Longform

FADE TO BLACK

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"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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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer