FADE TO BLACK
part 2 of 2
Watson's primary public role, it seemed, was to get arrested. "I spent a lot of time spread-eagled over somebody's hood or trunk," he says.
Today many of the charges appear foolish, and the whole dance--provocation, arrest, rhetoric--reads like a game in which both sides agreed to the rules beforehand. Watson was busted once for not using his turn signal as he drove out of an alley; another Denver Panther was charged with loitering.
Still, the constant confrontations and headlines fueled the community's outrage and kept the Denver party in the public eye. In 1970 Lauren Watson even leapt onto the national stage.
"During that time, I represented the Black Panthers almost exclusively," recalls Leonard Davies, then a young civil rights lawyer. "I was sort of house counsel. I handled five or six cases for Lauren. He was the leadership here--the Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver all in one. He was big, very articulate and fearless.
"The Panthers had their headquarters in Five Points. The day after Nixon was elected, Lauren and some guys were coming out, and Lauren said something like, `Now it's our turn,' and flipped off some police sitting across the street. Lauren and several guys got into cars, and the cops followed them."
"After an O.J. Simpson-like chase through the neighborhood," Davies remembers, Watson "called me on the phone from a gas station. He was charged with resisting arrest, refusing to obey a police officer, interference with a police officer--the Holy Trinity of police charges then."
At the time, Colorado was one of only two states in the country to permit cameras in courtrooms, and New York's National Educational Television took the opportunity to film Watson's entire trial. The four-part, six-hour film was directed by Denis Sanders, who went on to win two Academy Awards.
Watson was acquitted after only two hours of jury deliberations. ("Juries--you can't predict them," says Robert Cantwell, who was the arresting officer and now works for the state Department of Corrections in Colorado Springs. "I didn't see any harassment. To me, Lauren Watson was just another number.")
The movie opened in New York City to generally positive reviews: Like trials themselves, the New York Times reported, the movie "is a mixture of complete fascination and occasional moments of delay and tedium." Today, Watson does not own a copy of the film and recalls few specifics about the events surrounding the court case.
For Lauren and Mary Lou, the frantic activity and constant stream of adrenaline obscured the line between their public and private lives. Even the moments that should have been their most personal were defined by the Black Panthers.
The couple was married on August 8, 1968. "We had a very nice wedding," Mary Lou recalls. Afterward, the couple retired to the Panther headquarters at 34th and Franklin, where, she adds, "we had a lovely reception.
"We left that place for the evening and left all our gifts and things behind," she continues. "Later, Lauren got a call saying that police had raided the building. Everything inside was destroyed, including my wedding dress." Reports estimated damage to the Panther headquarters at $9,000.
Three years later Mary Lou's sister came to town. "She was trying to get a check cashed at the Safeway at Colfax and Josephine," Mary Lou recalls. "The cashier was giving her a lot of trouble, and she was being very insistent. Finally he said, `I'm going to call security,' and she said, `Go ahead.'"
Both Lauren and the Denver police showed up, and the argument turned into a fight. Lauren punched an off-duty cop. Mary Lou, nine months pregnant, was elbowed in the stomach. Eight hours later she gave birth to a son. The couple named him Hasira; in Swahili the name means "rage."
Other, less obvious strains wore away at the Watsons in steady and unseen ways. "You got so busy, many times we didn't even see each other for long periods," Mary Lou recalls. "But we had a sense of purpose, and I accepted what that purpose was. I knew that what had to be done didn't necessarily mean being together all the time. We didn't even think of our marriage in traditional terms that way."
With his history of run-ins with police and the tendency of Panthers in other cities to die violently or disappear silently into prison, Watson and the Black Panther Party appeared destined to live or die together. But in 1970 he was purged by the party's national headquarters.
"The national [leaders] became so involved with themselves that if you weren't from Oakland, you weren't shit," Lauren recalls. "If you didn't preface something by saying `Huey says...' or `Eldridge says...' or `Bobby says...,' you were full of shit. It became a personality cult.
"In 1970 the guys from Oakland came and said I was not giving them appropriate political leadership and that they'd decided to replace me."
"They took him off somewhere in the mountains," Mary Lou remembers. "When he came back, he said he had been removed. We went to City Park, and we talked for hours. He told me they'd said it had come to their attention that he was not working for the good of the people but for himself. And that certainly was not true, because we didn't ever have a down payment on bubblegum.
"But he said he was okay. It was like, `I don't need this; I couldn't continue with them, anyway.'"
Watson wasn't alone in finding himself cut loose. Newton had grown increasingly distrustful of his lieutenants. By the mid-Seventies, with Newton exiled to Cuba and many party leaders dead or in prison, the Panthers had fizzled. For an organization that burned so brightly and drew so many people into its furious swirl, the Black Panthers were gone in a flash.
