Op-ed: PBS and its Black Panthers documentary missed… badly

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, I watched the PBS documentary The Black Panthers – Vanguard of the Revolution, written and directed by Stanley Nelson, and co-produced with Laurens Grant.

I was interested in the program because I was a peace officer in the San Francisco East Bay area throughout the 1960s. I knew personally many members of the Black Panther Party, including Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, Erica Huggins, Kathleen Cleaver, and Elaine Brown. I also knew personally the victims of their depredations in the community.

Either the research was shallow, incomplete, and superficial, or facts that contradict the biased perspective of Mr. Nelson were intentionally omitted. Either way, the program perpetrated a fraud of history on the viewing public under the “banner” of Black History Month.

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, at the bias demonstrated by the depiction of the Black Panthers as advocates for civil rights and victims of oppression. Only a revisionist version of history can be put forth such a description.

Even more disappointing, was the obvious and very thoughtful omission from the “documentary” of the intentional and planned criminal conduct of the members of the organization.

For example, Nelson minimized and trivialized the incident wherein Huey Newton killed Oakland Police Officer Frey and the organization subsequently terrorized black citizens who witnessed the incident.

He omitted the murder in New Haven of Alex Rackley (a member of the party) that was orchestrated by Bobby Seale, joined by Erica Huggins; the 1969 execution murder on the street in Berkeley in front of the party’s headquarters of Ronald Black by Ronnie Stevenson (a member); and the murder of a black tailor in Oakland by Huey Newton.

Apparently black lives didn’t matter to the Panthers in those days!

Mr. Nelson left out the Marin County Courthouse murder of Judge Haley, with guns purchased by and registered to Angela Davis. The flight of Eldridge Cleaver to Cuba and Algeria, to avoid prosecution for the ambush of Oakland Police officers, was wrongly portrayed as a jaunt to organize an “international branch” of the Panthers. Flores Forbes, a prominent spokesman in the program, was better known as one of the “Buddha Samurai” thugs of the party who believed it was the “oppressed people’s” right to kill the oppressor, meaning anyone who was in their way.

The extortion of “mom and pop” grocers in Oakland to support the “free food” and “breakfast for kids” programs was not mentioned, nor was the famous coloring book, widely distributed, that promoted and depicted the killing of police officers by black people. The list goes on.

The only black lives that mattered to the Panthers at that time were their own….all others were tools and victims of their manipulation and terror.

To depict the organization and the individual members as advocates of civil rights, racial equality, and social progress is a gross perversion of the factual chronicle of that time. It is, at best, an incomplete and inaccurate history. Further, to link the Panthers to the current Black Lives Matter discussion and connect the sincere people of the communities to that group of criminal actors cheapens and discredits those sincere people.

Steve Wasserman, writing about the party in The Nation, in June 2013, presciently and accurately described the program, “Their history is swaddled in propaganda, some of it promulgated by…apologists…who…refused to acknowledge the party’s crimes and misdemeanors…” Nelson and Grant are guilty as described!

The distortions and biased presentation, while “politically correct,” represents the most blatant racial profiling; the factual distortion undermines your credibility; and your bias does disservice to the accurate depiction of Black History events. Clearly, “fair and balanced” had no place in this program! More importantly, PBS fumbled the opportunity to portray history as it was, warts and all, and added to the propaganda.

PBS can do better!

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Mike DiMiceli was a police officer and sergeant in the Berkeley, CA Police Department and Inspector, Alameda County, CA District Attorney’s Office throughout the 1960s. He served as Chief of Police of Vail, Colorado, and retired as Assistant Executive Director of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

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