West Oakland was being squeezed. At the start of the 1960s, Seventh Street was jumping with blues clubs and pool halls. By the middle of the decade, Victorian homes and nightclubs were leveled for a massive postal facility, as the Nimitz Freeway cut the neighborhood off from the city’s downtown, leaving it blighted.
Huey P. Newton, co-founder and Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party, was driving a beige VW Bug through West Oakland’s changing landscape just before 5 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28, 1967. Gene McKinney, the Panthers’ first fundraiser, rode shotgun on what started out as a late night food run.
Earlier that year, Newton masterminded the storming of the State Assembly in Sacramento by Panthers armed with shotguns and rifles that sent Governor Ronald Reagan running for cover. The protest for African Americans’ right to bear arms scared the bejesus out of suburban white people, but transformed the Black Panthers from a band of local activists into a national movement.
At 4:51 a.m., Patrolman John Frey of the Oakland Police spotted the VW driving down Seventh Street past rows of unfinished columns topped with tangles of rebar that now make up the elevated BART tracks. After finding out the Bug was a known Panther vehicle, Frey pulled over Newton on the corner of Seventh and Willow for unpaid parking tickets.
Officer Herbert C. Heanes rolled up on the scene shortly after Frey had radioed for backup. The officers told Newton to get out of the Bug and marched him to the back of Heanes’ patrol car. Newton and Frey started scuffling on the trunk of Heanes’ car. A gun went off. Heanes was hit in the right forearm. Heanes fired back hitting Newton in the gut. More shots were fired.
Heanes was shot three times and survived. Newton took that bullet to the gut, and fled the scene with McKinney. Frey was shot five times and died. He had been on the force for a little over a year and had a three-year-old daughter. He was only 23, but all the men involved in the melee were well under 30.
Newton claimed he blacked out from the gunshot wound, and didn’t remember what happened. He did speculate that the cops shot each other since all of the bullets recovered from Frey, Heanes, and Newton came from police-issue revolvers.
Henry Grier drove his AC Transit bus past Seventh and Willow just after 5 a.m. as shots were fired. He told police he saw a “very short … sort of pee-wee type fellow” pull a gun out of his shirt. Frey grabbed the pee-wee by the arm and the gun went off. Grier later identified the 5’10”, 165-pount Newton as the shooter. He was the only witness who placed a gun in Newton’s hand. His testimony did not hold up in court.
A bloody Newton staggered into the emergency room at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland at 5:30 a.m. on that Saturday morning.
“Are you a Kaiser?” emergency room nurse Corrine Leonard said, asking for Newton’s Kaiser card.
“Yes, yes,” Newton replied, stomping his feet. “Get a doctor. Can’t you see I’m bleeding?”
“I see this, but you’re not in any acute distress,” Leonard said as Newton continued to bleed. Newton took off his coat and shirt and threw it on the desk to show her his wound.
“Can’t you see all this blood?” he said.
“Well, you’ll have to sign our admission sheet before you can be seen by a doctor,” Leonard replied.
Newton refused, called Leonard a “white bitch,” and said, “I’m going to die anyway, and you’re going to watch me die!”
Just as Newton was finally allowed to get into a gurney to be wheeled out of the waiting room to see a doctor, Oakland police showed up and handcuffed him to it. Leonard had called the police before she called for a doctor.
“No one acutely injured can talk like that,” Leonard recalled. After a doctor finally examined Netwon, it was found that a bullet had pierced his small intestine in four places. He was transferred to Highland Hospital and then to jail.
Incarcerated, Huey Newton became a living martyr. His arrest inspired “Free Huey” buttons, banners, and funk jams. The image of him wearing sitting in a wicker chair –a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other – became the party’s most powerful recruitment tool.
A Free Huey rally on Newton’s 26th birthday on Feb. 17, 1968 drew 6,000 people to the Oakland Arena where the Warriors still play. At the rally, Black Power firebrand H. Rap Brown, proclaimed, “The only thing that is going to free Huey Newton is gunpowder.”
Newton’s liberation was more mundane, however. In September 1968, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a compromise verdict that was reversed on appeal in May 1970. After two new trials resulting in hung juries, Alameda County District Attorney Lowell Jensen gave up on the Sisyphean task of trying Newton, and the charges were dismissed. Huey was finally free, but it was all downhill from there.