Saturday, August 26, 2006

# Posted 8:32 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AH, THE GOOD OLD DAYS: In 1970, Bobby Seale went on trial for murder in New Haven. One year earlier, three Black Panthers had murdered an alleged informant, also in New Haven. The FBI saw the murder as an opportunity to move against the Panthers' leadership, including Seale, who was national chairman.

In the spring of 1970, the Panthers called for protesters across the United States to descend on New Haven on May 1. In March, Panther chief of staff David Hilliard:
Set the tone for the coming weeks in a speech to 2,000 students at the University of Connecticut. "Not only will we burn buildings," Hilliard vowed, "we will take lives." He implored the white students to joint the effort. "If you want to break windows, if you want to kill a pig, if you want to burn the courthouse, you would be moving against the symbols of oppression."
That passage is from an article by Paul Bass and Doug Rae in the Yale Alumni Magazine (YAM). Bass and Rae are also the authors of a book that hits stores this week entitled Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer.

On a side note, let me defend the practice of referring to one's alumni magazine as a credible source. Although I never would've guessed it before graduating, YAM is far more than a fund raising vehicle. It is a journal of ideas for the Yale community and has fairly rigorous intellectual standards. (Full disclosure: YAM once published a column of mine and paid me $100. To an extent, this compromised its standards.)

Getting back to the point, Bass and Rae provide a fascinating account of how Yale President Kingman Brewster sought to protect the university from the potential for mass violence that the Panther protest brought to New Haven.

Although any sort of compromise with violent racists may seem apalling, Brewster felt that this was the best way to protect the university. Fifteen days before the march in New Haven, a march at Harvard resulted in extensive property damage and more than 200 hospitalizations.

Given the strength of radicalism in 1970, perhaps a tactical surrender was a wise move. Remarkably, Brewster succeeded almost completely in preventing any damage to bodies or property. And now we can look back on the past and know that Yale has triumphed and the Panthers have become an object of scorn and derision for liberals as well as conservatives.

With regard to the racial dimension of the conflict, Bass and Rae are careful to point out that black New Haven had no interest in violence:
Hardest to swallow for white radicals was the resentment of New Haven's black community. The [New Haven] Black Coalition, which had kept its distance from the Panthers but also raised money for their legal defense, was immersed in planning to keep the peace on May Day.

It released a devastating critique of those who claimed to pursue justice but truly sought the thrill of violent confrontation: "The truth in New Haven, as in most of the country, is that the white radical, by frantically and selfishly seeking his personal psychological release, is sharing in the total white conspiracy of denial against the black people."
This line of reasoning wasn't entirely persuasive. When a measure of violence broke out late in the evening on May 1, it involved 1,000 protesters, almost wholly white, almost wholly from out of town. They threw bricks and bottles at police in front of the courthouse, who responded with tear gas.

President Brewster anticipated such clashes, however, and made preparations to facilitate a retreat by protesters that would end the violence. It mostly worked. Remarkably, even the Panthers had come out against violence in New Haven by the end of the day, in contrast to their white supporters.

Ah, the good old days. Back then they reall knew what irony meant.
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