Why Revisit the Newton Death Penalty Story Today? — Blog #2 in Our 10-Part Series

© Hon. Lise Pearlman (ret.)

Last week I quoted from the author’s note to my 2016 book. This week I share some then-and-now observations in the book’s Introduction. As we go along, I will be highlighting key passages throughout the book, but not, I hope, provide too many spoilers:

American Justice on Trial revisits in light of current events People of California v. Huey P. Newton — the internationally watched 1968 murder case that put a black militant on trial for his life for the death of a white policeman accused of abuse. The trial put our nation’s justice system to the test and created the model for diversifying juries “of one’s peers” that many of us now take for granted as a constitutional guarantee. In the process, protesters orchestrated by the defense generated a media frenzy that launched the Black Panther Party as an international phenomenon. Using this trial as their platform, the Panthers took aim at entrenched racism in a democracy founded on the principle of equality. They put their sights on toppling white male monopoly power, and they convinced many followers to pay it forward. They also prompted an extraordinary backlash from those in power. The ramifications of this decades-old conflict continue to unfold today.

The year 2016 marks a half century since Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded, in Oakland, California, a small militant group that they named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Like Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project and other civil rights activist groups today, Panther members were predominantly in their late teens or early 20s when they took to the streets, challenging the nation’s criminal justice system and making bold accusations of abusive policing. Today almost everyone recognizes the image of Black Panthers in iconic black leather jackets and berets, their fists raised in defiant salutes. In 1967, that fledgling organization would likely have disappeared quickly if not for one riveting murder trial. Now — a half century later — is an especially good time to take a fresh look back, to reexamine what may very well be the most pivotal criminal trial of the 20th century and ponder what it tells us about the importance of diversity, if we want to improve some of the most glaring shortcomings in our beleaguered American justice system.

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Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Oregon

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Oregon

In the Introduction, I describe several widely publicized, racially-charged incidents in the past few years. One key incident began in January 2016 — the armed takeover of a federal salutewildlife refuge in Oregon by militant white ranchers who vowed to instigate a broader revolt against the United States government. The FBI’s cautiously measured response clearly reflected the race of the perpetrators. Notably, then presidential candidate Donald Trump refrained from calling the ongoing siege of federal land an act of terrorism while he repeatedly vowed to take harsh measures against any and all Islamic terrorists. What repercussions would there have been if the Oregon takeover of public lands had instead been perpetrated by a small band of Arab jihadists or by black militants? I was far from the only one who wondered about that.

Journalists immediately speculated that racism played a major role in political reaction to the Oregon standoff. (Dean Obeidallah, “Trump — ‘Call Oregon Siege Terrorism’” CNN, January 5, 2016; and Richard Prince, “What if the “Militants” Were Not White”, Jan. 27, 2016 , Maynard Institute).

Many Americans would never have expected, or tolerated, a similar restrained FBI response if the militants were not white. Reaching back half a century to compare the illegal armed seizure of public lands in Oregon to an infamous Black Panther protest in Sacramento in 1967, one commentator wrote: [Unlike] what’s happening in Oregon right now, [the Black Panthers] entered the state Capitol lawfully, lodged their complaints against a piece of racially motivated legislation and then left without incident. But for those who see racial double standards at play in Oregon, the scope and severity of the 1967 response — the way the Panthers’ demonstration brought about panicked headlines, a prolonged FBI sabotage effort and support for gun control from the NRA, of all groups — will serve as confirmation that race shapes the way the country reacts to protest. (Nick Wing, “Here’s How the Nation Responded When A Black Militia  Group Occupied a Government Building” The Huffington Post, January 6, 2016  (updated Jan. 9, 2016)  



What has changed in race relations since that tumultuous era? What hasn’t? Consider the radically differing reactions to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show. In October 1968 African-American Olympic track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos shocked observers around the globe with an emphatic civil rights gesture during their awards ceremony — each raising a black gloved fist in a classic “Power to the People” salute. They were promptly banned from the Olympics for life.

In 2016, during halftime at Super Bowl 50, more than 110 million viewers witnessed megastar Beyoncé’s dance troupe perform a similar raised-fist tribute to the Black Panthers, whose own fiftieth anniversary year coincided with that of the Super Bowl. Just a day earlier Beyoncé released a new video, “Formation,” which paid homage to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Beyoncé’s polarizing halftime message triggered a barrage of negative tweets and blogs as well as calls from conservative politicians, talk show hosts and police to boycott her performances, all of them unlikely to diminish the entertainer’s enormous fan base.

The Super Bowl incident is just one illustration of hot-button race issues that have recently dominated the airwaves. In the last few years — unlike prior eras in American history — deaths of unarmed blacks at the hands of police have garnered as much news coverage as killings of officers. Technology advances are the primary reason race issues today take place in a particularly volatile context: the near-constant presence of smart phone cameras has turned millions of Americans into potential on-the-spot documentarians.

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How will this play out? Chance footage filmed by passersby feeds suspicion that widespread mistreatment of minority suspects would be revealed if only there were more transparency. Unlike officers’ deaths, fatalities caused by the police have not systematically been tracked over the years. Going forward, that is already beginning to change. As we consider proposed solutions to the current divide between police and minority communities, what can we learn from how media-savvy activists drew an international audience to a murder trial that turned the tables and put the American justice system itself on trial nearly a half century ago? And how did it all start?

Justice on TrialliseThe timing of this blog could not be better. In mid-May, the Berkeley Film Foundation underscored the relevance of the 1968 Newton death penalty trial to America today at an event that featured the book’s companion documentary film project — the 2017 winner of the prestigious Al Bendich award for projects promoting civil rights. BFF was celebrating all the winners of its 2017 awards at the Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley (also the home of Fantasy Studios). It was doubly rewarding to hear BFF President Abby Ginzberg (pictured with me in photo above right) announce that my book had just been named a finalist for the Next Generation Book Awards for books on social change.  (That awards event will take place in late June in New Orleans.)

Tune in next week for Blog #3

Click below to read Lise Pearlman’s previous Blog post:

“American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton” – the untold story by Lise Pearlman

www.lisepearlman.com           www.Facebook.com/LPAuthorandSpeaker/

Producer, American Justice on Trial www.americanjusticeontrial.com

Click on the links below to select books by Lise Pearlman:

With Justice for Some: Politically Charged Criminal Trials in the Early 20th Century That Helped Shape Today’s America

The Sky’s the Limit People V. Newton, the Real Trial of the 20th Century?

CALL ME PHAEDRA: The Life and Times of Movement Lawyer Fay Stender

American Justice On Trial: People v. Newton

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