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February 19, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 8
Rage of the Panthers: The Ghetto on Trial
by Jonathan Black
February 17 was Huey’s birthday, and the 13th floor courtroom at 100 Centre Street was empty and quiet. The Panthers announced that if Judge Murtagh didn’t suspend court for the day, they’d have to be dragged bodily from their cells, so Murtagh came up with some technical grounds for a holiday. Something about motions.
Huey P. Newton is an invisible presence in court. He co-founded the Black Panther Party, and in the minds of the defendants, it’s the Black Panther Party that’s on trial and not a plot to blow up New York’s commercial-retail establishment. The Panthers, in fact, have perversely turned the trial upside down.
Ten months sitting in jail, and all that imploded bitterness and rage is venting itself in the recreation yard of John Murtagh’s maple-walnut courtroom; at Murtagh, at District Attorney Joseph Phillips, at policemen witnesses, at a court that has the audacity to try them. And the Panthers are sucking all the political and educational mileage they can out of a bad situation.
“Let the record reflect,” intones Murtagh, “that I will not tolerate outbursts, and that disrupters will be held in contempt of court.”
“If we’re in contempt of court,” shouts back Dahruba (Richard Moore), the most boisterous Panther defendant, “you’re in contempt of justice!”
“If defendants continue to behave in a disorderly manner,” continues Murtagh, “I shall clear the court.”
“Black people will continue to behave in a disorderly manner until we get our rights,” comes back Dahruba, about three million decibels louder. “We’re accused of conspiracy; black people have been conspired against for 400 years in this country.”
Murtagh’s power over the defendants is somewhat limited. The Bobby Seale bondage strategy risks public censure — you have to sympathize with a defendant tied to a chair and gagged. Technology has not yet provided the plastic bubble. And the threat of contempt time is like coals to Newcastle for jail-weary Panthers. So Murtagh ignores the Panthers, attempts to destroy their supporters’ enthusiasm with threats — and sentences — of contempt, and directs his own pent-up antagonisms at the Panther lawyers. The most abrasive bout has been Murtagh versus the attorneys. From the start, Murtagh attacked them for incompetence and lack of legal expertise. He admonished them for arriving late and failing to request permission when leaving their seats. He is impatient with their examinations, impatient with their politics, and impatient with their manners. He has also accused the Panther lawyers of encouraging their clients to mischief, a charge which the lawyers hotly deny. The charge is followed by the great “smirk and smile” debate, with each side reading evidence into the record of the attorneys’ facial eccentricities.
Murtagh: “Let the record reflect that Mr. Lefcourt visibly smiled during his client’s outburst.”
Lawyer: “Your Honor, I had occasion to observe Mr. Lefcourt’s face, and his lips were perfectly straight.”
Murtagh: “He smiled in the same manner as yesterday.”
Lefcourt (having a book): “There is nothing in yesterday’s record about a smirk or a smile.”
Murtagh: “There are other records than the official one.”
…The Panthers maintain it is their party on trial. They appear utterly convinced they are being persecuted in a political trial, that their individual guilt or innocence is secondary to their revolutionary mission. Their outbursts in court have run the gamut from familiar rhetorical attacks on Murtagh and Phillips (“racist, fascist, faggot pigs”) to specific protest at the deprivation of constitutional rights (“We demand to be tried by a community of our peers, in the black community”). The small spectator audience — the courtroom seats about 80 — has modulated its response to Panther speeches and entering cries of “Power to the People.” Murtagh’s stern dealing with Maryann Weissman and his continued warnings from the bench have quieted the hair-trigger tensions that prevailed during the first week of the trial, but it is still a rare day when the audience and Panthers do not erupt in some outraged communion.
While the political nature of both the Chicago and New York trails is apparent, there are sharp distinctions between the Conspiracy Eight and the Panther 21. Chicago focused on the symbolic white luminaries of an essentially academic-peace-youth culture protest — at least at the time of the convention — with Bobby Seale thrown in for good measure. The press took these activist dignitaries and prankish darlings of hilarity under its wing, and while many saw the ugly implications of legal repression, the gravity of Chicago was cut by the very individualism of its defendants. (Hoffman’s contempt sentences have underlined the seriousness of Chicago for those distracted by the gaiety of the event.) The grouping was mandated by the government, not hatched in the rage of the ghetto. The Panther 21 case, however, implicates the hard-core street-corner guts of an aggressive revolutionary party, black defendants accused of plotting to blow up whites and white property. The Conspiracy are some hand-picked stars from the Movement’s closet; the Panther 21 are the collective menace of the ghetto, and it is this threat that has raised the emotional ante of the Panther trial.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]