Wayne Pharr was a Black Panther. This is his memoir.
It does not get more eye-level gritty than this LA story. One minute I’m reading, thinking “whoa – these guys are talking about blowing up police stations” but the next minute I’m thinking “50 years later, we’re still dealing with violence directed at African-Americans. Of course they fought back – are they supposed to just lie down and die?” I’m not one to advocate violence in general, but we talk about “stand your ground” laws, and – hey wait – that’s a double standard, isn’t it?
A less-deadly, but really pathetic moment for the LAPD, is the multiple times they bust in on the Free Breakfast For Children program, and destroy all the food and threaten the kids and so forth. LA’s finest. These men and women of the Black Panthers took up arms against their oppressors with little reason to believe they would survive or be given a fair shake in court if they did. All of this before most of them were 25 years old.
Point 10 of the original Ten Point Program reads “We want land, bread, housing, education, justice and peace.” This Black Panther point of view sounds a bit like American outlaws of the 18th century, folks you may have heard of: Molly Pitcher, Crispus Attucks, George Washington, for instance.
Nine Lives of a Black Panther is told from such point-blank range that the sweep of it kinda sneaks by. During one appearance at court, Pharr thinks “Is this really because of us? Only one entrance to the courthouse was open and the door to the stairway was locked so that people had to take the elevators with armed guards. The only people allowed in the building were employees and others on official business.” That’s what happens when you get into so many gun battles with the LAPD that they have to invent SWAT. And there are even moments with a kind of levity. In a courtroom brawl, the judge has been chased off the bench, and Pharr has to shout Geronimo Pratt down from using one of the flagpoles as a weapon, saving him from getting shot by the deputies who already have their guns drawn. It’s like blending James Ellroy and Blake Edwards.
Pharr is a trustworthy narrator. Not only does he not toot his own horn, but he admits to desparate, not-so-admirable activities: drug dealing, theft, and the difficulty of getting out of those lifestyles. From his childhood to his eventual retirement from real estate, he tells the whole story.
We’re too close to this American history to forget any of the uglier details, the way we forget that Washington owned slaves. Unfair comparison? Yeah, well, it’s hard to separate a man from the times he lives in.
NOTE: Wayne Pharr passed September 6, 2014. Here is the website for the book.