Will You Die With Me?: My Life and the Black Panther Party
by Flores A. Forbes
Simon and Schuster, Atria Books
Anyone remember the Black Panther Party? They defined fear and loathing to middle class whites while promising revolutionary change to poor urban blacks. Lead by charismatic Huey Newton, they signaled imminent revolution and the collapse of American Society. Spouting Marxist-Leninist slogans and marching around in black leather jackets, they declared success before they began the battle and ended up as little more than the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
In this fascinating and moderately well-written biography, ex-member Flores Forbes reports on his decade of membership in the BPP. The story reveals the BPP as an idealistic cult centered on Newton but able to rationalize any crime for any reason. As the group stumbled from one humiliation to another, Forbes paints their actions in the best light possible. He uses terms like “Military Operation” and “Technical Equipment” to describe robbery, murder, and shakedowns of the drug operations in Oakland, California. He portrays many of the Black Panther Party as barely literate street thugs, with the women-attracting magnetism of the beret and jacket as no small inducement to join.
After losing a closely fought campaign for Mayor of Oakland, the party spun apart. Ultimately, they did very little for the downtrodden. Flores eventually botched a murder, lived on the lam for 3 years, and turned himself in for 8 years in prison. If the care used in hiding the guilty had been applied to educating the uneducated, the Panthers might have had a positive impact. As it was, they were revolutionary wannabees and as dangerous to themselves as to anyone else.
The story is fascinating, even if the full drama available never leaps from the page. We spend quite a bit of time “getting down” with the brothers, smoking dope, and talking big. Occasionally, some kids were fed or educated, but mostly we see half-baked plots, fatuous pronouncements, and misogyny as bad as any stereotype available. The irony is that most of the Panthers spent years in prison, where gang connections served them well. Forbes’ book is a peek into a time and thought process now obsolete. Were mayhem and murder the liberation of Black America? It sure looks like all these guys did was push the ghetto into anarchy as whites fled to the ‘burbs and invented Wal-Mart. At least Forbes made something of himself and tells the tale well enough to fill in the dark corners of this dim period of American history.