National Park Service Refuses to Honor Black Panthers After Police Union Complains

Nothing the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense did may have been as genuinely revolutionary as offering free breakfast to public-school children in Oakland, California, where the group was founded in 1965. Yes, there were powerful rebukes to institutional racism, and there were the famous black leather jackets and guns, but it was the Free Breakfast for School Children Program that posed what FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called “the greatest threat” to his effort of depicting the Panthers as violent hoods.

Those efforts persist to this day, in the very place where the Panthers was born. The latest battle over their complex legacy is a reminder of how little we’ve managed to cast off the tortured legacy of the 1960s, whether in regard to Black Power, feminism or the Vietnam War.

The recent Panther controversy began several months ago, when University of California professor Ula Y. Taylor, the new chair of the school’s African-American studies department, applied for a National Parks Service project to honor the Panthers’ influence on Oakland, Berkeley and their surrounding communities.

According to the East Bay Times, which appears to have first reported on the story, Taylor described her proposed project as follows:

The project will discover new links between the historical events concerning race that occurred in Richmond during World War II and the subsequent emergence of the BPP in the San Francisco Bay Area two decades later through research, oral history and interpretation. Bay Area sites that shaped the BPP will be identified in an effort to memorialize a history that brought meaning to lives far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.

Richmond, a port north of Berkeley, was crucial to the naval effort during World War II. It also was the site of an early civil rights struggle, when an accidental explosion killed 320 mostly African-American workers in 1944. Some of those workers refused to return to work, citing unsafe conditions. Imprisoned for mutiny, the "Port Chicago 50" were later celebrated for challenging their unequal treatment.

U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat of Oakland, was one of two San Francisco–area politicians who tried to have the Port Chicago 50 exonerated by President Barack Obama before he left office in January. The effort came to naught.

Taylor’s efforts at commemoration appeared to be more successful. Last month, the National Parks Service awarded her $98,000 to “memorialize a history that brought meaning to lives far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.”

But the funding never made it from Washington, D.C., to California. That appears to be because Chuck Canterbury, who heads the Fraternal Order of Police, sent a strongly worded letter to the White House suggesting that Taylor’s project would be an insult to law enforcement officers. The Fraternal Order is the nation’s largest police union, with more than 300,000 members across the country.

In his letter to the president, Canterbury argued that Taylor’s project was undeserving of federal funds, citing the controversy over Confederate monuments: “At a time when many in our nation feel strongly that memorials to darker times in our history be removed from public lands, why would the NPS seek to commemorate the activities of an extremist separatist group that advocated the use of violence against our country?”

Canterbury also mentioned Kenneth C. Patrick, a park ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore, who was shot and killed on August 5, 1973, while investigating deer poaching. A Black Panther, Veronza Leon Curtis Bowers Jr., was convicted of the killing. He was granted parole in 2005, but Bush-era Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales effectively canceled the parole.

Describing the killing in 2005 for the Los Angeles Times, Ann M. Simmons spoke to Tomie Patrick-Lee, Patrick’s widow. Patrick-Lee, who had not previously disclosed her version of events publicly, described to Simmons how her husband left to look for poachers before breakfast. She made pancakes and waited for him to return.

“Her husband's body was found just before noon. It lay face-up in wet brush, enveloped in thick morning mist, about 150 feet from his patrol car,” Simmons wrote. “The engine was still running. Patrick's gun was still in its holster.”

Bowers remains in prison for the killing. He maintains his innocence.

“It is appalling that the National Park Service, Ranger Patrick’s own agency, now proposes to partner with UCB and two active members of this violent and repugnant organization,” Canterbury wrote in his letter, which prominently cited the Patrick killing as evidence against Taylor’s project. The “two active members” referenced by Canterbury were J. Tarika Lewis and Billy Jennings, who, according to the East Bay Times, were to help Taylor with the project.

Over the summer, when President Trump made comments seen by many as encouraging police brutality against criminal suspects, Canterbury came to the president’s vociferous defense. “There isn’t another politician out there today who empathizes more with our members than the president does,” Canterbury said. Many other police officials condemned Trump’s comments.

Ryan K. Zinke, the secretary of the Interior Department, was copied on the letter. About a week after the letter was sent, the grant to Taylor was canceled. Craig Dalby, a spokesman for the National Parks Service, told Newsweek that after “an additional review of the project, the NPS decided not to move forward with funding the project.” He would not say whether the cancellation was the result of Canterbury’s letter. Taylor, the Berkeley professor, also did not respond to a request for comment.

But one way or another, Oakland will remember the Panthers. As news came of the cancellation of Taylor’s project, the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly, reported on “the first Black Panther Party mural in Oakland to be painted by Black people.” It was created without the use of federal funds.