On December 9, 1969, a four-hour shootout took place at the Southern California Headquarters of the Black Panther Party. The massive exchange of gunfire was between a cluster of six Panther members who happened to be inside the headquarters and what would ultimately grown to be a force of 200 Los Angeles police officers, including a newly created LAPD team that would have its first real outing on that day.
The team was called the Special Weapons and Tactics unit—S.W.A.T.
WLA contributing reporter, Matthew Fleischer, became fascinated with this moment in LA history and, after doing a series of intensive interviews with a bunch of former Panthers, four of whom were there that day, plus a former SWAT officer who was also present at the standoff, he has written a compelling account that explores what exactly occurred early one winter morning at 41st and Central.
The story appears in the April issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
Below you’ll find the story’s opening. But you’ll be missing out if you don’t read it all.
It was early—way too early as far as he was concerned—on December 8, 1969, when Wayne Pharr was abruptly awakened in the gunroom of the Black Panthers’ Los Angeles headquarters at 41st and Central. The shotgun was still in his hand from when he had fallen asleep while cleaning it. He had spent most of the night exploring the sewers—mapping the nearby tunnels they would use as an escape route in case something went down.
“They’re out there,” fellow Panther Melvin “Cotton” Smith told him. “Get up.”
“Out where?” Pharr said in a daze. “It’s 5:30 in the f–king morning.”
Smith was borderline frantic, too busy grabbing weapons and ammo to argue. Pharr was skeptical but snatched up his newly cleaned shotgun and headed toward the front door.
Almost as soon as Pharr left the gunroom, the door of Panther headquarters flew open with no warning, and bodies clad in black began to stream into the building—automatic weapons readied. Only 19, Pharr was stunned, but he was young and quick, and before any shots were fired he dove into a sandbag bunker that flanked the door.
A split second later, Smith emerged with a Thompson submachine gun in hand—finger on the trigger. Bullets flew by the dozen, connecting with the chests of their targets—thud, thud, thud, thud. The force of the impact pinned the men in black in the doorway, creating a bottleneck—and giving Pharr time to recover.
Clad in military-style flak jackets, the men pushed forward into the teeth of Smith’s Thompson in their attempt to return fire. But this time Pharr was ready for them. Shotgun in hand, he opened up, blasting round after round from the side of the men, as Smith continued to hammer them from the front.
The intruders had no choice but to retreat, dragging their wounded with them across the street, out of the line of the Panthers’ fire. They would be back.
One of the biggest shootouts in American history had just begun, pitting the vanguard of domestic American radicalism against a newly constituted paramilitary police force: Special Weapons and Tactics, aka SWAT.
The year 1969 was a headline maker for the Southern California chapter of the Black Panthers, led by charismatic founder Bunchy Carter. The group emerged from the shadow of its more famous Oakland counterpart, into the forefront of the blackpower movement in Los Angeles—and arguably the nation. They organized community breakfast programs, trained locals in black history and self-defense and published the Black Panther Community News Service, which enjoyed a robust following.
But the Panthers’ meteoric rise drew enemies—lots of them. On January 17, 1969, Carter and fellow Panther John Huggins were shot to death in UCLA’s Campbell Hall by members of the rival black radical group Us. Agents, operating under the FBI’s infamous COINTEL (counterintelligence) program and masquerading as Panthers and anonymous Us members, crafted insulting missives and death threats and began sending them between the two groups.
“It is hoped this counterintelligence measure will result in an ‘Us’ and ‘BPP’ vendetta,” one internal FBI memo explained.
The plan worked. While the UCLA shootout was the most significant in a series of violent confrontations between the two groups, the danger of further violence was always present.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the middle of 1969 that the Panthers caught the attention of the LAPD. Two police officers cruising the area around the Panthers’ 41st and Central headquarters pulled over and questioned a small group of black men and women getting some air outside a Saturday-night Panther social. After a brief confrontation, police attempted to arrest several of them for loitering. The Panthers resisted, and police called for backup, but, “surrounded by 300 militant black men,” as one Panther put it, they eventually hesitated to escalate the incident.
No one was arrested that night, but from that point, police pressure was on. Known members of the Panther party, including Pharr and audacious leader Geronimo Pratt, were pulled over and questioned as a matter of routine.
On November 28, 1969, more than 250 police officers surrounded the Los Angeles headquarters during a community meeting, sealing the facility off in what Panthers now call the “test run.”
On December 4, Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, was shot to death at point-blank range while he was sleeping, during a raid by the Chicago Police Department. The incident drew international outrage. Back in L.A., there wasn’t a Panther alive who didn’t think a similar raid by the LAPD was coming their way.
“SWAT was born from the ashes of the Watts Riots…Back then, SWAT was ragtag. A lot of the guys were over 40 and not in the kind of shape one would expect of an elite fighting unit.”
They were right. As it turns out, the night of the test run, police claimed to have seen three Panthers—Paul Redd, “Duck” Smith and Geronimo Pratt—in possession of illegal firearms. The LAPD secured an arrest warrant for the three, as well as a search warrant for the 41st and Central headquarters and two known Panther hideouts.
A massive, three-pronged raid was planned, involving more than 350 officers. It was decided that SWAT—a previously untested paramilitary unit of the LAPD Metro Squad, championed by then inspector and future LAPD chief Daryl Gates—would take the lead. It was to be the group’s very first operation….
Read the rest here.
Photos courtesy of Gregory Everett and 41central.com.