Eldridge Cleaver became a born-again Christian and a stalwart member of the Republican Party. In recent years he has been busted several times for cocaine posession. His ex-wife, Kathleen Cleaver, is a law professor at Emory University.
After moving to Denver and hosting a radio show, Bobby Seale went on to write a cookbook, Barbecuing With Bobby. He now runs a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia.
On August 22, 1989, Huey Newton was found in a pool of blood at the entrance to an Oakland alley, the victim of a drug deal gone wrong. The news of his death reignited a general interest in the Black Panther Party and jump-started former members' memories.
In 1993, former chief of staff David Hilliard wrote This Side of Glory, a chronicle of the party and his slide into self-destruction. The following year journalist Hugh Pearson's The Shadow of the Panther revealed the organization had been riddled with violence, infighting and misogyny.
Yet the group has also regained some of its romantic appeal. Last year's movie Panther was sympathetic, even lionizing, although it bombed at the box office. In a telephone interview from his Berkeley, California, home, where he recently started the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation (Newton received a Ph.D. in the history of consciousness from the University of California in 1980), Hilliard says the rediscovery of the Black Panthers confirms that the party tapped a vein of social awareness.
"We had an agenda that made sense," he says. "People are seeing that when you get beyond the surface stuff of guns and violence, we were a community-based organization."
For Lauren Watson, however, the two-year flare of the Denver Black Panthers was more visceral, a time of raw energy released. "The police confrontations were exhilarating," he says. "It's human nature to want to defend youself against your enemies. Until Huey Newton, people felt defenseless. I never realized how healthy it was not to run. The violence never bothered me."
"What happened in the Black Panther Party is like water on a rock, always eroding," says Mary Lou. "Constantly being in front of the press, the losing of lives, the incarcerations; it begins to wear on you. You don't always see the toll it's taken until it's already been taken."
At first the backlash against Watson's Panther activism was obvious. Thanks to the Nixon administration's fear of the group, he couldn't keep a job with the government.
The documentary aside, Watson had always been just a local player and had never grabbed national headlines. To the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, though, the entire Panther organization was a threat. By late 1970, as Watson started casting about for a new life, his Black Panther affiliation had begun to haunt him.
"This memorandum will cover the situation regarding Mr. Lauren Watson, alleged member of the Black Panther Party and Interim Director of Resident Participation of Denver, Inc.," begins a September 1970 letter from Floyd Hyde, the assistant secretary for Model Cities, to George Romney, then secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The letter, which is copied to Vice President Spiro Agnew, Hoover and Attorney General John Mitchell, continues: "This report is intended to answer as fully as is possible the inquiry of Mr. J. Edgar Hoover and to provide information to others who may be similarly concerned.
"Several months ago, our office of investigation brought to my attention the fact that Mr. Watson was a militant, former member of the Black Panther Party, and had been appointed to a position in the resident component of the Denver Model City Program. During my next trip to Denver I brought the matter to the attention of Denver officials. I was advised by them that they were aware of the situation and that police surveillance was being maintained in this matter.
"All of our information confirms the reports of Mr. Watson's militant and anarchistic activities and we would view his continuation in the Denver program as an extremely dangerous and intolerable situation."
Following a flurry of concerned letters, HUD secretary Romney was able to assure Hoover that "both Mr. Hyde and the Mayor of Denver [Bill McNichols] are undertaking to bring about a termination of Mr. Watson's association with the program." Soon after, they succeeded.
Unwilling at first to give up community organizing, Lauren took a stab at politics, helping George Brown on several successful campaigns for the state Senate ("Going door-to-door, going to meetings, handing out literature--doing campaign things," Brown recalls). He attended the first National Black Political Convention, in Gary, Indiana. In 1975 he ran for city council against Elvin Caldwell and lost. In time, he abandoned politics.
"I think he went through a grieving process," Mary Lou says. "It took a while: In the beginning, he withdrew inside himself. In the later years, what I saw was more externalizing of his anger. He was very disenchanted."
"A lot of us felt that we'd lost contact with the world that we all envisioned would happen," says Hilliard. "Here we were, lost, nothing solid to connect with. It was just a general mood of depression. It's like coming home from a war."
By 1980 the stress became too much, and Mary Lou and Lauren decided to divorce. "He became very distant, very difficult to reach, very noncommunicative," she says. "Over time, that took its toll."
Watson's anger began surfacing. In 1981 he was convicted of shooting an off-duty fireman at Skyland Recreation Center. He doesn't deny doing it. "I went out to my car and got my pistol," he recalls matter-of-factly, "and I walked back in and popped him. I was going to do away with him. But I thought some kids were watching. I really wanted to kill him, but I decided not to."
He had been threatened, Watson explains, and he fought back in the same spirit of self-defense that guided the Panthers. "In the Panthers," he says, "we were about respect--but also don't let anybody put their hands on you. If they do, send them to the promised land."
After losing an appeal--despite his numerous arrests, the assault was Watson's only conviction--he was sentenced to two years in prison. But he spent only three months there. Watson was released after then-state senator Regis Groff and city councilman Hiawatha Davis intervened on his behalf. (In a testimonal, Davis, who did not return numerous phone calls, characterized Watson as "an uncertified social worker.")
Even the public defender who'd represented Watson was taken aback. "It's not often with our clients that we would get a city councilman or a state senator to speak on his behalf," he told a reporter then.
Although Watson had returned to Metro in 1978 and received a degree in public management, his later jobs never quite worked out. He quit after a few years with the state labor department. He worked for the Urban League's weatherization program. He tried running a record store on Colfax. He drifted into bouncing at a bar owned by former Denver Nugget Fatty Taylor. Eventually, he quit working altogether. He receives medical disability because he suffers from narcolepsy.
In a recent interview, he talked about maintaining his lawn, guest-teaching some college history courses, helping out friends and community members in unspecified ways. He has vague plans to write a book. He is tight-lipped about his private life and declined to let a visitor meet him at home.
"His jobs after the Panthers, I think they were just something to hold body and mind together," says Mary Lou. "I don't think they were happy years for him. I don't think Lauren has really ever found the niche he had found during those years, the feeling that he was making a difference."
"There just wasn't any future," says Watson. "There was a past. But the future had no shape."
Watson was arrested on December 6, 1994.
"He was a pretty good crack dealer," says Carl Hinds, an officer for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. "He delivered on time and on schedule at least five different times."
Hinds says the DEA began tracking Watson at the beginning of last year. On January 2, agents observed him delivering 16.32 grams of crack to a DEA plant on the corner of 30th and Downing streets, for which he received $1,200. Two weeks later, at the same location, he was observed delivering 5.29 grams of crack and 1 ounce of powdered cocaine, for $1,400; on August 26, 5.77 grams of crack for $300; on August 31, 12.78 grams of crack for $600; on October 16, 12.73 grams of crack for $600.
On December 6, Hinds says, narcotics agents arranged for their informant to purchase three ounces of cocaine for $3,000. When Watson was pulled over on his way to 30th and Downing, police found nothing in his van. But a search executed with a warrant on his Vine Street home turned up $4,300 in a suitcase, 100 grams of cocaine (about three ounces), a small bag of marijuana and a .38 semiautomatic handgun.
After spending three weeks in a holding cell and a community halfway house, Watson was released and the drug charges were dismissed. Watson says it's because the police planted the evidence.
"They set me up because of who I am," he says. "They set up Rap [ex-Panther leader H. Rap Brown]. They set up guys in leadership positions across the country, just like they did with Huey. They're still pissed off at me."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Al LaCabe says his office declined to prosecute the case for more mundane "procedural reasons." He adds that federal prosecutors also had difficulty with the informant, who feared retaliation.
Still, LaCabe says he will turn the Watson case over to the Denver District Attorney's office within the next two months. "We will rearrest him soon," LaCabe says. (The Denver DA's office says it has yet to receive the case.)
Hinds says he was aware of Watson's previous affiliation with the Panthers. But, he adds, he didn't care. "I think his arrest record indicated he had some scrapes with the law," the agent says. "But to us he was just another crack dealer."
"One thing he never wanted me to do was sell drugs," says 24-year-old Hasira Watson. "He saw that as the system winning. He saw that as us against them, as we would be talking a big loss. He never wanted us to buy into that system and to admit defeat."
Still, even if the charges against his father stick, Hasira says he'll understand. "If it were true," he explains, "it would be more of a lesson than odd, because nothing that happens within a revolution is odd."
Twenty-two-year-old Kahlil Watson also doubts his father's guilt. "I just trust my dad," he says. "He's never done anything contrary to what he's taught me to do. He's never been hypocritical."
If Lauren is guilty of anything, Kahlil continues, it is letting down his guard. "If I had to name one of his flaws," he says, "it would be bad judge of character. I'm just the opposite; I think I can judge a man's character pretty well. With him, I think it came just from getting tired. He's made some bad choices about who he's associated with. It hasn't detracted from who he is. But at 55 years old, and after twenty years of being harassed, he's tired. When you're thirsty you'll drink anything. You don't necessarily hold out for the Perrier. You'll take the drip from the fountain."
