June, DC and Big Man



By Elbert "Big Man" Howard

There were many reasons why I joined the Black Panther Party (BPP). Some are easy to explain and talk about and some are not so easy. Some reasons go deep into childhood experiences, but I'll save that for the book about my life story.

I was discharged from the U.S. Air Force at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California in 1960. I liked Oakland, and decided to stay awhile. Besides, my hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. had no more to offer me than when I enlisted in the Air Force in 1956. At least Oakland seemed to have a thriving Black community with friendly people. However, the lines of segregation were clearly drawn with the city's storm troopers there, to keep Black people in line and not crossing it without deadly consequences. These deadly consequences were carried out almost weekly with White cops killing Black citizens. Without exception it was officially termed "justifiable homicide" by the police and city officials.

I got a job and started college on my GI bill. I went about my life enjoying the wealth of talented musicians who lived, worked, and played in and around the Bay Area. Jazz and Blues were my favorite art forms. Life was good. All I had to do was keep a job, some money in my pockets and keep out of harms way; or so I thought.

It was around 1966 when I first met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. We were attending Merritt Community College. We all were interested in Black history. As a matter of fact, we were one of the first Black Student organizations on any campus that we knew of at that time. It was called the Soul Students Advisory Council. Sid Walton was our campus advisor. I became introduced to the speeches and writings of Malcolm X, "The Ballot or the Bullet" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." We were interested in political science, revolutionary politics and social revolutions as well. Our interests went beyond what was offered in the classroom at that time.

We would have political education classes after school. We would meet at Bobby's mother's house, at Huey's apartment, and at my house. We would read and discuss the Red Book, the writings of Dr. DuBois, Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, Che, Castro and many others. We were always seeking solutions to our community situations.

One particular incident that pushed me into the BPP involved the Oakland Police department.

One evening my date and I were out on the town. We had just enjoyed a set of Lou Rawls live at a local nightclub. My dated waited at the club door while I went to get my car. I got it, came back, and double-parked while I waited for her to come out. While I waited, Oakland PD showed up in storm trooper style and started writing citations. There were white patrons parked in front of me and in back of me, also double-parked. I took offense and asked why I was singled out for a ticket. Was it because I was black? Was it because I was black and had a new pick-up truck? I said F. you white MFs and attempted to leave. Needless to say, I was surrounded by a large number of cops with guns drawn and taken to Oakland City Jail. I was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, threatening a police officer and other things I'd never heard of.

My truck and I spent the night in jail. The next day, I got out on bail. For lack of better knowledge, I hired attorney Donald Warden, a loudmouth radio personality. I knew that Huey studied law and knew how the Oakland justice system worked, so I asked him if he would go to court with me. Huey agreed. He told me to go on up to the front of the courtroom and he would hang in the back because Donald Warden did not like him and may say something stupid if he saw him with me.

My case came up with several of the cops in on the arrest in the court to testify against me. The judge said something sarcastic like " he is most likely guilty, but I'm going to dismiss it." Huey and I left the courthouse with me mad as hell. On the drive to Huey's apartment, we discussed the laws regarding firearms in the city. From that day forward, I started riding around Oakland with my loaded shotgun in the rack of my pick-up truck, just like the rednecks of the day did.

At this period in time, the struggle for Civil Rights was raging out of control. Malcolm X had told the nation that it's the Ballot or the Bullet. He was telling us to defend ourselves. If any man puts his hands on you or yours, you had a right, you had an obligation, to fix him so he would never be able to do it again. I believed in these teachings and still do. I was truly angry.

I think that my anger was always tempered with discipline and reasonable thought. I like to think that my patrols in the streets never led to unnecessary bloody confrontations. The young brothers that rode with me had to follow the rules of engagement set forth by Chairman Bobby Seale and Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton. I think that the bright red pick-up truck with a bunch of black brothers in it was on the Oakland PD blotter to avoid confrontation. As a result, there was no loss of life in the community or of Panther or police. That is not to say there were not ambushes, harassment and false arrests.

Lil Bobby Hutton was a young brother who was always ready to rumble with the cops, but he also had a discipline and would always listen to me when he was with me. I suppose that is one of the reasons I have always felt the loss of him very deeply. The day before he was murdered, he called me on the phone and said he wanted to see me about something. I told him to come on over to the house and I'd be there. He came to the house around 7:00pm. I asked him what was up. He told me he needed a shotgun. He knew I always kept several legal shotguns, rifles and handguns on hand because I had been a hunter and sportsman in the past.

I asked Lil Bobby why he needed a shotgun. He smiled the way he always did when I took him to task about something. Little did I know at the time that I would never see his smile again. I gave Lil Bobby a 12-gauge Winchester pump shotgun. I asked him again, sounding like a father or big brother, "Are you sure this is not for something personal?" He said, "no Big Man, this is Party business." He told me he was going on street patrol that night. I said OK, be careful, I'll see you later.

The next morning, I got the news. Panthers and police in a shootout and Panther killed. I found out it was Lil Bobby. Then the human emotions started to creep in on me. The What Ifs; what if I had not armed him? What if I had gone with him? What if I had tried to get it called off? Here, some thirty years later, the what ifs still creep into my mind as I think of Lil Bobby from time to time. But I know that the awful feelings that I get would be worse if I had not tried to arm him well to do the job he gave his life doing; protecting the community in which we lived.

Early on, when the Party first opened an international headquarters office, we were not too organized in terms of regular opening and closing hours. Staffing was not too together. I told Chairman Bobby Seale we needed to get organized in our office. We could not afford to be opening at 12 or 1:00 in the afternoon or when someone decided to come in and open. I told the Chairman I had open hours in the morning and if he wanted to give me a set of keys, I would open every morning at 9:00am and hold it down until someone else came in later. I felt this gave us a more professional look to the community. As a result, we were there to accept donations, sell our newspaper, and to take phone calls from people around the city, state, country and world. There was tons of mail coming in. We had people coming in wanting to join the Party. We took names and phone numbers. From the mail we received a great many newsworthy articles for our newspaper. There was also a good amount of hate mail. We also got invitations to speak to groups and at rallies. It was from some of these invitations that I did my first speaking event. I had never been a speaker or spoke before a group of people before. However, I was selected to be a BPP spokesman.

The first group I was selected to speak to was a convention of San Francisco probation officers. They wanted to know what we thought about them and their jobs. At first I was a little nervous, but when I got into it and thought about how much I disliked them and their jobs, I really got into it.

In California, like in most states, parole officers held god-like powers over a person on parole. These state employees could send a person back to prison for any reason or no reason at all. They could just make something up and send a person back to prison. My question to them was, "What have you done to try and keep ex-cons from returning to prison? Had any of them went to employers to help get employment for their charges that paid a living wage, a wage that allowed a person to take care of a family? How many had reached out to community institutions to help these people make it on the outside, like churches, schools and community organizations?"

I asked how many had gotten involved with their charges who needed drug treatment, other than violating them and sending them back to jail. My final question to the group was, "did your college education and training teach you to deal with human beings with all their complex problems or did your training just turn your into a tool to keep the revolving doors at the penitentiary turning?" In my conclusion, I read our BPP 10-Point Platform and Program. I think it went well for being my first speech before a large group. It was not what they wanted to hear, but I didn't care.