Longform

FADE TO BLACK

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"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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer