Married to the Revolution
Remembering 41st And Central 50 Years Later
by Lew Rosenbaum
Fifty years ago, December 4, 1969, a Thursday — the same day Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated by the Chicago Police — I was making plans in Los Angeles to take my girl friend Pam to San Francisco. We were co-workers in the welfare department in Pasadena, California. Tall, slim, with short blond hair and an engaging smile, she and I shared union and social justice interests. And let’s be honest: Girl friend? we were just beginning to date, and I was looking forward to getting to know Pam better than casual or business conversation in the work environment would allow.
The weekend is now a blur. Events which were about to happen may have shoved them into a permanent background. Probably they were nothing memorable anyway. I reconnected with a good friend from high school, then practicing optometry in Berkeley. Never saw him again. I tried to meet up with a friend who I’d last seen interning with the San Francisco Mime Troop. That went nowhere. But I do know we left San Francisco Sunday afternoon in my VW bus, arriving in Los Angeles past midnight, early Monday morning. I dropped her off at her apartment in Highland Park about 1 A.M. and went to mine, a small bungalow up 87 stairs from Isabel Terrace in the Cypress Park neighborhood.
Then came the phone call that woke me up at about 5 A.M, Monday December 8. Marie Branch, a nurse who coordinated the Black Panthers’ Free Clinic, called me up. I had come to meet and work with her through activity with the Friends of the Panthers in L.A. She told me that police had massed around the Panther headquarters on Central at 41st St and had attacked it with tear gas and bullets in a shootout that lasted four hours. Marie wanted to see if I could rouse some of my medical student friends and have them put on their white jackets and offer a “medical presence” as witnesses. Her team hoped we would provide an incentive for the police to withdraw.
Within a matter of minutes I was dressed and out the door to pick up Pam as well as two students from the dormitory, Gordon and John. Gordon had been an SDS member in college and wore his impetuosity on his sleeve; John was an older student, originally from Canada, and politically more mature than most of his U.S. counterparts. Conversation in the car circled around the events four days earlier in Chicago. We found our way to what was then Santa Barbara Ave. (now renamed for Martin Luther King Jr. and 2 blocks north of 41st) and Central and discovered that Central was blocked by the police. We turned one block west and again headed south, finding all streets to Central blocked by the police. Frustrated and foolhardy, Gordon stuck his head out the window and shouted a derisive comment about the pigs (most likely “Off the Pigs”; we didn’t as much say “Fuck the Pigs” back in that day, Fuck 12 was unknown). In a matter of minutes we were pulled over, spread-eagled against the car and searched. Once the cops realized they only had some stupid white kids on their hands, they let us go with a warning. Dawn had come and they had more important work to do than detain us.
We continued to Vernon Avenue, a few blocks south, parked and walked to the corner of Vernon and Central. The canisters being fired near the headquarters boomed and the acrid smell of tear gas spread and lingered over our intersection. The Monday morning crowd gathered on the street to catch a bus for work or just to watch and listen and cough in the fumes. From out of tight lipped mouths on taut and fearful faces grumbled and tumbled angry sounds about the occupying police. On the southwest corner of the intersection, in the parking lot of a fast food joint, a man in a brown suit and tie stood on a milk crate and soap-boxed to a crowd that gathered around him. This street-corner sermonizer preached the gospel of stopping the police invasions of the community, and his instant parishioners nodded their heads in agreement.
At 8:30 I walked to a nearby phone booth and called the welfare office. I told my employer the story that Pam and I had concocted. My van had broken down in San Luis Obispo on the way from the Bay Area, and we couldn’t get it fixed at night on a Sunday. I said it was being repaired now and we should be on the road in an hour or so and in the office in the afternoon. When I got back to the corner the cops were forcing their way through the crowd, beating the suited orator, handcuffing him and throwing him to a police vehicle. Someone from the ACLU was also there to observe and asked us to testify
on the orator’s behalf in court, and we agreed. By about 10 the crowd had mostly dispersed. The smell of tear gas still hung heavy over the corner, and the memory of what we had experienced still seared our brains. The gassing had forced out all the Panthers in the headquarters; the police had riddled the body of Panther Party member Roland Freeman with bullets, but he survived. And the four of us headed back north, Gordon and John to class, Pam and I to work.
That night, Monday, the Friends of the Panthers called for a rally on Wednesday on the steps of city hall. I wrote a leaflet explaining what happened and advertising the rally, printed it up and passed it out at work, an informational leaflet sponsored by Local 535 of the Social Workers Union. My office manager, Esther Matthews, called me in to warn me: under no circumstances was I to miss work or I would be terminated. When I got off work I called a friend from medical school who had graduated and was a resident at County Hospital. I guessed he would be at the rally, and I was right. Neal offered to meet me there and give me a medical excuse I could take to Matthews. It was a little more difficult than I thought, because in only two days 5,000 people showed up for the rally.
But when I found Neal, he turned a gleeful smile in my direction and handed me the excuse.
The story of the shootout is told here (the original article is from the Los Angeles Times) from within the Panther offices, fortified by the efforts of Vietnam War Vet and Panther leader Geronimo Pratt, and defended by youthful Party members until they ran out of ammunition and were suffocated by tear gas. The SWAT assault on the headquarters begin at 4 AM and ended some four hours later. Reneé “Peaches” Moore, one of the two women in the building, led the defenders out under a white flag. After the events of December 4 in Chicago, the Panthers expected the LAPD to do something similar in Los Angeles. They had prepared themselves, but they had no way to anticipate the assault of hundreds of police and the deployment of a Defense Department authorized tank. On their part, the cops rethought what kind of operation they were dealing with and sent their SWAT division for training with the army.
Wayne Pharr, 19 years old on that day in 1969, was among the first to fire his weapon at the invading SWAT team and drive them out of the building. In 2014, the Chicago Review Press imprint, Lawrence Hill Books published Pharr’s Nine Lives of a Black Panther which documents the history of the Los Angeles Panthers. Pharr died in September, 2014, at 64 years of age. This obituary also contains a trailer to the documentary, “41st and Central,” that features a number of the surviving Panthers including Pharr, Pratt, and Freeman.
One more thing about December 4 and Fred Hampton. These attacks were coordinated nationally against an organization the FBI deemed the greatest threat in the US. Fred Hampton, who had built a coalition with Appalachian whites as well as Puerto Ricans in Chicago, explains why. “We say primarily that the priority of this struggle is class. That Marx and Lenin and Che Guevara and Mao Tse-Tung, and anybody else who ever said or knew or practiced anything about revolution, always said that a revolution is a class struggle.” And then, “We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere. But when I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat; I am the people.”
On a personal note: later on in the week, when I asked Pam to go out to dinner, she told me that we should stop seeing each other. She said she’d learned something she hadn’t realized before this weekend: that I was already married. “Married,” she said, “to the revolution.”