April 2011

Policing Revolution

How the LAPD’s first use of SWAT—a massive, military-style operation against the Black Panthers—was almost its last
by MATTHEW FLEISCHER

IT’S OVER: Black Panthers surrender after the SWAT siege of their headquarters.

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.

Officer Patrick McKinley was 24 and still pretty green when the Watts Riots broke loose in 1965. His most vivid memory is seeing an old woman in pajamas, calling her cat in the front yard, shortly after the national guard had shot her entire home—and presumably her cat—to pieces while in pursuit of a suspect.

SWAT was born from the ashes of the Watts riots. Gates conceived of an assault team that could take out snipers and other suspects in fortified positions without having to shoot up entire neighborhoods crowded with civilians.

McKinley was on board from the start. 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. There was no budget for weapons and equipment, so members were required to bring their own. McKinley had an M-1 carbine he had ordered through the mail. But SWAT members had one thing in common: They knew how to shoot—and shoot well.

Initially, each division in the LAPD had a handful of SWAT volunteers who would come together when the call came. But that wound up not working out after an aborted SWAT raid in the San Fernando Valley. SWAT was called into action to lead a raid, but organizing the unit proved nightmarish. Division commanders throughout L.A., who needed officers on the streets, refused to let their guys depart to the Valley for a day, so SWAT was never implemented.

By the time of the Panther raid, SWAT had been consolidated under the banner of the elite Metro Squad, the LAPD mobile unit designed to handle high-risk assignments, in which McKinley had risen to the rank of sergeant. Despite improved organization, nearly two years after its inception, SWAT still had not been put to use.

As far as McKinley knew, when he was called to the old naval base at Elysian Park late one night, that wasn’t about to change. He soon found out otherwise. A massive raid was planned to execute search warrants for three separate locations, including the Black Panthers headquarters. SWAT would go in under cover of darkness and arrest anyone they could find.

SWAT was finally going to get its boots dirty. After the meeting, a high-ranking police friend with extensive operational knowledge of the raid pulled McKinley aside and warned him about 41st and Central. “I don’t like the plan,” he said. “Don’t hit the door. These guys aren’t going to go quietly.”

The Panthers apparently expected and were prepared for something, but they had no idea a paramilitary assault would be coming their way. Under the leadership of Pratt and Cotton Smith—both multitour Vietnam vets—the Panthers had fortified their nerve center and compiled an arsenal fit for a military operation. Pratt had the Panthers digging a tunnel to the sewer system as a potential means of escape—which was why Pharr had been out late in the sewers on the night of the shootout.

This tunnel, though unfinished, wound up playing a crucial role in the operation. Gregory Everett, a Panther historian and director of the film 41st and Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers, managed to get ahold of the original assault plan for the SWAT operation, which revealed the extensive intelligence police had collected.

According to Everett, police had used informants to draw a detailed map showing every room of Panther headquarters. They knew where the weapons were kept, where the members slept. They even knew about the dirt pile from the tunnel—they just had erroneous information as to where it was. The map showed it off to the corner, but it was piled in front of the back door—the same door SWAT planned to enter when it raided 41st and Central.

Sure enough, on the night of December 8, instead of a smooth, unguarded entry, SWAT officers found several tons of dirt blocking their way. They were forced to go in through the front door—an operation dependent on the element of surprise.

It was two hours before sunrise on that Monday morning, and dogs were barking all over the neighborhood—up the alley off Central, in business parking lots, in back and front yards. Nineteen-year-old artist Gil Parker had a bad feeling as he stood on the roof of party headquarters, automatic weapon in hand. Something wasn’t right...something was setting off all these dogs. The strange feeling lingered, but he couldn’t see anything—until it was too late.

Staring out into the L.A. night, Parker suddenly turned to see a line of men in black climbing up the walls behind him. Soon they were swarming the roof. A floodlight hit his face from a helicopter above. “Drop your weapon,” he heard a cacophony of voices screaming. Parker complied, but before he was overwhelmed, he had signaled his sleeping comrades.

“They’re here!” he yelled, stomping on the roof. After tackling him and pushing a gun into the base of his skull so hard it tore his flesh, the police grilled him in whispered screams. How many inside? Was Geronimo Pratt there?

Blood running down his face and into his mouth, Parker remained silent. Gunshots soon erupted all around him. Cotton Smith had gotten the warning. For the next five hours, the Panthers put up the fight of their lives.

Sgt. McKinley was at the tail end of the unit that entered the front door of Panther headquarters, and he sensed disaster the whole way. As soon as the door was kicked open, bright lights shone into the officers faces. When they regained their senses, they realized they had just run into an alcove fortified on all sides—a death trap.

When the shooting began, three of McKinley’s fellow officers went down immediately. The rest returned fire. The operation had gone south, but it could have been worse. If the Panthers had held their fire for a few moments more, the entire SWAT team would have made it into the alcove—and been shot to pieces.

“A floodlight hit his face. ‘Drop your weapon,’ he heard voices screaming. Parker complied, but before he was overwhelmed, he had signaled his sleeping comrades.”

McKinley helped drag a wounded comrade out of the building—shots following his team the whole way. Then he headed to the roof, where SWAT had established a bit of a beachhead. The sides exchanged fire through the roof.

A plan was soon hatched. SWAT was going to launch an aerial assault by blowing the roof off the Panthers’ outpost with the same explosive techniques used by firemen. Tear-gas canisters were pumped through every window, subduing the Panthers while the charges were set.

Boom! A massive explosion rocked the building, the echo ricocheting through the streets of South Central. A massive chunk of concrete flew loose and hit the legs of the officer next to McKinley. Despite the force of the explosion, all the police really did was blow a few holes in the ceiling, letting the tear gas inside escape. The increased airflow gave the Panthers a chance to recover. Shots soon came through the ceiling again near McKinley’s feet.

The Panthers were holed up and well armed, the element of surprise was lost—and SWAT had seemingly run out of plans. It was a stalemate.

The first thing Black Panther Roland Freeman heard was helicopters circling overhead, then gunfire, then police—but no kind of police he had ever seen. They got the drop on Gil, he thought, wondering if his fellow Panther was dead.

There were six other Panthers upstairs with him and four more downstairs. Freeman, 22, grabbed a rifle and ran across the building to the library. Moments later, the room exploded—bullets, paper and sand flying everywhere. The Panthers had used dirt from the tunnel to fortify the walls, but it didn’t seem to be doing too much good. Freeman hit the floor.

Tear-gas canisters poured through the open windows. For the next six to seven minutes, Freeman and everyone upstairs were too blinded and sick to fire a shot. A massive explosion soon rocked the compound, and chunks of building material hit Freeman in the face.

Had the police come in through the skylight, they would have been met with little resistance. But they didn’t, so Freeman and the others soon gathered their senses—and their weapons. Several Panthers took up position in a sandbagged bunker facing Central Avenue. They returned fire, trying to clear police snipers from positions on neighboring roofs—or at least make things difficult for them.

Seventeen-year-old Bernard Smith grabbed an automatic shotgun and fired round after round at the officers on the roof. It was the first time he had ever shot a gun.

Renee “Peaches” Moore and Tommy Lewis—the only two women in the building—hit the phones to call the press. Surprisingly, the police hadn’t cut the lines. If the police were going to kill them now, it would have to be on a national stage.

Freeman positioned himself near a hole the Panthers had cut connecting the top and bottom floors. He became a relay man, feeding ammunition up or down to his cohorts as needed and passing along messages. Pharr, Cotton Smith and the others downstairs would call out police positions to Freeman. Freeman would then direct someone upstairs to throw a pipe bomb out the window to clear them out.

Still, the Panthers couldn’t guard all sides at once. An hour into the battle, Freeman suddenly heard noises coming from the stairwell near an unguarded back office. He fired one shot through the door before police zeroed in on him. Bullets flew through the office, tearing the room to pieces. Buckshot entered his legs from a shotgun blast, and a single bullet came in through his arm, just above his elbow, shattering the bone. He crumpled in a pile on the floor.

A few hours into the fight, the Panthers began running out of .30-caliber bullets for their rifles, and police sniper fire went un-returned. Meanwhile, a pipe had burst after being shot, and water was pooling on the floor. It soon absorbed the remaining tear gas, creating a toxic cocktail that burned Freeman’s knees as he took cover, incapacitated and bleeding.

Things had become too hot upstairs. Their hand forced, the seven Panthers on the upper floor ceded the elevated position, retreating downstairs. They resisted as long as they could, but a new problem had surfaced. In their fortifications of the building, the Panthers had constructed closable slats to serve as view holes and gun posts. With daylight, though, the slats were visible to the outside, and when one was opened, the police would train their guns and fire.

Pharr was manning one such slat when he saw the sparks of bullets ricocheting off the sidewalk. A sniper had a bead on him. He dove out of the way just in time, but Tommy Lewis—one of the two women inside—wasn’t so lucky. As she lay on the floor behind Pharr, the bullet trail tore through both of her legs.

Three hours into the shootout, the Panthers knew the fight was over. They were surrounded. It was 11 versus hundreds outside. Two were seriously wounded, another two had been shot and an armored vehicle had just arrived outside, authorized by U.S. Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird.

There would be no escape, other than death. That made surrender the only option, but no one wanted to be the first to go outside and risk the wrath of the police. With bullets still whizzing past, they debated for more than an hour who would go first.

Finally, Peaches Moore grabbed a ratty white rag, went to the front door and waved it for all to see. When no shots came her way, she gingerly stepped out into the sunlight. Then in a scene that played out in the international media, one by one the Panthers emerged from their shattered headquarters and were promptly arrested.

“If the Panthers had held their fire for a few moments more, the entire SWAT team would have made it into the alcove—and been shot to pieces.”

All in all, more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition had been exchanged. Despite the heroic scale of the battle, only four Panthers had been shot and four SWAT officers seriously injured. Miraculously, no one died.

In many ways, the shootout was a disaster for SWAT—a unit created for the explicit purpose of preventing uncontrollable armed conflict. It had lost the element of surprise. The result was a full-on battle in a crowded urban setting, played out before the entire nation—one that was sympathetic to the Panther cause after that point-blank police killing of Fred Hampton in Chicago.

Still, SWAT had gotten its target. The three raids resulted in the arrests of the Los Angeles Panthers’ high command—on a number of charges, the most serious being conspiracy to murder police officers, as well as possession of illegal weapons. Under the conspiracy charges, even those Panthers not involved in the shootout were on the hook for life in prison.

Several of the Panthers, including Roland Freeman, skipped bail and fled to Texas. They were eventually apprehended. Bernard Smith, meanwhile, fled to Puerto Rico, where he hid for several years, hearing no news of his legal fate. Despite knowing he shot police officers, Pharr couldn’t skip town—his mother had put her house on the line to secure his bail money.

After a preliminary hearing that lasted several months, the case went to trial. The Panthers had a team of lawyers on their side, including a young Johnnie Cochran. Attorneys argued that the group had merely exercised its right to self-defense. SWAT had entered the building unannounced and had come in shooting.

A jury of both blacks and whites convened for several days, and some six months after the shootout, a verdict was in. Count after count: not guilty. But it was a short-lived victory, as only a few months after the verdict, the L.A. arm of the Panthers had all but collapsed under the weight of vicious infighting and continued police pressure.

Cotton Smith turned state’s evidence, and his whereabouts remain unknown. Peaches Moore changed her name to Sister Somayah and became a tireless advocate for medical marijuana. She passed away in 2008.

Ironically, Gil Parker got a job as a janitor at L.A. Superior Court downtown. He has faced bouts of homelessness over the years and now lives in Sacramento, where he is close to his grandchildren. “I thought we’d done all this for nothing,” he says, reflecting back on his years of anonymity.

Bernard Smith says he found God during the raid. “Who else you gonna call on in that circumstance?” After a few years living in Puerto Rico upon fleeing, he returned to Los Angeles and surrendered to do a few months in county jail. He eventually got his life together and is now a practicing Muslim, working in the real-estate business with fellow Panther Wayne Pharr. He goes by the name Bernard Arafat.

Roland Freeman works in South L.A. as a counselor for at-risk kids. Just like he did in the old days with the Panthers, Freeman puts together community breakfast programs. “The shootout was the high-water mark of the Black Panther party,” he says in hindsight. “It was everything we stood for...everything. The government came at us full tilt. They came in there to murder us in our sleep, and we were able to defend ourselves.”

Like his fellow Panthers, Pharr was cleared of conspiracy charges but was separately convicted of possession of illegal weapons, after police traced the fingerprints on a pipe bomb to him. He spent a year in prison. When he got out, the Panthers were finished.

“During the shootout, I was free,” Pharr says. “I was making a stand, and in that moment I was free. You can’t get in, and I can’t get out. But in my space, I’m free. I’m making the decision right now, and that decision is f--k you.” He’s currently working on a book about his life in the Panther Party.

After the battle, Patrick McKinley’s unit came to the realization that it was grossly ill equipped to handle similar raids. “Oh, God, were we lucky,” says McKinley of how SWAT pulled off the operation with no one getting killed. “These weren’t simple thugs we were dealing with. These were well-armed, politically motivated individuals, and a lot of them had some good training. I’m extremely proud of what we did that day. We got our targets and no one died. But oh, God, were we lucky.”

In the months after the 41st and Central raid, McKinley and his SWAT teammates headed down to Camp Pendleton for intense military training with the marines. They would never again be tactically unprepared. McKinley would rise through the ranks of SWAT, eventually becoming the captain in charge. In 1993, he was appointed police chief of Fullerton—a position he held until two years ago.

The Panthers’ influence faded, but Daryl Gates’ SWAT model spread to every major metropolitan police department in the nation. For years, the SWAT insignia bore the number 41 in commemoration of the unit’s first operation.

The 41st and Central building was demolished in the months following the shoot-out, the Panthers’ physical legacy all but erased from community memory. The 41, though, lingered on the SWAT insignia for decades, but it, too, eventually disappeared—a forgotten tale from a bygone era of radical defiance.

MATTHEW FLEISCHER is a Los Angeles–based writer, editor and blogger. He can be reached at mattefleischer@yahoo.com.