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Speaking from exile in Algiers, Eldridge Cleaver last month denounced Black Panther Chief of Staff David Hilliard as incompetent and reactionary and demanded the reinstatement of the ousted Panther 21.
Huey P. Newton immediately defended Hilliard and the expulsion of Cleaver's supporters in the New York chapter. Newton also promised that his Oakland National Headquarters would study and respond to Cleaver's attacks.
This exchange, conducted on a live television talk show, proved to be the first battle of a war still raging within the Black Panther Party. The March 20 issue of the Party newspaper, which is controlled by Newton, announces the expulsion of Cleaver and all other exiled Panthers. The lines are being drawn, but many questions are unanswered.
For example, it is unclear to what extent the split between Cleaver and Newton is ideological. In labeling Hilliard a reactionary and the Panther National Headquarters a "right-wing Oakland clique," Cleaver was condemning the Party's emphasis on organizing the black community around the ten-point Panther program.
Cleaver also disapproves of Newton's willingness to fight the Party's battles in the courts and to make concessions to public relations. Cleaver has said that he would prefer the Party to follow the lead of Jonathan Jackson into violent action to free political prisoners.
This difference is at the heart of the issue of the Panther 21, some of whom jumped bail in New York City and fled, possibly-according to Cleaver-to Algiers. The cost to the Party was $150,000; the 21 were expelled.
Newton and the Party responded to Cleaver's ideological attacks on two levels. First, on March 4 the Party newspaper charged that Cleaver was holding his wife Kathleen a prisoner in their home and mistreating her.
Immediately the Cleavers denied the charges. Cleaver himself countered with personal attacks on Newton and recommended that he be purged from the Party.
Newton's second response came on March 5 - his birthday and Black Solldarity Day. Newton's speech - delivered to about 5000 Panther supporters gathered in Oakland - skirted the issue of the rift and ignored his earlier personal charges against Cleaver.
However, in a typically indirect statement, Newton erected an ideological line of defense for the Party, one which may become dominant in the Party line. Newton exhorted the black community to "judge us as revolutionaries not by our words but by our actions."
'We Will Act'
"Some people will try to sound revolutionary but we will act revolutionary," Newton continued.
The March 20 issue of the Party newspaper is unusually full of coverage of the Party's community programs such as free breakfasts for schoolchildren and free clinics. And a new slogan has appeared - "Survival pending revolution."
The implication of this new slant is that Newton alone is "the supreme servant of the people," working for their welfare today and their revolution tomorrow.
The success of this new approach - whether it is a cause or an effect of the split with Cleaver - is hard to predict. The current issue of the Panther paper features five Party leaders declaring their long-standing devotion to Newton, but there are reports that Party chapters around the country are dividing into two camps.
It is probable that the New York chapter will take Cleaver's side, and that most of the West Coast chapters will be loyal to Newton. Chicago - although one of the largest chapters - may be typical in its response.
"Cleaver? All we ever heard of him is he wrote a book. We've never even seen him out here. We're sticking with Huey," a Chicago Panther official said yesterday.
The Meaning of a Murder
On March 8, New York Panther Robert Webb was shot in Harlem; a local leader of the Party immediately charged that Webb had been assassinated by Newton's agents in an effort to discipline the renegade chapter.
Some observers have compared the Webb case to the Rackley case. However, a key difference is that the villains in the Panther version of the Rackley case are the police, while Panthers are now accusing fellow Party members of the Webb murder.
Whether or not Webb's death turns out to be the first of a series of internecine killings, the rhetoric of the struggle is ominously violent.
Prison Spells Peril
For instance, the March 20 issue of the Panther paper headlines an open letter from San Quentin Panthers threatening Cleaver with death in any California prison.
It is difficult to predict the lines along which the Party may divide, or how much violence may accompany the split, just as it is hard to pinpoint its ideological or practical basis.
Also, the effect of the schism on the Panthers' radical backers is unknown. Both Party members and their coterie of white supporters are chronically anxious about bad publicity, especially since the Party's popularity as a political cause among whites seems to have declined over the past year.
The key to the future may be the next word from Algiers; Eldridge Cleaver fired the first round but he hasn't had much to say since.
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