DC Black Panthers 1969-74
The Black Panther Party based in Oakland, CA began recruiting to establish a chapter in Washington, DC in September 1969.

A previous attempt to establish a Panther chapter in Washington was made by Robert Rippy in 1967. Rippy organized a small group and named themselves Black Panthers advocating armed self defense of the black community.

Rippy met with Panther Party officials and was told he had to meet certain qualifications before a Panther chapter could be recognized. Rippy renamed his group "The Black Defenders" and was ultimately denied recognition as a Panther chapter due to the group"s opposition to working with white allies and allegedly lacking sufficient political understanding.

Robert "Bobby" Lee, field secretary for the Chicago chapter of the Panthers and William "Preacherman" Fesperman, organizer for the Panther-allied white Patriot Party held a press conference in Malcolm X (Meridian Hill) Park September 12, 1969 denouncing President Nixon for waging war on the Panthers. That night 1,000 people rallied to support the Panthers at Dupont Circle.

Organizing began in earnest in December 1969 when Jim Williams was sent by the Oakland Panthers to set up a Panther support group, the National Committee to Combat Fascism (NCCF). Shortly after Williams arrived, he participated in a local coalition of black and left wing groups called the Coalition Against Racism & Fascism that held a rally at All Souls Unitarian Church at 16th & Harvard Streets NW to protest the murder of Chicago Panther Fred Hampton by police.

Williams set up an office at 2327 18th Street NW and began cultivating contacts, selling the Panther newspaper, showing Panther films at various colleges and high schools and recruiting members to the NCCF.

The DC NCCF chapter was declared a full Panther Party affiliate on June 19, 1970 during the announcement on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that a Revolutionary Peoples' Constitutional Convention would be held in the city. The RPCC rally drew about 1,000, including Panther representatives from around the country.

Williams took over the building at 1932 17th Street NW and turned it into a Black Panther Community Center. The building had previously housed a newspaper allied with the Weathermen (later Weather Underground) and before that the Quicksilver Times.
The Panthers generally lived communally at the facilities and in several other townhouses as did their allies, the Patriot Party, that also formed a DC chapter at the same time. The Patriots targeted whites in the low-income areas of DC and Prince George's County.

By this time, the Panthers were under attack across the country. The FBI's Cointelpro program was subverting the Panthers from within while local police and US attorneys were bringing arrests and indictments--mostly on trumped up charges. Chicago leader Fred Hampton had been shot to death in his bed by the police, nearly all their national leadership was under indictment or in jail and Panther chapters around the country had been raided and many members jailed.

The Washington, DC Panthers were no exception. Two weeks after their founding, Panthers and supporters were singing songs at their Community Center. District police showed up around10:00 pm on the evening of July 4 and after a brief exchange of words and possibly missiles, the Panthers and their supporters retreated into the building.

The police broke down the door of the Community Center and a brief fight broke out between the Panthers and police. The police destroyed furniture, seized three rifles, a shotgun and a pistol and confiscated papers and cash.

Twenty Panthers and supporters were arrested and three children taken into custody, two of whom were slightly injured by police. Two of the police were hurt and one Panther was treated at the hospital.

A crowd of over 200 residents, many of whom had witnessed the police action, gathered outside the precinct until the Panthers were released.

Charles Brunson, who was in charge of organizing the RPCC, was charged with illegally possessing the weapons. Later another Panther, Paul Pumphrey, was beaten at the 3rd District Police station when he attempted to secure the release of the mother of the children taken into custody.

Pumphrey and his brother George had earlier started a Community Action Project at the Rockville Gardens (Berlin) apartments in neighboring Montgomery County that called for a rent strike and picketed a local merchant whom they charged with discrimination. Many complex residents felt they were victims of police harassment and residents pelted police with rocks and bottles the evening of June 19.

On July 17 George Pumphrey was arrested by Montgomery County police in Silver Spring MD for distributing a flyer protesting the police killing of a man in the Good Hope area of the county. On August 11, James Miles, from the Rockville Gardens complex, was arrested for selling the Panther newspaper in downtown Silver Spring.

In October the Panthers hit another roadblock. Two DC Panthers, Willie Dawkins and Robert Schoop, were hit with warrants for "criminal anarchy" by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. The warrants became public the day after the New Orleans National Committee to Combat Fascism office was brutally raided.

The Panthers were in deep legal trouble and then hit another hurdle in an effort to organize the RPCC. Political pressure was being brought on area institutions to refuse permission to the Panthers to hold their gathering. The DC Armory board refused to grant permission and a court appeal failed.

The Panthers filed suit against the city for the July 4 raid. Paul Pumphrey filed a separate suit for the police actions against him. The city responded by dropping all charges, including the weapons charge against Brunson.

With the police shootings of Panthers around the country and the harassment in the District, the Panthers were sure they would be raided. An FBI agent lured them with the promise of automatic weapons and set them up. The weapons had been stolen in October.

Two Panthers, Charles Brunson--the principle RPCC organizer--and Jacob Bethea along with two other men were stopped on I-95 in Virginia on November 4 and charged with illegally transporting weapons. At their 1971 trials, Brunson received 4 years while Bethea got 8 years.

The University of Maryland also refused to host the convention, despite pressure from the local campus group, The Democratic Radical Union of Maryland (DRUM). Howard University belated offered facilities, but imposed a deposit requirement.

The Panthers were already in a situation where they couldn't pay rent, electricity and other bills in a timely way. They had no way to come up with the money Howard demanded.

When November 27 arrived, the local Panthers had no facility to accommodate the 5,000 streaming into down. They obtained a rally permit for Malcolm X Park and held an inspiring rally, but local churches simply did not have the space for the participants who became increasingly disgruntled with the Panthers disorganization.

Huey Newton, the chairman of the BPP just freed on bond, spoke on the final day at St. Stephens of the Incarnation to a packed crowd, praising their work and relieving them of the responsibility to actually write the revolutionary constitution. Most people left DC feeling discouraged.

The Panthers went though the big split in leadership between Eldridge Cleaver's faction based in Algeria and Bobby Seale's based in Oakland. The result was that "serve the people" was emphasized more and armed self-defense was emphasized less. Cleaver's group went on to become the Black Liberation Army.

In 1971, The District Panthers set up a free bus program for those who wished to visit their kin at Lorton Prison and set up an Angela Davis People's Free Food Program food bank operating out of the community center on 17th street.

By 1972, the DC Panthers made their move from Northwest to Anacostia and set up a People's Free Health Clinic in the basement of the Johenning Baptist Center at 4025 9th Street SE (near Southern Avenue). Later in the year free rides for the elderly were arranged to the bank on the first of the month.
In November 1972, the Party supported the American Indian Movement takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building, holding a joint press conference and promising to provide "soldiers."

Many of the most dedicated members were recalled to the Party's Oakland headquarters in the Spring of 1973, but the chapter lingered on for another year until the Spring of 1974. One of the chapter's last official acts was to co-sponsor an International Women's Day rally in support of Sheridan Hotel strikers in Lanham MD.

The Panthers faced overwhelming odds in the District, but persevered and educated thousands of people in revolutionary theory and practice. While they did not sustain the organization, they did train a new generation of fighters for social justice.

The main buildings utilized by the Panthers still stand: 2327 18th Street NW (first Panther HQ) is occupied in 2012 by Club Heaven & Hell. 1932 17th Street NW (The Panther Community Center) is a private residence. The Johenning Baptist Center at 4025 9th Street SE (near Southern Avenue) is still used for community meetings and events, including a charter school.
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