Longform

FADE TO BLACK

part 1 of 2
A quarter of a century ago, Lauren Watson organized the Denver chapter of the Black Panther Party. For a little over two years he led the local arm through the party's familiar litany of threats, arrests and occasional riots, and at his peak in 1970, Watson was the charismatic star of a documentary that followed his trial for resisting arrest.

Trial: The City and County of Denver vs. Lauren R. Watson preserves moments of raw-nerved intensity. "Why should I give a shit about what six middle-class white people think of me?" Watson fumes after his jury is selected. "What do they know about my life?"

Even after his acquittal, Watson still seethes. "I got more and more angry with myself for not beating the shit out of [the arresting police officers] in the first place," he says in the final words of the film. "I should've resisted arrest. I should've killed both of them when they came in the door. That would've been justice."

By last December, though, when he was busted for agreeing to sell $3,000 worth of cocaine to a police informant, Lauren Watson's personal screen had been blank for a long time. The former Panther leader, now 55, was divorced and living at his mother's old house, on Vine Street. He hadn't had a steady job for years; his income was the $1,141 he received each month from Social Security payments for a medical disability.

His brother, Clarke, a local businessman and vice-chairman of the city's Juvenile Justice Task Force, says that he and Lauren have fallen away from each other in recent years. "He's retired; he doesn't work," Clarke says tersely. "I have a very active life, and I haven't given him much thought. What's to respect or disrespect about him? He's just living."

Watson's former wife, Mary Lou, also has lost touch. "I don't know what exactly he's doing now," she says. "Occasional teaching, I guess. He's a lot quieter. He's not doing an awful lot above and beyond."

In 1968, one of Watson's most vocal supporters and unlikely defenders of the Panthers' shows of force was the Reverend Acen Phillips, minister of the Mt. Gilead Baptist Church. Phillips is still there, and he says it is easy for him to understand Watson's fatigue. "You can give only so much of your time to public life," he says. "Then you got to concentrate on your own life, on your family."

Still, he adds, he never expected Watson to disappear so completely. "The com-munity could use a young Lauren Watson today to speak to it," he says. "I would hope that he would not just fade away into the sunset. His contribution is still needed."

On a recent afternoon, Watson--huge man, cornrowed hair, dark sunglasses, print shirt opened halfway down, rumble of a voice--looks tired. His voice is flat and, while the time-capsule words are still there ("Castro is still my hero; he always had the guts to stand up to the U.S. and say `Kiss my ass.'"), he seems to be reading from a script memorized a very long time ago.

Looking back, it would be simple to conclude that Lauren Watson exhausted himself early on; he flared brightly for a brief, exhilarating period of time three decades ago and then burned out. But that wouldn't account for his children, who are following in their father's footsteps as community activists and political organizers in their own right.

"I get angry when I hear people asking, `Well, what has Lauren Watson done for us lately?'" says Kahlil Watson, Lauren's second son. "It's like, how far can he keep running? My father ran farther than a lot of people did in the Sixties and Seventies. Nobody ever asked why Jesse Owens stopped running. We all have to stop sometime."

Besides, adds Lauren, "I never saw an ad in the paper that read, `Wanted--former black militant. Must have been Black Panther.'"

"Compared to places like San Francisco and Chicago, the Black Panther Party here was small," recalls George Brown, who, as a former state senator and the country's first black lieutenant governor, frequently found himself dragged to the center of Colorado's racial battles. "We were lucky in some ways. We didn't have heavy concentrations of blacks that would come down out of the tenements when something would happen. But we did have incidents. We did have cases of police brutality."
Watson, born in San Francisco, moved to Denver with his family in 1950, when he was ten. He was one of three children raised by Ruth Watson, a strong-willed, religous woman whose love and inspiration was education. Lauren's sister, Sandra, was her high school's class valedictorian. Lauren, who graduated from Manual High School in 1957, was not quite so committed.