Memoirs of a Seattle Black Panther

“IF YOU don’t protect these Black kids, then we will do it, understand?”

Aaron Dixon’s leather jacket, beret, gun, and armed entourage of Black Panther Party members made the answer to the question quite clear in the mind of the high school principal he was confronting. For weeks a Black mother had been calling the Seattle chapter headquarters of the Black Panther Party pleading for help because the white students at Rainer Beach High School were brutalizing her son and the administration would not help. The principal responded, “I promise I will make sure nothing happens again.”

The epic tale of how the Panthers became such a force in US politics is incomplete without understanding the story of Aaron Dixon and the Seattle chapter of the Panthers, a story that until now has not been published.

As the first chapter established outside of California, the Seattle Panthers hold a special place in the development of the party—both in the story of how the Panthers grew to be a national organization, and also in the political and strategic decisions the party made.

I was Aaron Dixon’s campaign manager for his 2006 US Senate bid in Washington State, and I was fortunate to hear Aaron’s mesmerizing tales of a life of struggle as we crisscrossed the state on campaign stops.

Yet reading these stories in My People Are Rising (and many others that were new to me) gave me a new definition of courage, integrity, and what a commitment to a life of struggle against injustice can cost. In his memoir, Dixon audaciously reveals the intimate details of his life as the captain of the Seattle chapter of the Panthers. Dixon is not afraid to tell us what it took to build a revolutionary organization to challenge the inequities of capitalism, or the mistakes he and the Party made along the way.

The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in October, 1966, in Oakland, California, and conditions were such that within a few years the Panthers had thousands of members with chapters crisscrossing the country.

City after city saw the Panthers lead armed patrols to defend people from the unchecked police brutality that had terrorized generations of Black people. They stopped evictions of poor and working-class Black people, operated numerous community service programs in an attempt to provide basic services the government had denied the Black community, and became the embodiment of resistance to racism and an economic system that maintained vast inequality.

The Black Panthers built a revolutionary organization surpassing 5,000 members and won the favor of millions Black Americans. Their newspaper, The Black Panther, reached a circulation of 150,000, and the Party was a source of inspiration for the growing tide of rebellion in the late 1960s and 1970s—from the antiwar movement to the gay liberation movement.

Dixon was appointed captain of the Seattle chapter of the party at age 19. His parents’ history, his attendance at a Martin Luther King Jr. rally in Seattle, witnessing Stokely Carmichael’s speech at Garfield High School, helping to found the Black Student Union and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee at the University of Washington, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., all played a role in the early development of Dixon’s political consciousness.

However, Dixon reveals in his memoir that when Bobby Seale flew to Seattle to name him captain, “I felt deeply about the movement that was rapidly gaining steam, coming over the horizon, but I was not yet a true, committed revolutionary.”

The story of young people thrust into leading a revolutionary movement without any understanding of what a revolution was or how it would be made, would be repeated countless times around the country. This gave the movement an incredible vibrancy, but also left many to improvise based on a limited experience rather than any developed theoretical, political or practical revolutionary practice. As Dixon states, “We had many recruits yet we lacked a clear understanding or model of exactly what we were supposed to be doing on a daily basis and also in the long term.”

In Seattle, Dixon writes, within the first two months of opening the Black Panther headquarters, they received more than three hundred applications for membership! Revolutions were unfolding around the world, from anti-colonial struggles in Africa, to the struggle of the Vietnamese people against US imperialism, and the exhilaration Dixon felt at seeing this new revolutionary movement explode in his hometown jumps off the page. “Events were occurring at high speed. . . . It wasn’t long before our little sleepy Madrona neighborhood was transformed into a Black Panther Party fortress.”

Dixon’s explanation of the building blocks for this Seattle fortress is fascinating.  Selling The Black Panther newspaper was one of their primary recruitment and education tools. One unique aspect of the Seattle chapter was its multiracial makeup. “It was not unusual that a handful of the new recruits were Asian—like fifteen-year-old Guy Kurose, who was Japanese; seventeen-year-old Mike Gillespie, a Filipino trumpet player and Mike Tagawa, a Japanese Vietnam vet. These guys had all grown up in our neighborhood and identified with young Blacks in many ways.” The Seattle chapter would also be at the forefront of innovations for the “survival programs” that offered social services such as free breakfast, medical care, legal aid, and many more.

Yet with every success the Party had, the protectors of the US empire redoubled their efforts to dismantle the Panthers. The US government’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) named the Black Panther Party the “Greatest threat to the internal security of the United States,” and Dixon gives us an anguished view of the government’s viciousness—everything from the imprisonment of Huey P. Newton and the New York 21, to the assassinations of Bunchy Carty, Fred Hampton, and George Jackson.

Dixon himself became a prime target of COINTELPRO as the heart-stopping accounts of the three assassination attempts on his life make clear. However, the Black community didn’t quietly submit to these attacks. Dixon recounts how he was framed and jailed by the Seattle police for stealing a typewriter, resulting in a full-scale riot in Seattle that convinced the authorities they had better release him.

Dixon’s candor in revealing mistakes the Panthers made is one of things that makes this book so valuable to people who want to change the world today. Dixon laments the authoritarian tack Huey P. Newton would take, writing, “To make matters worse, an issue of the party paper declared Huey ‘Supreme Commander.’ Upon reading that, I got a sick feeling in my gut.”

Dixon also recounts the Panthers’ struggle with sexism: “The party’s official position, set by the Central Committee, was that women were equal to men and that a woman had the power to do anything a man could do. However, in day-to-day activity, things didn’t always turn out that way. It was a constant struggle to change the thinking of men in the party.”

Dixon’s unique view of the split, consolidation, and degeneration of the party adds to our overall understanding of both the party, and the period within which they operated—The Panthers were infiltrated by the FBI— rebellious factions split the party to form the paramilitary Black Liberation Army— Huey put out a call for all chapters to leave only a skeleton crew in their localities and for the bulk of party members to relocate to Oakland. After relocating to Oakland, Aaron often served as the Officer of the Day (OD) in charge of coordinating the Panther’s activities.

Later, when Huey was in exile in Cuba and Elaine Brown became the head of the party, Dixon was chosen to serve as Brown’s bodyguard. Brown led brilliant organizing campaigns, while simultaneously implementing brutal internal discipline, and steered the party towards partnering with Democratic Party politicians.

When a drug addicted and paranoid Huey P. Newton returned from exile, the Panthers rapidly fell apart. Dixon’s agony is palpable as he relates his own decline into a life of hustling in the wake of the collapse of Panthers and the rest of the social movements of the time.

However, the last chapter of Dixon story has yet to be written. He continues to serve his community in Seattle though an organization that serves homeless youth and is active around every issue of social justice that arises. Aaron Dixon continues to be an icon of resistance in Seattle. The lessons he relates in this memoir will inspire a new generation of revolutionaries who are struggling to undo the power of the 1%.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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