From 1967-70, the arrest and trial of Huey P. Newton brought Black Panther Party members and allies to the Alameda County Courthouse steps in protest. Newton had been charged with murdering police officer John Frey in cold blood despite Newton’s also having a bullet wound after Frey told dispatchers he was about to stop Newton in traffic. Many believed Newton to be guilty as he was part of “Panther Patrols” which involved a role-reversal of armed black men patrolling predominantly white neighborhoods in order to call attention to the imposing relationship police had over people of color. Others thought Newton innocent for the same reason: that scapegoating made him a prime target for the legal system.
Newton’s trial, in which he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter instead of murder, would not be the last time that the building by picturesque Lake Merritt would be the scene of heated protests—specifically protests regarding brutality toward and scapegoating of people of color. July 2013 saw a significant gathering on the steps following the acquittal of Neighborhood Watch member George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Since Newton’s time, technology has become a witness of sorts. Flash forward to the present and we have some police departments requiring their officers to wear cameras. We have the freedom to film police activity and that is most definitely happening as we can see from #BlackLivesMatter feeds and news stations who pull video from Twitter, Vine, Facebook, Instagram, etc. One of the modern movement’s mottos: “Who polices the police?” sounds and awful lot like “Patrolling the Pigs” although now there is more video and photographic evidence to back up the cause’s need. Cell phone videos and live tweeting give the world at large evidence and insight which at another time may have been more skewed by media spin. For example, instead of relying on news interviews with people like Newton we now also have live tweeting from leaders like Deray McKesson and Johnetta “Netta” Elzie. Essentially, we have a massive amount of data backing up claims of police (and civilian) brutality against people of color. What’s more, we have begun a conversation of sorts about white perceptions of blackness: The notion of “fear” when a black teenager in a hoodie is walking alone in the dark, for instance. If Newton truly was innocent, the culture of scapegoating people of color is a factor. If he was not, consider his frustration with police brutality toward his own people: not an excuse but a reason.