Opinion | My Teenage Years With the Black Panthers
By Jeffrey Henson Scales
Mr. Henson Scales is an independent photographer and a photo editor at The Times.
In 2017, my mother died in Berkeley, Calif. When our family was preparing to sell the house, a long-forgotten collection of negative strips was found, revealing photographs I had made as a teenager during the turbulent 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area. With these aged strips of film my mother had tucked away for half a century, fragmented pieces of my memory have been returned to me like broken artifacts that now can be mended back together for revisiting.
The photographs in this collection start the way so many things do: with a gift.
While just 12 years old, in June 1967, as San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” was unfolding in the Haight-Ashbury district, I got caught climbing out a window of our Berkeley home one night to attend a Jimi Hendrix concert. I was sent to spend the summer with relatives in the Midwest. There, my paternal grandmother, Lillian, gave me a Kodak Instamatic camera and some film; it was meant to keep me busy and out of trouble as we traveled from city to city to visit cousins I’d never met.
Not long after I arrived in St. Paul, Minn., Black communities throughout the Midwest erupted in rebellion. What became known as the Long Hot Summer of 1967 had begun. It was soon after, in Chicago, that I first pointed my lens at an unfamiliar world around me, one where Black Americans were facing injustice and intense police repression. By the time I returned to Berkeley that fall, my worldview had been completely altered.
I found myself soon drawn to the Black Panther Party in Oakland.
By the following year, protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and the draft were flourishing. I was not even 14 years old when I became fully engaged in photographing the Black Panther Party.
The leaders of the Black Panthers took me under their wing: I visited Huey Newton in jail frequently at the Alameda County Courthouse while he was on trial for murder in the killing of an Oakland police officer during a traffic stop. We talked on those old-style telephone receivers through a small viewing window framed by walls of thick steel.
The Black Panther Party chairman, Bobby Seale, encouraged me to be a photographer for the party’s newspaper, The Black Panther, which was the first place my photographs and illustrations were ever published. I would regularly cover the organization’s events as well as civil unrest at U.C. Berkeley.
Eldridge Cleaver, who was a friend of my father’s and the editor of the Panther newspaper, often recruited me to accompany him around the Bay Area. We traveled with security in his gold Plymouth Fury, with KDIA, Oakland’s soul station, on the radio and the scent of cigarettes and black leather in the air. Eldridge, or El Rage, as he was often referred to by party members, would typically park on San Francisco’s narrow sidewalks. I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet. That car was the coolest place I had ever been.
Some photographs I took during that time haunt me more than others. Memories, of course, of those who were killed, others who may be still imprisoned or others who have died, and some memories of my disappointment in the decisions some of my then-idols made in their later years.
Some photos bring back vivid moments of violence: It was April 1968, the Saturday after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Bobby Hutton, a 17-year-old Black Panther, was killed by the Oakland police. The next morning, the Panther leadership called me to take photographs. Charred debris from the basement where Eldridge and “Lil’ Bobby” had holed up had been dragged out to the street. The smell of burned wood, tear gas and gunfire still filled the rooms.
A year later, there were riots in Berkeley over People’s Park, a university-owned lot that had been turned into a park without permission. To stop the occupation, the police used shotguns with buckshot on the crowds, killing one young man and blinding another. I wasn’t a protester, just a teenager with a camera, standing on a balcony on campus when two officers, one with a standard 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and the other with a shotgun launching tear gas canisters, approached on the street below.
The officer with the shotgun looked up at us and shouldered his weapon to fire. The shots rang out, buckshot splattering on the pillars we had hidden behind; then his partner fired a tear-gas grenade onto the balcony.
This past has now come back to confront me in this new century. I changed tremendously during those years, as did so much in America. But some things sadly remain the same. In over-policed and underserved communities, the Black Panther Party focused the civil rights struggle on police violence and community needs, but so many of these inequities remain.
Today this historical narrative is not just etched in my memory or captured in these photographs but also fixed in America’s collective psyche. This archive of images has been returned to me as powerful forces are trying to push the clock back, to a time before these photographs were made.
Jeffrey Henson Scales is a photo editor at The Times, an independent photographer and the author of “In a Time of Panthers,” from which this essay is adapted.“
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