By Robert A. Vella
When I was a teenager in the San Francisco Bay area, The Free Huey movement captured the attention of many young Americans like myself who were disillusioned by the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and an increasingly authoritarian political establishment. First JFK was assassinated, then Malcolm X, then Martin Luther King Jr., and then Robert F. Kennedy. All of these men had one thing in common, they each – in their own way – attempted to change America to be a more just and equitable nation. But, those with vested interests in keeping America unjust and inequitable resisted – often using clandestine and brutal means.
If you don’t believe these four assassinations – and many more – were connected at some level, you obviously weren’t there. I was, and that connection forever defined America from the 1960s onwards.
“Free Huey” referred to the populist movement demanding officialdom to release Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton from jail. The specifics of his case, as well as his true guilt or innocence, are irrelevant because of the broken relationship between law enforcement (a.k.a. the “pigs” as they were called at the time) and the counterculture that had taken root in the nation’s minority communities and in its white youth. To us, the police could not be trusted in any way. They were the enemy. How police officers felt about us, I cannot say. There was little-to-no constructive dialog.
What I do know is that an undeclared war began to be waged against us which was planned and coordinated inside the halls of the highest offices in the land – inside state houses and governor mansions across the country, and at the highest levels of the federal government in Washington, D.C. In 1967-1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover secretly launched the COINTELPRO operation against Vietnam War protesters, civil rights activists, feminist groups, and especially against the Black Panther Party. The operation was a masterpiece of fascist, totalitarian oppression that observed no legal or ethical bounds. People were assassinated. Many more people were sent to prison on trumped-up charges. It was a national disaster of monumental proportions.
After the Kent State massacre of students by the Ohio National Guard, the establishment’s authoritarian strategy began to fall apart. Police began to see themselves as unwitting pawns. The Vietnam War was lost, and President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. The dramatic shift in public opinion was key, but it transpired much too late for far too many.
Please check out this excellent Independent Lens documentary centered around the lives of Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver. It is an extremely important part of our history; and, keep in mind that those who don’t remember their history have neither a past nor a future: