Police History: The Black Panthers and the rise of anti-cop violence

From the very beginning, the Black Panthers tried to incite violent confrontations with the police to achieve their aims


On October 28, 1967, deep in the heart of West Oakland (Calif.), Officer John Frey made a traffic stop on a vehicle with multiple outstanding traffic warrants. When Officer Frey discovered that neither the driver — a known political activist — nor his male passenger were the registered owner of the vehicle, he requested additional assistance and waited for help.

Officer Herbert Heanes responded as the driver was removed from the vehicle for questioning. A struggle erupted between Frey and the suspect.  Multiple gunshots rang out. Officer Heanes was hit in the volley, and Officer Frey was shot several times as well. Heanes fired at the driver, hitting him in the abdomen.

In the ensuing commotion, the driver and passenger fled on foot, commandeered a passing vehicle at gunpoint, and forced the motorist to help them escape. The pair sought refuge at a friend’s home, who took the wounded driver to the hospital. While there, the driver was arrested for the murder of Officer Frey and the attempted murder of Officer Heanes. 

The driver was Huey P. Newton.

Blast from The Past
That name might not be familiar to the current generation of officers on the street, but most cops who served in the 1960s-1970s would immediately recognize it, and would also know the militant, anti-police group that Newton helped found — The Black Panthers.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense — later known as simply The Black Panthers — was created in October 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The organization sought to protect black residents from police abuse and advance the Black Power movement. The Black Panther Party issued its economic, political and justice demands in a “Ten-Point Program” that, among other things, demanded the end of “police brutality and murder of black people,” all-black juries for black defendants, and the immediate release of “all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.”

Initially, the Panthers formed armed patrols to shadow Oakland police officers on duty to interrupt their activities and record incidents of perceived police brutality. As the group’s membership increased, the Panthers held armed rallies to protest police shootings, demand economic improvements for blacks, and incite the revolution that the group felt was a precondition to strengthening black social, political and economic power in America.

From the very beginning, the Black Panthers tried to incite violent confrontations with the police to achieve their aims. They openly advocated the killing of police officers as a form of political protest and “justice,” and with the murder of Officer Frey by Black Panthers Minister of Defense Huey Newton, they made good on the threat. In fact, Officer Frey’s murder was the first in a string of at least 19 murders of law enforcement officers at the hands of  Black Panthers, who also wounded more in ambush attacks.

“Free Huey”
Newton’s murder of Officer Frey was not his first brush with violence. In fact, the night before the stop, Newton was out celebrating his recent release from prison after finishing a stint for stabbing a man with a steak knife. 

Despite witness testimony and physical evidence, the prosecution struggled to convince a jury that Newton had murdered Frey, and could only obtain a manslaughter conviction. In response, the Panthers incited a “Free Huey” campaign that found ready support amongst a collective of students, anti-war activists, Black Power groups, disaffected urban minorities, and a host of leftist groups that advocated communism and socialism. 

In an unexpected twist, Newton was released after just three years, when his conviction was reversed on appeal for a technicality that involved the judge’s instructions to the jury. Although the public campaign probably had little real influence on the early release, its participants felt they had short-circuited a crooked justice system and achieved a great victory.  The group has since promoted it as a model for grassroots, anti-establishment protest ever since.

Newton publicly maintained his innocence after his release, but shortly before his death, he reportedly admitted to a friend that he intentionally killed Frey. This was reminiscent of the lies told by fellow Panthers about who provoked an April 6, 1968 shootout with police that left two officers wounded and Panther National Treasurer “Little Bobby” Hutton dead. The Panthers had initially claimed they were the victims of a police-initiated attack, but later admitted they had initiated the ambush on police in protest of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., just two days before.

What’s Old Is New Again
Newton and his cohorts founded one of the most violent anti-cop organizations of the modern era. He killed a cop and avoided murder charges. It looked like the group intimidated the justice system into releasing him early, allowing him to resume command of the cop-killing group. He’s a folk hero to many in the criminal class, and his words and actions continue to inspire new generations to follow in his militant, anti-police footsteps long after his death.

Today, groups such as the “Huey P. Newton Gun Club” have invoked his legacy, as they openly march with rifles and shotguns while while exhorting the crowd to take up arms and “off the pigs!”

Today’s generation of cops needs to understand this kind of history, and its power to incite people to violence, because those looking to inflict harm on police officers most certainly do. 

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