Originally Published: 01/14/2009
their murders is a man who didn't pull the trigger. Now, he tells his story. It happened just inside the cafeteria doorway: a heated argument, some profane words, a tussle between four angry young men. The first shot silenced the revolutionary chatter. More shots rang out as frightened students scrambled for cover, leaving me wounded in the shoulder and two Black Panthers dead on the floor of UCLA's Campbell Hall, room 1201.
It's been 40 years since the January 17, 1969, shootout that took the lives of Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter and John Jerome Huggins. I've spent the majority of my adult life in San Quentin prison because of the events of that day.
I was 20 years old at the time, a student awaiting placement in UCLA's High Potential program as a political science major. But perhaps more importantly I was a member of Kwanzaa-founder Maulana Karenga's black revolutionary organization "Us." Formed in the wake of the Watts riots in 1966, Us had been, for years, the rising vanguard organization of the black revolutionary struggle in Los Angeles. Karenga, a cum laude graduate from UCLA with Ph.D.s in political science and social ethics, had earned the attention of The New York Times as the "leading black nationalist" in Los Angeles.
My initial involvement with Us was purely accidental. In 1966, as an angry 18-year-old man, I inadvertently stumbled on Karenga and the first ever Kwanzaa celebration at the Aquarian Bookstore in South Central. It was the crowd that first caught my attention multicolored African attire, shiny bald heads and clusters of beautifully defiant afros. I stopped to investigate and was immediately greeted and invited inside. Only several years removed from living in segregated Houston, Texas, forced to drink from the "colored" water fountain, I'd never had such an exhilarating experience among so many African-Americans.
Back in Houston my father was a college professor a Ph.D. in mathematics and a World War II veteran. But he was driven to alcoholism by the accumulated weight of years of racial prejudice, and his depression and abuse tore our family apart. My mother eventually left him, taking her five children to Watts. I was 10 years old at the time.
Though I didn't face the same kind of racial discrimination in Watts as I did in Houston, life wasn't easy. I was considered an outsider and was often followed home and beaten up by the street-hardened neighborhood kids. But that night at the Aquarian, after years of struggling to fit in, I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. I left the celebration with rich feelings of racial pride and joined the Us organization shortly after, along with my wife and my brother, Sikia.
On Sunday evenings I began attending "soul sessions," in which Karenga expounded on various aspects of Kawaida, his theory of black cultural and social change. We studied black history and Swahili and practiced martial arts. Many of the men shaved their heads and grew Fu Manchu mustaches. We were taught self-determination, self-respect, self-defense and to prepare for the urban guerilla war that was to be waged in America. Karenga was able to articulate our deepest rage. He envisioned Us as the leading edge of a black revolutionary movement.
Another group, however, had a different idea.
By 1968, the Black Panther Party, led by Deputy Minister of Defense for Southern California Bunchy Carter, had made their way south from Oakland and established themselves as a force in Los Angeles's black revolutionary struggle.
At first the Panthers and Us coexisted relatively peacefully. In early 1968, Karenga hosted a "free Huey" rally in support of Black Panther Huey Newton, who was in prison on charges of murdering an Oakland police officer. Karenga shared the platform with Panthers H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and Carter, among others. Soon after, however, ideological conflicts between the two groups emerged that threatened our cooperation. Panthers taunted Us members about our African-style clothes, use of Swahili and the emphasis we placed on culture. Us members responded by referring to Panthers as domesticated "pussy cats." Many in Us, myself included, felt the Panthers were undisciplined, too reliant on wealthy, white supporters and borrowed too heavily from Karl Marx and Mao's Little Red Book.
Later that year, these intellectual tensions gave way to more menacing behavior.
UCLA became a hotbed of conflict between the two organizations, both of whom were vying for student allegiance and directorship of a newly minted Black Studies department. Intimidation was a common ploy of both groups. Anonymous phone calls and rumors of targeted assassination plots began to circulate as the feud intensified.
Several of these calls were directed toward my mother. Most were from a strange man who warned her about the violent end my brother and I were about to meet. Only a few weeks before the UCLA shooting, a woman called and told my mother, "You're going to have to bury your sons soon."
Unbeknownst to both Us and the Panthers, the FBI was taking a keen interest in this dispute. On November 25, 1968, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover issued a memo concerning Us/Panther hostility, speculating on how the bureau could "capitalize" and "exploit" these differences in order to cripple the black power movement. How much of the hostility between Us and the Panthers was externally induced by the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) is still unknown.
Initially, the black students of UCLA weren't overly concerned with the partisanship over who would head the Black Studies department. Their chief concern and expectation was that the person was black, culturally conscious and committed to developing a curriculum that reflected the history and community interest of black people.
But as relations between Us and the Panthers deteriorated further, the conflict became impossible to ignore. A core of nonpartisan black students initially tried to mediate between the groups, but grew frustrated as outside events, like the sinister phone calls, prevented any kind of reconciliation.
Uncommitted students who wanted to be a part of the black studies program eventually found themselves forced to pick sides. An appearance at UCLA by Us founder Karenga on January 15, 1969, failed to resolve matters. In fact, Karenga's presence on campus only served to exacerbate the tension. Many students, and especially the Black Panthers, felt like he was using his stature to take control of the program, and resented him for it.
That meeting proved to be the tipping point, the final stone in an accumulating pile of perceived slights.
Another gathering was scheduled for January 17, for all black students to consider a resolution to the Us/Panther conflict, and to agree upon a criteria for the Black Studies program. Approximately 200 people attended the meeting, held in the cafeteria area of Campbell Hall, home of UCLA's ethnic organizations.
Both the Panthers and Us came well armed for the occasion.
No surprise, the meeting was heated. As a member of the Sim-ba Wachanga, Us's paramilitary unit, I was assigned to work security for the event. After two hours of debate without reaching consensus, we adjourned around 2:30 p.m. Just as people began to leave, Us member Harold Jones, a fellow Simba Wachanga whom we called Tawala, abandoned his security post to confront Black Panther (and future Green Party presidential candidate) Elaine Brown in the hallway outside the cafeteria. Though I wasn't able to see what transpired between them, Brown says in her autobiography that Tawala told her, "You need to watch what you say, sister." Brown asserts that she tried to brush it off as insignificant, but Bunchy Carter, who had observed the exchange, became enraged.
After his confrontation with Brown, Tawala reentered the room and returned to the security post he should never have left. Directly behind him, just outside the doorway, a group of Panthers gathered in the hallway. Several tam-wearing Panthers, including Albert Armour and a few others, carried suspicious-looking briefcases.
I was standing about 15 feet away when a loud, bitter argument suddenly erupted over by the doorway. Several students moved away from the verbalconfrontation, clearing the way for me to see Bunchy pulling feverishly on Tawala's coat as John Huggins and Armour unleashed a flurry of downward blows to his head. Immediately, I abandoned a conversation I was having with (future Ebonics pioneer) Toni Cook and hurried over to assist Tawala. But before I could reach them, a loud "Fuck you!" broke through the air, followed almost simultaneously by an even louder blast of a gun. Either by accident or to scare Tawala, Huggins's gun had gone off.