4

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.

"Although a studious, disciplined student in school," a 1977 community-published book, High Avenue to Pride, begins, "he became known as a troublemaker and radical because of his political efforts against racism and exploitation."

As a college student at Metropolitan State College in the early Sixties, Watson was aware of the climate of the times. He dabbled in both the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But the organizations were unsatisfying, and Watson was restless.

Bored with Denver, he moved to Los Angeles in 1963. "I had a few little jobs," he remembers. "I worked as a dishwasher. I worked six months as a security guard in a medium-security prison." Fired for not revealing a juvenile arrest in Denver, he drifted more, looking for something to catch his attention. He found it in the Watts riots of 1965. The violence that consumed the city for two days was irresistible and cathartic.

"I was just unemployed, like everyone else, lifting weights in the vacant lots," Lauren says. "This one day, I remember I was listening to the radio. The stations there were real live, playing `Mickey's Monkey' and stuff you never heard of here. A bulletin broke in saying there were riots. It was near a place we were going to party anyway, so we went. After a while we were throwing bricks and bottles.

"It felt great. I felt elevated. The people were fighting back. I felt a great release, a great weight off my shoulders. Everywhere you went on Central Avenue, they were playing speeches by Malcolm X. I could identify with what he was speaking about. He said, `Stop singing and start swinging.' That made sense to me." After returning to Denver the following year, Lauren traveled back to San Francisco for an antiwar demonstration and found the Black Panthers.

The Panthers--their official name was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense--were founded in Oakland by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. To angry young blacks, the party's politics looked inviting. The intellectual attraction was Newton and Seale's philosophical manifesto, the Ten Point Program. Although some of it reflected Newton's personal obsessions--freedom for all black men held in jails and prisons--much of the document spoke in plain language of the need for decent housing and education for blacks.

The group's other draw was more heart-pumping, immediate. That was Newton's discovery and exploitation of a little-known California law that permitted residents to carry loaded shotguns and rifles as long as the firearms were openly displayed. The Panthers were launched on October 15, 1966.

The party started drawing young men already banging up against the system--its first member was a sixteen-year-old boy with a police and school record--and it gained attention with several high-profile and deliberately provocative moves. In May 1967, for example, shotgun-toting Panthers invaded the California capitol building to protest legislation limiting the right to bear arms. But the organization didn't start receiving wide support until 1968, when Huey Newton was convicted of killing a police officer.

Although he had a talent for organization and inspiration, subsequent biographies have revealed Newton, the Panther's minister of defense, to be calculating and violent. He served time in prison for knifing another black man before founding the Panthers, and he assaulted another inmate while there. In later years he became more brutal, more paranoid. In 1974, after being charged with killing a prostitute and pistol-whipping a tailor he called to his penthouse to measure a suit, Newton fled to Cuba.

In 1968, though, he was still a hero and a renegade/victim, firing the romantic imaginations of blacks and white liberals. (Marlon Brando attended Panther funerals and posted $10,000 bail for Chief of Staff David Hilliard when he was busted for weapons possession.) For anyone seeking a symbol of pure anger and resistance, Newton and the Panthers were it. A now-famous poster of Newton shows him sitting regally on a wicker throne, staring straight at the camera. A traditional African spear is in his right hand, a shotgun in his left, a black beret cocked on his head.

Watson, too, was captivated. "I came back to Denver and convinced the editor of the Denver Blade that he should send me back to San Francisco to interview Huey Newton in jail. I interviewed Huey and asked him what I could do to help him get out. He told me to go down to the headquarters and ask for Bobby Seale." Watson returned to Denver committed to starting a local chapter of the Black Panthers.

Mary Lou Brooks met Lauren Watson at about the same time. "I was a VISTA volunteer, trying to organize youth in a Hispanic project," she recalls. "I asked a friend if she knew anybody who could speak to them, and she suggested Lauren Watson. We met, and he invited me on a trip to Wyoming, where he was speaking on a college campus.

"I was impressed by how he could think on his feet. He never used notes, he never paused, and it flowed. He had this incredible access to names and dates, and he could weave it all into a political tapestry that people could relate to." The two started seeing each other regularly, and Mary Lou was present at the initial Panther gatherings in Denver.

Despite the notorious shootouts and police confrontations, many of the people attracted to the Panthers were intensely committed to social change, and the Denver party offered community services pushed by the national office. Mary Lou remembers hosting free breakfast programs for kids, tutoring junior high school students in black history and conducting other community outreach programs.

The Panthers also helped the cause of local blacks by making other civil rights organizations suddenly appear reasonable. "In Denver we had three parts that were moving together in many ways, but separately," explains George Brown, who left Denver in 1979 and recently started his own lobbying company in Washington, D.C. "There was the NAACP; they made the demands, led the marches. There was the Urban League, which would come in and sit down at the table and negotiate. Then you had the Black Panthers, and they came with their threat of violence. They might not use it, but the threat was always there."

Watson met the image. He began wearing the official black pants, black leather jacket and a black beret. He strung a .50-caliber bullet around his neck and owned .357 and .38 handguns, as well as an M-1 rifle. It was inevitable he would attract the attention of the Denver police.

Steve Metros, then in police intelligence and now in charge of the department's crime lab, remembers, "We looked at him with a great deal of seriousness. He was so high-profile that everyone from patrol up was aware of him--he was somewhat of a celebrity. I never viewed him as a major criminal. He was just someone who spoke inflammatory rhetoric. Still, at the time, the threat was real."

Like other chapters across the country, the Denver Panthers took the position that the black community was under siege and required protection. And sometimes it did. Reverend Phillips recalls being grateful to the Panthers for providing armed patrols after his church received a bomb threat.

At other times, however, just exactly what Watson and the party were defending themselves against was more ambiguous. On September 12, 1968, the Panthers trashed and then burned to the ground Gregory Cleaners, a family business on 28th Avenue between Race and Vine.

Bryce Gregory, who has never spoken publicly about the event, now recalls: "It was my mother and dad's business. My dad asked me to take it over. So I took it over and built it up and tried to clean up the neighborhood--I grew up there and went to East High School."

Watson says the Panthers received a phone call from a woman claiming that Gregory, who is white, harassed her young daughter on the way home from school. Gregory says he can't recall what ignited the incident.

"About five or six of us went over there to discuss the situation," Watson says. "It kind of escalated, and the guy's place got busted up. It was my guys who did it, and some others off the street. The place somehow caught on fire."

"It was awful," says Gregory. "From that day we just closed the door." He adds that his was not the first nonblack business in the area to have a run-in with the Panthers. "They also threatened an Oriental guy who ran a grocery store down the block, trying to drive him out.

"Most of the people in the area were very sympathetic to us," concludes Gregory, who now sells real estate in Thornton. "They didn't approve of the violent tactics."

"Philosophically, I totally agreed with Lauren and the Panthers," says Elvin Caldwell, Five Points' city councilman for 27 years. "But I thought his method of bringing about change was not very helpful.

"I was very outspoken against their violence, and I got more than a few bricks through my windows."

end of part 1

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