[Rise Up] 50 Years Ago: LAPD Raid on the Black Panthers and the Birth of SWAT

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On December 8, 1969, the Los Angeles Police Department launched a predawn assault on the LA Black Panther headquarters at 41st and Central in Watts. The Panthers fought back in self-defense against a vicious all-out military assault. Inside their sandbag-fortified office, 11 Panther members, including Vietnam vet Geronimo Pratt, engaged in a five-hour shootout with 350 cops, SWAT teams, and LAPD helicopters, which rained down bullets and tear gas. In fact, this was the very birth of SWAT—the Special Weapons and Tactics teams that since then have become infamous for terrorizing, brutalizing, and killing people all over the country.

The pigs detonated explosives on the Panthers’ roof. An armored vehicle arrived, authorized by then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird. Masses of people from the area turned out in support, along with student radicals, and this helped to prevent the police from unleashing an even worse barrage. Renee “Peaches” Moore and Tommy Lewis—the only two women in the building—hit the phones to call the press. If Panthers were going to die, they wanted the people to know what was happening.

In the 2006 documentary by Gregory Everett, 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers, Wayne Pharr, who was 19 then, remembers what he felt during that intense standoff facing overwhelming murderous police firepower: “That was the only time as a Black man in America that I ever felt free, was the five hours that I was in the shootout…. For those five hours, I was in control of my destiny…” Millions of people also saw the LA Black Panther Party self-defense action as heroic and took inspiration from it.

After several hours, a number of the Panthers were seriously wounded, they had run out of ammunition, and they faced the fact that 11 of them were surrounded by hundreds of pigs. They decided to surrender. Four Panthers had been shot, four SWAT pigs injured and, surprisingly, no one was killed.

After this new “experiment” in policing, police all around the country developed SWAT teams, with many trained by the U.S. military. Between 2000 and 2008, more than 9,000 of the roughly 15,000 “law enforcement” agencies developed SWAT units. A special program by the Pentagon made it possible for even small-town police departments across the country to stock up on military-grade hardware, including armored vehicles built to withstand roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. Between 1980 and 2000, SWAT deployments increased by more than 1,500 percent.

The U.S. government was intent on crushing the Panthers—and the rapidly growing revolutionary movement that had burst onto the scene in the late 1960s. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover created COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program), which infiltrated and carried out “dirty tricks”—turning Panthers against each other and setting them up for assassination. Only four days before the LA raid, the Chicago Police Department and the FBI assassinated Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, raiding his apartment in the middle of the night and shooting him dead as he lay asleep in his bed. Another Panther was also murdered in that raid.

In the LAPD assault, 13 Panthers were arrested with a total of 72 criminal counts filed against them. Three days later, thousands protested against the raid in downtown LA. When the Panthers went to trial, their attorneys argued SWAT had entered the building unannounced with guns blazing and the Panthers had acted in self-defense. The jury agreed, finding the Panther defendants not guilty on almost all charges, including the most serious ones of assault with a deadly weapon and conspiracy to murder policemen.

What kind of system carries out such violent assaults on the people—and now, 50 years later, continues to attack and repress the people, especially those fighting against oppression? A system that needs to be ended by revolution, nothing less.


Sources:

“Opinion: 50 years ago, LAPD raided the Black Panthers. SWAT teams have been targeting black communities ever since,” by Matthew Fleischer, Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2019

American Crimes: Case #18: The LAPD—150 Years of Murder, Brutality, Racism and Repression, revcom.us, June 6, 2019

“’41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers’ Featured in L.A. Times Magazine,”by Jasmyne Cannick, Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 4, 2011

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