A Black Panther's last hurrah

David Hilliard wants to win an Oakland City Council seat by flogging the legacy of the group that still haunts the city. His failure to gain support shows how little the Panthers matter to its future.

Published March 6, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"I am West Oakland."

That's what David Hilliard, the burly 57-year-old former Black Panther "chief of staff," told a reporter recently as they toured the Oakland turf he hopes to represent come the Tuesday City Council election. Someone else might hesitate before declaring himself the Louis XIV of this blighted community, but not Hilliard.

In this month's election, he's running against an incumbent, Nancy Nadel, who is as radical as the Panthers used to be, and is easily the farthest left of the city's liberal council members. But Hilliard has justified his run against a fellow progressive by claiming his African-American birthright. Nadel is white, though she has long ties to the community, and her late husband, an African-American, was a well known community organizer and activist. But Hilliard dismisses Nadel's credentials with a straightforward call to race: "These are hard times for black folk," he told a reporter in October. "It's not about Nancy Nadel."

In November, former Panther leader Elaine Brown attacked Nadel as a "would-be closet consort [to Mayor Jerry Brown]," whose "silence exposes her. Ironically casting herself as a 'progressive,'" Brown went on, "Nadel silently says yes to busing 10,000 new white people into District 3."

In fact, Nadel has been Mayor Brown's sharpest council critic, opposing his plan to develop downtown for 10,000 new residents as gentrification. The mayor has repaid her by endorsing another candidate in the race -- not Hilliard, but Hugh Bassette, a high school teacher who ran against him for mayor in 1998. But Elaine Brown and her Panther allies have never let the truth block their drive for power, and as they come together behind Hilliard's City Council race -- expelled Panther Bobby Seale is Hilliard's nominal campaign manager -- they won't start now.

Ironically, it was Jerry Brown's mayoral candidacy that got Hilliard moving on the path to electoral office, and it was Elaine Brown who reconnected Hilliard with the former governor -- once her close ally and sometime consort -- when he decided to run for mayor in 1997. Brown's campaign was perhaps the apex of local influence for Hilliard and Elaine Brown in their decade-long political comeback bid, which had begun with the murder of their old friend, Panther leader Huey Newton, a crack addict who was shot by a dealer in West Oakland in 1989.

Hilliard had always trailed Newton, Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and Brown herself in the charisma department. But through attrition, he rose to lead the Black Panther Party during the late '60s and early '70s, when Newton was in prison for killing an Oakland cop (his conviction was later overturned, and he went free after a third trial) Seale was locked up for the l967 Sacramento armed "invasion" of the legislature (and later expelled from the party by a jealous Newton) and Cleaver was in Cuba, fleeing charges arising from a l968 shootout with Oakland cops, a Panther ambush for which Hilliard himself eventually served four years in Folsom.

After the paranoia and elitism that characterized the reins of Newton and Cleaver, Hilliard was to many Panther rank and filers a welcome change. But he presided over a party that continued its thuggish ways, and disappeared into oblivion. So did many Panther leaders. Newton developed the crack addiction that would lead to his death, and Cleaver, who appeared to overcome his own crack problem, died a few years later. Hilliard himself fought a cocaine and alcohol habit.

But Newton's death was a boon to Hilliard, at least professionally. He inherited the Panther mantle at a time when there was new interest in it, and for a decade has made himself the gatekeeper of access to the party legacy, culminating in his ill-advised and unlikely-to-be-successful City Council bid. Hilliard's try for office is a measure of how entwined the Panther legacy is with Oakland's past; that voters aren't flocking to support his bid is a measure of the health of Oakland's political future.

Hilliard capitalized on the Panther revival inspired by Newton's death with an autobiography (Elaine Brown did the same). Then came Mario van Peebles' hagiographic film, "Panther," and another one proposed by "Boyz 'n the Hood" director John Singleton. Hilliard succeeded in recasting himself as Panthers' licensing agent, demanding a piece of everything.

In an interview in the mid-'90s with Bobby Seale and his brother John, the two claimed Hilliard had landed $500,000 from left-leaning producers Paula Weinstein and her late husband Mark Rosenberg, and had meted out small sums to friends, while allegedly keeping the bulk of the money for himself. And documentary filmmakers exploring a project on Jean Seberg, the film actress who had an affair with Panther Raymond "Masai" Hewitt and openly supported the Panthers, told me Hilliard demanded to be hired as a "consultant" -- a demand they said felt like extortion.

No activity, no reference, no cultural invocation involving the Panthers seemed too small to escape Hilliard's outstretched hand. The respected Oakland conceptual artist Mildred Howard thought her Oakland Art Museum installation celebrating ethnic diversity several years ago was a tribute to the Black Panthers in its depiction of the party's free breakfast program that once helped her and her kids. "Then David Hilliard showed up," she told me, "and he hits me up for money, like I'm supposed to pay him for showing the Panthers. I couldn't believe it. He really leaned on me, said he was going to get money from the Museum as well. What arrogance." In this case, Hilliard failed.

The biggest source of Panther cash came from Stanford University, when Hilliard and Fredrika Newton, Huey's wife (who then became involved with Hilliard), sold his old papers and some of Hilliard's for nearly $500,000, according to tax returns obtained from the State Charitable Trust. The two set up the Huey P. Newton Foundation in l993 with themselves as the officers, letting them avoid paying taxes on the money they got from Stanford and any other Panther tribute they could exact.

