Friday, July 21, 2017

Dictatorship of Celebrity: Manager, Coach, Director, Psychiatrist, Cheerleader, Manipulator [and] Guide


salon |  More than three decades ago, as I was winding up a major investigation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its leader Huey Newton, I received a call from Abbie Hoffman, the antic anti-Vietnam War activist, then a fugitive from criminal charges for selling cocaine to a nark. Abbie and I had been friends and fellow street-fighting buddies on the Lower East Side in numerous demonstrations of the antiwar Yippies. His purpose, he said, was to talk me out of publishing that 1978 investigation in New Times. It would hurt the left and the struggle for black justice, he warned.
 
My story exposed Newton’s bizarre leadership (for a time he carried a swagger stick à la Idi Amin). Far worse was the extortion racket he presided over that shook down pimps, drug dealers, after-hours clubs and even a theater owner. Non-compliance left one club owner dead and undiscovered for days in the trunk of his car, which was parked at the San Francisco airport. The theater owner, Ed Bercovich, declined the tithe and refused to give jobs to Panther thugs. The theater burned down — it was arson. Murders of rivals were also carried out on orders from above for perceived disloyalty to the Panthers; vicious beatings of lower-rank Panther males were regular punishments, along with turning out Panther women as prostitutes in the Panther-owned bar and restaurant the Lamp Post. The Panthers always needed cash for themselves and their programs. Paranoia was rampant, with internal schisms fanned by the FBI and local red squads of the police but also anchored in the egos and fear of rivals.

Newton had a way of being tough on the streets, the mean streets of Oakland he grew up in, but he managed to conceal it from his respectable friends, black and white. He cultivated liberal politicians such as U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums and state Rep. Tom Bates; a host of celebrities, including Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Dennis Hopper; and opinion leaders such as Yale president Kingman Brewster, author Jessica Mitford and conductor Leonard Bernstein, all of whom became supporters of the Panthers.

At first, I was puzzled as to why Abbie would call me from the underground after a long silence — he was a fugitive, after all. Suddenly, in a flash, I knew: “Did Bert put you up to this?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he admitted sheepishly. Bert Schneider, I already knew, had underwritten Abbie’s fugitive existence, just as he had for Huey Newton. I turned Abbie — and Bert — down: The Panther investigation would run.