March 30, 2010
Listen to the PantherBy Ed Kaitz
A Washington Post columnist by the name of Colbert King recently compared the "Tea Party supporters and their right-wing fellow travelers" to the angry mobs who used threats, intimidation, and even murder to prevent the "landmark civil rights laws" of the 1960s. According to King,
King reminds his readers that although "[s]choolhouse doors were blocked and little children were demeaned," the "bigots didn't get the last word. Justice rolled down like a mighty river, sweeping them aside."
And while comparing present-day Tea Party anger to the abuse, lies, insults, and vandalism characteristic of yesteryear's George Wallace brigades, King is confident that "progress" today will prevail as it did back in the '60s:
While reflecting on Colbert King's words, I too began to reminisce about some of the violent, angry faces in my own past.
Back in the early 1980s, I was sitting in Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley with hundreds of other students, waiting rather impatiently to see a man who clearly embodied much of the turmoil, outrage, and overall ethos of the 1960s: ex-Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.
Cleaver combined his roles as radical philosopher and warrior for the oppressed to serve the Black Panthers as Minister of Information shortly after his release from Folsom prison in 1966. Cleaver hit the national stage in 1968 when he published a collection of his prison writings, Soul on Ice, which combines a visceral hatred for America with black liberation theology, admissions about "insurrectionary" rape, a spiritual odyssey, and a search for personal meaning in a racist environment.
Perhaps Shane Stevens of The Progressive captured the essence of Cleaver's book best when he said in a review, "The hell is there, and its name is America." Indeed, the raw power of Cleaver's remarkable and revealing eloquence in Soul on Ice made him a favorite on college campuses and also among legions of leftist intellectuals.
I read Soul on Ice as a teenager and was floored by the radical difference between the violent and turbulent streets of Cleaver's young life and the strawberry fields and apple orchards that girded the quiet dirt roads I strolled along during my own youth on a farm.
Cleaver's life took yet another violent turn in April of 1968 when he helped organize an ambush of the Oakland city police. The resulting shootout left fellow Panther Bobby Hutton dead, two police officers injured, and Cleaver charged with attempted murder. To avoid more time in prison, Cleaver left the country for Cuba and other communist destinations such as North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, where he was heralded as a celebrity by authorities in each government, who also helped provide for his living.
By 1975, however, Cleaver had learned firsthand about the crushing weight of the state in the communist world. He experienced a personal transformation that left him longing for life back in America. And despite being vilified and called a traitor by his colleagues on the left, Cleaver began openly defending American values and traditions in speeches and interviews upon his return.
Sitting in the crowd at UC Berkeley some years after Cleaver's repatriation, I again thought about what this compelling and exotic man might be able to teach me about America. When the audience began hissing and sneering, I realized that Cleaver had arrived.
It has been over twenty-five years, but I still remember Cleaver's imposing figure strolling across the stage, unfazed by heckling and howling that met him from some in the audience. As Cleaver rested his large, black hands on the podium, I heard voices in the back snapping with anger and calling out in rapid succession, "You're a traitor, Cleaver!"
As I remember, Cleaver began his speech by defending the conservative American values of self-reliance and entrepreneurship and warning against the dangers of statism and collectivism. Shortly into his speech, however, as the heckling reached intolerable levels, dozens of protesters began marching down the aisles of the auditorium, headed for the stage.
Sitting near the podium, I turned to watch as some of the marchers leaped onto the stage, dragging a giant American flag that had been squeezed into a thick noose. After they swatted the stage several times with Old Glory, I remember them stomping the flag with their boots and accompanying the chaos with an eerie chant of some kind.
Cleaver stood above me only a few rows away, sizing up the anarchy as it unfolded around him. What I'll never forget is the kind of smooth composure this larger-than-life figure displayed despite the impending threat -- like a panther, as one protester would soon learn to his dismay.
Realizing the inaction or disappearance of the campus police, the apparent ringleader of the mob raced over to a table near the podium, grabbed a pitcher of water, and splashed its contents over Cleaver's face and chest. With the reflexes of an experienced prizefighter, Cleaver knocked the angry young man clear off the stage with a simple but frightfully quick jab, and then he waited calmly for more.
While the leftist thugs rioting near Cleaver had second thoughts about their next move, the campus police finally arrived and cleared the stage after a short scuffle. Cleaver continued speaking, but I was so overwhelmed by the rapid succession of violent events that my memory even now leaves me somewhat helpless beyond that point.
Several years later, Cleaver met with the editors of Reason Magazine for a profound, enlightening, and at times rather poignant interview about recent American history, the dangers of welfare-statism, the role of ideology in politics, and what he learned while living under socialist rule abroad.
Cleaver learned that most importantly, "it is a quality of human beings that when they are trying to tear something down[,] they don't pay enough attention" to the relationship between ideology and "the form of government that comes out of that ideology." Having studied Marxism "on paper" as a Black Panther, Cleaver was ill-prepared to realize how efficiently the state manages to crush the very individual Cleaver himself had intended to liberate.
When asked by the Reason editors whether government welfare programs end up harming or helping its recipients, Cleaver had this to say:
Cleaver believed that the solution to this kind of dependency on the Democratic Party is a series of private-sector entities that help bring these groups into a more positive relationship with the economic system:
Since Cleaver's "great, burning desire" was to "help enlarge human freedom," he was able to recognize the debilitating effects that Democrat welfare-statism had on the black population here at home.
Eldridge Cleaver passed away in 1998, but today, writers like Colbert King are likening Americans who are simply alarmed, as Cleaver was, at the growth of Big Brother to the racists, bigots, and murderers who stood in the way of civil rights legislation. This is a deplorable and disingenuous charge, since the Tea Party phenomenon is simply aimed at thwarting the rapid augmentation of the state, not at any of the civil rights legislation.
As Eldridge Cleaver understood, when the individual is crushed, so is his sense of self-respect and self-reliance. Since LBJ's Great Society initiatives, billions of dollars have been spent augmenting the state in relation to the individual lives of most black Americans. Is Colbert King happy with the results? Is socialized medicine as important to the black community as the staggering numbers of children who grow up without a father in the home?
Back in 1947, Mahatma Gandhi was asked a question about the prospect of a state-controlled economy in newly independent India. Gandhi replied:
It is the "fear of freedom and responsibility," said Tzvetan Todorov, that creates "the attraction of a totalitarian system."
Listen to the panther, Colbert King. If you think you're on the right side of history, then Eldridge Cleaver may have already seen your future.