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California and the West

A Radical Change for Ex-Panther

Politics: Former member seeks seat--on Oakland council--in establishment he scorned.


OAKLAND — David Hilliard once prowled the tough streets of this town as a founder of the Black Panthers, gun in hand and 1960s militancy in his soul. Three decades later, Hilliard is back with some old political scores to settle.

The gun is gone, along with the Panthers' trademark black beret and leather jacket. Instead, the erstwhile radical is campaigning for City Council, angling to work inside the capitalist government he once loathed.

He's gone bald on top, gray at the temples. But the revolutionary resolve still burns, and old slogans fill the air.

Jobs for the jobless. Homes for the homeless. Power to the people.

"My campaign," Hilliard declares on the stump, "is about empowering African Americans."

It also is about the legacy of the Black Panthers, the combative civil rights group that remains a powerful symbol of the tumultuous '60s.

Hilliard faces an uphill fight in a field crowded with eight candidates. He has little campaign cash and didn't get the endorsement of Mayor Jerry Brown, whom Hilliard supported in the 1998 mayoral race. Hilliard said he feels stabbed in the back.

It remains unclear how his Panther history will play Tuesday in the race for the council seat in West Oakland, an impoverished neighborhood ringed by freeways.

"The Panther glory gives David name recognition, but he still has to prove himself to folks," said Leo Bazile, a former Oakland councilman. "They want to know: What have you done for me lately?"

Lately, Hilliard has been keeper of the flame.

Along with boyhood pal Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, Hilliard formed the Panthers in 1966. In the past decade he has written a book, taught college classes on the group, joined Newton's widow to launch a foundation and led periodic "Black Panther Legacy" tours of old Oakland haunts.

He recalled how the Panthers started a neighborhood breakfast program and health clinics for the poor, and ran a van service for the elderly. The guns, he said, were for self-defense in a violent age.

His recollections of a kinder, gentler Black Panther Party have earned criticism from some historians, who say Hilliard glosses over the outfit's unraveling amid shootings and thuggery--particularly by the omnipotent Newton, killed in 1989 by an Oakland drug dealer.

Against that backdrop, Hilliard, 57, is out campaigning in the flatlands of West Oakland, progressive passion on full display. He may now favor natty sweaters and slacks, but he happily uses his Panther past as a calling card.

His campaign platform is borrowed from the Panthers' 10-point manifesto of full employment, better education and health care, an end to police brutality. Hilliard has brought in Seale, now based in Philadelphia and a regular on the college lecture circuit, as his honorary campaign manager.

"He's stubborn," Seale said of his old comrade. "If the working class and poor people aren't getting served, he'll stand up for them."

During a visit to McClymonds High School, his West Oakland alma mater, Hilliard passed out boxes of books, a valuable commodity in a neighborhood where the median income is well below the poverty level.

"This is the Panther style of organizing," Hilliard said under the glare of lights from TV news crews covering the event. "If you find a problem, find a solution."

Later he urged a computer class of two dozen students to join him as campaign foot soldiers.

"You guys know you can trust us--we're your Black Panther Party leaders," he told them. "Use my campaign as your campaign."

A few youths stared at their computers throughout the talk. No one asked a question. But when a sign-up sheet came back, there were 22 names and phone numbers of volunteers.

Hilliard hopes that sort of quiet turnout occurs on election day.

Seale noted that more than a few former Panthers made the transition into politics. Seale made a credible but unsuccessful bid for Oakland mayor in 1973. Former Panther Bobby Rush has represented a Chicago district in Congress for more than a decade. Panthers have been elected to city councils in Milwaukee, Houston, North Carolina.

But a win for Hilliard won't be easy. City Hall insiders predict that high school teacher Hugh Bassette, who won Mayor Brown's endorsement, could force a November runoff with incumbent Councilwoman Nancy Nadel.

Though feeling betrayed by Brown, Hilliard said that "Jerry saw I wasn't someone he could control." The candidate also suggests that the district, which is three-quarters black, should be represented by an African American.

Nadel, who is white, said that color shouldn't matter and that voters won't side with a candidate running on simplistic slogans and Panther history.

A spokesman for Brown declined to comment.

Bassette, who is black, said he retains "a lot of respect and admiration for David and the things he did in the '60s."

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