"When I was in the Panthers," Lauren says, "I didn't expect to live. I was shocked when I reached thirty. So I dedicated myself to parenting." "He was a wonderful father," says Mary Lou. "In the early 1970s you didn't see a lot of men changing diapers, holding their babies in public. It really made him redefine his life, where he wanted to focus his energies. We'd always talked generally about changing the world. But when you can personalize it, bring it down to your own sons, it means something else entirely."
Kahlil says he pieced together his father's brief affair with fame by reading newspaper clippings that his grandmother had plastered onto the wall of the back bedroom of the family's home; Hasira says he learned just by listening. "He talked about his time with the Panthers all the time," he recalls.
And sometimes their father's past was just outside the window. "I remember us being pulled over many times," says Kahlil. "They would take him out of the car, and we'd be sitting inside watching them pat him down." Adds Hasira, "I was one child who grew up never wanting to be a police officer."
A 1975 campaign flier for Watson's unsuccessful city council run shows him and Mary Lou, their sons between them, striding down a street. Another shows Lauren speaking with two residents, with Hasira next to him--wool watch cap, flannel shirt, hands jammed in jeans--observing. "He used to keep us home from school sometimes and take us around to meet people in the neighborhood when he was doing the weatherization project," Kahlil recalls.
When Lauren and Mary Lou divorced fifteen years ago, the two boys went to live with their mother. Both say that Mary Lou took care of the day-to-day struggle of bringing them up. But, they add, they received their political education from their father.
Kahlil became involved in community organizing about three years ago. He was attending a conference on youth crime in Denver when he stood up to ask a question about the police department's treatment of young blacks. "A policewoman gave me her card and told me to call her," he recalls.
That was Tracie Harrison, a detective and community-relations representative for the police department. She also remembers Kahlil: "He seemed genuinely concerned, particularly that kids get involved in positive ways in the community." Kahlil agreed to help form the Police Chief's Youth Council. "He acted as a mentor to the younger kids," says Harrison. "He was definitely helpful. The kids looked up to him."
Not surprisingly, the Watson brothers also began dabbling in Black Panther philosophy. "My brother and I and one of our cousins started revising part of the Ten Point Black Panther program," Kahlil begins. "But then my dad pulled us together and said, `This isn't what you want to do. Things are different now.' He told us how it had caused him a lot of trouble. He told us, `If you have a family, no one's going to sacrifice to support your family.'"
Hasira has come to agree with his father. "It's glorified: You know, `Fighting back in the Sixties!' But one thing it never shows is the aftermath, the people who lived for the party after it disintegrated. Don't believe you're going to have the picket fence and still be an enemy of the state."
Last year Kahlil joined Hasira, who is studying chemistry at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. Both say their father's name has brought them instant rapport with many of their teachers. "I've heard more about my father here than I ever did in Denver," says Kahlil, who is majoring in black history and has founded a new campus organization called BLAKK with his older brother. The group, which Kahlil says has attracted as many as 200 students to its Thursday-evening meetings, is dedicated largely to what the Black Panthers were not.
"At this point, we're nonviolent," explains Kahlil. "When you have violence, a lot of times you don't have a focus except for violence. That was a weakness with the Black Panthers.
"Also," he continues, "their focus was freedom for all black men and women. But that failed because people didn't see it as an obtainable goal. What we are saying is, the first thing you have to free is yourself. Revolution isn't just one thing. It isn't only about fighting The Man. It's about everything: what you eat, what you see, what you think, what your sexual preference is, what you wear in your hair."
"The Panthers," Hasira adds, "were missing the spiritual foundation, which is giving people something to believe in besides a person--in their case, Huey Newton."
Lauren Watson doesn't necessarily agree with his sons' thinking, but he offers advice when he can. "He tries to help us with what we're doing," Hasira says, "in terms of organizing on campus, what people you should avoid, what people just want to hook on to the group for the name."
"We'll get in the student newspaper, and he'll be proud and say things like, `It's good you're waking people up' and `I remember having to slap people, too,'" Kahlil adds.
Even though they both looked forward to leaving Denver--and even needed to in order to gain some perspective on how the rest of the world works--both of Watson's sons say that when they graduate from Howard they'd like to return to Colorado. "I want to be the great awakener," says Kahlil, "get people to open their eyes."
"My father's got us out there," says Hasira. "So there really hasn't been any steps lost."
"Lauren Watson's legacy is his children," says Kahlil. "Because we're making the waves now."
end of part 2
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.