Although the foundation was set up for putative educational purposes (Hilliard and Fredrika Newton visited local public schools, but a promised Panther Web site never appeared), the lion's share of money from that period went into consultants' fees (to unnamed recipients) and a $12,000 salary for Hilliard the one year he served as president. In l996, when $216,174 came into the foundation coffers (the bulk of it from Stanford) unnamed "consultants" received $134,535, while a mere $50 was spent for "education/training."

But Hilliard used the Newton Foundation to gain new respectability in Oakland. He began sponsoring Panther history bus tours, taking reporters and others on selective sightseeing jaunts, pointing out his and Newton's rundown boyhood homes, for instance, but not the plush Lake Merritt penthouse where Newton lived like a king while the rank and file lived like sardines in Panther slum dorms.

Mayoral candidate Jerry Brown took the tour at the start of his campaign in 1997, and compared the Panthers to the Ohlone Indians, brave warriors threatened with extinction, paying lip service to the mythology that the police -- not their own violence and corruption -- exterminated the Panthers. Hilliard signed on to the Brown campaign, and was at his side election night, when he won the mayor's seat overwhelmingly. But their alliance would fall apart when Hilliard failed to get a job in the new Brown administration.

Hilliard's attempts to gain respectability and profit from the Panther franchise began unraveling earlier than that. Some of the trouble began in l996, in a violent clash that eventually led to a lawsuit, which the former Panther lost last year. According to court records, Hilliard threatened Michael Swift with a knife for selling old Panther newspapers and other party paraphernalia at the Berkeley BART station. Before leaving, Hilliard snatched items from the vendor's table. An hour later, he returned with other men as backup. Hilliard slugged the vendor and the others joined in. Transit police arrested Hilliard, but Swift declined to press charges and Hilliard was let go.

But then Hilliard and Fredrika Newton sent a letter to Swift on Newton Foundation stationary, threatening him if he persisted in selling his Panther trinkets. That made Swift angry enough to sue. A jury found Hilliard and the foundation liable for assault, battery, conversion of property and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and awarded Swift $45,030.

Around the same period, Hilliard again pulled a knife on another man who drew his ire. This time, his adversary was a minor lefty celebrity himself -- the late Jack Scott, physical therapist and worker of wonders to a host of athletes including runner Mary Decker Slaney and onetime basketball great, his friend, Bill Walton.

Scott was also famous for running Patricia Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura during SLA days across the country when both were fugitives of the law. But Hilliard knew none of this when he encountered Scott at his local copy shop in Berkeley, duplicating a stack of documents related to a recent traffic accident.

Asking if he would be done soon, Scott (who died recently of esophageal cancer) answered sarcastically: "Does it look like I'm done?" That was all it took to set off Hilliard. He chased Scott around the machine with a knife, trying to stab him, before fleeing to a curbside car with Fredrika Newton at the wheel.

The clerk knew Hilliard from the neighborhood and identified him to police. But Scott, once apprised of Hilliard's identity, consulted mutual lefty friends and was persuaded to, as one of them put it, "let Gus Newport [Berkeley's former left-wing African-American mayor] negotiate an apology."

A group including Hilliard, Newport, Scott, Fredrika Newton and her half-brother, Mickey Phillips, went out to a reconciliation dinner; Scott admitted he picked up the tab. "I didn't press charges," Scott explained to me several years ago, "because I didn't want to see the left's business smeared all over the [San Francisco] Chronicle."

That Hilliard, with such baggage, could even think about running for political office is testimony to the media's ambivalence about exposing the Panther past -- and in his case, the present. The alliance of Hilliard and Elaine Brown with Jerry Brown didn't cost the mayor, and may have helped him (although when the Chronicle referred to Hilliard as Brown's chief of staff, it was quickly retracted). More than a few observers, however, saw Brown's alliance with the ex-Panthers as a sign that "Jerry just didn't know any black people in Oakland other than the old Panthers and he needed some visible black support during the campaign."

Now the pair are attacking the mayor, and trying to appeal to black voters to restore the corrupt racial spoils system that used to run Oakland. According to several Oakland political insiders Hilliard was "furious" at Brown for not rewarding his campaigning on the mayor's behalf with a job. But as another Oakland political observer put it, "Hilliard's not the only one angry with Brown."

To be fair, Oakland was always a capital of political patronage, long before blacks took over the city. It was certainly true when white Republicans ran the town -- back when former Attorney General Ed Meese got a berth in the Alameda County prosecutor's office despite being in the lower half of his graduating class at Boalt Law School. But his father was an Oakland civil servant, so Meese got the job over a host of others, including one black Boalt honors graduate who had to take a job as a bellhop for the Pullman railway cars. That's the way business had been done in Oakland for white and, recently, black alike -- at least until Jerry Brown was elected.

Hilliard and Elaine Brown are hoping they can rally blacks who feel shafted by the mayor to support Hilliard's political bid. Bobby Seale has joined the campaign, too, as manager -- even though he lives in Philadelphia, and just a few years ago was blasting Hilliard to anyone who'd listen.

But times change. Reached by phone and asked about his turnaround, he demurred, "I was pissed at David, but it's over with. That was all back then dealing with that movie deal. It all depends on what's happening. He asked me and I flew out. We ran for political ideas."

Still, Seale admits Hilliard is a "stubborn son of a gun. David lost his temper," he said of the vendor altercation, "and he shouldn't have done this. But I don't disrespect David."

But Seale has yet to return to Oakland to officially pitch in. He has told other reporters he'll come only when Hilliard is ready to pay him $1,500 a week.

Even Panthers must pay Panthers these days.

By Kate Coleman

Kate Coleman is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay area.

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