we should remember that the Bolshevik Central Committee contained an agent for many years, even during the October days of 1917.

Brent’s very seriousness and seeming stability make it even harder to believe that he suddenly went amuck. He was an experienced armed robber – who had done several years in the joint some time ago, but mysteriously got five years probation, with no jail time, when he was last convicted of armed robbery. This makes it even more difficult to swallow the idea of his pulling off the half-assed “robbery” that he apparently DID pull off at the gas station unless, of course, he committed the “robbery” as part of a plan to discredit and perhaps even destroy the Panthers.

The answer of Giant Hog Alioto and the San Francisco pigs – as well as many people in the movement – to the allegation that Brent was a police provocateur is: why would a police agent shoot and seriously wound other pigs? But this objection is valid only if we assume that Brent was actually a POLICEMAN who was sent into the Panthers as a regular police officer. This, of course, could not be the case. But if, as is far more likely, Brent was merely a black man, convicted of armed robbery, whom the authorities could blackmail, he might well have acted as a police agent, without feeling any allegiance at all to the pigs.

If we add to this general picture the fart that Brent had recently come under suspicion by Panther leaders we can construct the following; possibility: Brent is working, perhaps against his; gut instincts, as an informer for the police. He finds that he is being cut out of important information, quarantined, and concludes that his cover is being blown. So, on reporting this to the pigs, he in ordered to pull off some act that will discredit the Panthers and make it possible for Alioto, who has been waging a crusade against the Panthers since he took office last year, to really come down hard on the Panthers (for example through a grand jury investigation and indictment of the key Panther leaders).

Brent is led to believe that he himself will escape indictment – for example, he is told that if he pulls off a robbery that implicates the Panther Party, no arrests will be made right away, but Panther leaders will be picked up and charged shortly afterward. But then, when the truck is pulled over and Brent realizes that he has been double-crossed, that he will be arrested, his true feelings toward the pigs come to predominate and, since he has nothing to lose, he shoots as many as he can.

Charges Dropped

This is of course conjecture. But the problem of explaining why Brent, if he is a police agent, would shoot pigs, is not as difficult as explaining why, if Brent is not a police agent, charges against five Panthers are suddenly dropped. Especially since one was Raymond Lewis who is on parole and, like Cleaver, could be ordered held in prison, at least until after his trial. Or why, for that matter, the Grand Jury should refuse Alioto’s request for an investigation of the Panthers. The only logical explanation for these two related, facts is that the authorities discovered that Brent – and perhaps others – were police agents and that an investigation that put Panthers up against the wall, might well bring this fact out. The whole thing might blow up in the pigs’ face.

But whether Brent is in fact a police agent or simply a kook, the question is being asked by many people in the movement: how could an agent or a kook like Brent, who has been in the Panthers only about one year, rise so fast to the relatively high rank of Captain? And how could a kook or an agent almost succeed in trapping several top members of the Panthers in the ridiculous situation of being apparent accomplices in armed robbery and attempted murder?

There is no doubt that this kind of breach of discipline will hurt the Panthers, in the short run, in the black community. Many black people, who hold down jobs and have a family to support, but are still politically conscious enough to generally support the black liberation movement, will not want to get involved with an organization if it means that they might get trapped in some situations similar to the November 19th episode. We are not talking about a few vacillating elements in the black community. This kind of concern no doubt holds true for the majority of Mark people.

But many people, especially white people, in the movement, who are now criticizing the Panthers for their own breach of discipline, should not fall into the trap of arrogantly assuming that the Panther leadership is not aware of these problems and working to correct them. In the early stages of development of any vanguard organization – and we should not forget that the Panthers are just over two years old – it is bound to attract large numbers of opportunists, individualists, egotists, and other kinds of unstable and unreliable elements. These people can only be weeded out through the practical struggle of building a revolutionary movement.

Anyone who thinks that serious problems of discipline are unique to the Panthers should go back and dig into the early history of both the Russian and Chinese Communist parties, which were both plagued by exactly the same kind of problems that are now disrupting the work of the Panthers. In the case of the Russians and the Chinese, the Party not only had internal problems of discipline but, especially in its earliest stages of development, carried out certain policies that) proved to be disastrous in the short run. The most outstanding example of this Is the Chinese Communist policy of 1924-27, which climaxed in the slaughter of literally thousands of Chinese workers in the city of Canton. Workers who, in fact, followed the leadership of the Chinese party to that slaughter.

But even this serious setback did not prevent the Chinese Party from leading the people of China to liberation. The fundamental reason the Chinese were able to correct even serious errors lay in the fact that the Chinese party was rooted in the Chinese people, and dedicated to serving the people and learning from them. THIS SAME KIND OF DEDICATION, and the same real roots among the people, is true of the Black Panther Party today. While the Panthers are bound to make mistakes and suffer setbacks, they are also bound to correct them and carry forward the struggle as long as they continue to practice the principle laid down by Huey Newton of fighting for the basic political desires and needs of the people.