Front and center at Panther headquarters

Q & A | published in Real Change on Feb. 27th, 2013
Interview with: Aaron Dixon

Aaron Dixon saw ‘the revolution’ close up when he was 19 years old and started the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party

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n the era of Androids and iPads, it’s easy to forget that 45 years ago, people used rotary phones and typewriters. Anyone who lived in Seattle in 1969 and picked up a phone and dialed EA5-8794 would have been greeted by the smooth baritone of Aaron Dixon, captain of the Black Panther Party of Seattle. Or maybe Dixon wouldn’t have answered, due to the jail time served because of a certain typewriter. But that phone line patched directly to a man who played a pivotal role in the history of the Emerald City in the late 60s.

If you dial that number today, a voice will tell you the number has been disconnected. But Dixon’s memory of that era is fully intact. And what an era it was: Black men with rifles, their Afros partly obscured by black berets, stood on the steps of the capitol in Olympia; protestors who supported black contractors arrested by Seattle police at the airport; Black Panthers, troubled by interactions with law enforcement, barricaded offices in Madrona. If Dixon, 64, wasn’t there when these events went down, as the head of the local Panther party he was involved in some capacity. The role gave him a close-up view into the birth — and demise — of a revolution.

He tells the story of that era in his recent autobiography, “My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain” (Haymarket Books, $17.95). He’s written a quiet book, calm and clear-eyed, with his recollections of moving to Seattle as a youth, starting the local Panther chapter at 19 and fighting to avoid serious jail time. Perhaps the smooth tone of the book makes sense. In person, Dixon embodies calm. Even when he speaks of the violence that swirled around him, the brother remains centered. When we sat down to talk in the Real Change office, he laid it all on the line: his first time in jail, the loaded shotgun and the story behind the typewriter.

How about you tell me your first memory of a Black Panther.

I’d been out playing tennis across the street from the house I was growing up in. My mother called me in for dinner at 6 o’clock, and I came in the house and went by the TV. The news was on, the national news, and they were talking about these protests being led by this organization. These black men had leather jackets on and black berets, and they were carrying shotguns and rifles. And I looked at them and said, “Wow. Wow. Look at that.” I thought that was cool. But actually I just wanted to hurry up and get back out to the tennis courts ’cause I was trying to be another Arthur Ashe [former No. 1 ranked U.S. tennis star and first black man to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament].

And what were your first recollections of coming here, to Seattle?

The mountains and Lake Washington and, you know, all the white people, of course. We had lived in the south side of Chicago, and then we lived in Champaign, Ill., in a black neighborhood. And how quiet everything was [in Seattle] and how slow everything was and how peaceful everything seemed to be. It was almost like being in a country town.

So how about if you talk about the first time you were arrested, in April 1968?

I was a member of the BSU —

And what’s the BSU?

Black Student Union at the University of Washington. I was one of the founding members. We had also organized a BSU at Garfield High School, had been trying to organize one at Franklin. Franklin High School was mostly Asian and black students, but none of the faculty was people of color, except for Roberto Maestes [founder of the cultural agency El Centro de la Raza, who died Sept. 22, 2010]. There was a fight between a black student and a white student, and the black student was kicked out, and the white student remained in school. The black student called us and felt that both of them or neither of them should’ve been kicked out. So we had tried to negotiate with the school to get him back in, and they refused. We decided this was a good opportunity to lead a protest demonstration against Franklin. So we gathered all the BSU members from the University of Washington, from Garfield — must’ve been about 20 of us — and we marched into the principal’s office chanting our Black Power slogans, demanding to meet with the principal. He refused. We went into his office and kept chanting, and he decided he was just going send all the staff home. We were there with the students and decided to hold a rally in the auditorium. It felt victorious: We chased them outta there.

A couple of weeks later while I was doing some homework, the police knocked on my door and told my mother they had a warrant for my arrest. So I was arrested, charged with unlawful assembly and taken down to the King County Jail. And when I got there Larry Gossett and Carl Miller [were] there.

And you mean Larry Gossett, [who is now chair] of the King County Council?

Mmm hmm. Also my brother Elmer had been arrested at Garfield High School.

The day we were arrested was [April] 4th. We were sitting in the day room watching the news. Walter Cronkite said that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, so it was a double-whammy for us: The first time being arrested, being put in this archaic King County Jail, which looked like a dungeon, we find that Martin Luther King is killed. Martin Luther King was our hero. And suddenly he was gone. Riots broke out all across the country, and we could see it on TV. And here we were, sitting in jail.

Whatever happened to that charge?

I think we had six months probation.

How much longer was it after that that you ended up meeting Bobby Seale [co-founder of the Black Panther Party]?

It wasn’t long at all. Matter of fact, as soon as we got outta jail, we went down to San Francisco State College to a Black Student Union conference. The Black Panther party [had been] out on the streets with guns, and they got into a confrontation with the police, and there was a shootout. Several Panthers were wounded, one Panther was killed, and 18 Panthers were arrested. The Panther that was killed was Little Bobby Hutton: He was the first Panther to join at 14 years old and the first to die at 17 years old. So when we went down there, we found out that they were having Little Bobby’s funeral. So we went over to Oakland, and that was the first time we saw Black Panther party members face-to-face, lined against a wall. Marlon Brando was there. The funeral was really very emotional: His family was there crying and wailing, but on the other hand, the Panthers standing on the wall were very stoic. Later on that evening, Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver [communications secretary who became the first woman to hold power in the national Panther party] came to San Francisco State College to do the keynote address. Bobby Seale just came back from burying someone who was a very good friend of his. This was the first major attack on the Black Panther Party. It was probably one of the defining moments.

In the book, you say that that’s when you decided to start a chapter here in Seattle.

We approached Bobby Seale, made a beeline to him and told him we wanted a Black Panther Party chapter in Seattle. We gave him our contact information. A week later, he calls and says that he and the Minister of Information would be on their way up: Pick them up from the airport. We met at my mother’s house for a three-day period, and there were young people from all over: SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], BSU. We were just so eager to learn, ready to take in whatever they had to offer. It felt more immediate: Martin Luther King [Jr.] is dead. The nonviolent movement is over now. Now it’s time for violence.

When you say violence, what do you mean?

The analogy that I used was: I decided that when Martin Luther King was killed, that the picket sign for me was gonna be replaced by a gun.

And you were ready to use a gun?

Yes. Most of us were ready.

Had you ever used a gun before?

Yeah, .22s, BB guns. Growing up everybody had a BB gun, .22s. We used a BB gun to shoot at bottles and birds and stuff like that.

But shooting at a bottle and a bird is different than shooting at someone to prove your political point.

Exactly. But when I say using a gun, we’re talking about for self-defense. Because we grew up in an era of political assassinations starting with John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers [civil rights activist shot in his driveway in Jackson, Miss., in 1963], Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and then Robert F. Kennedy. Not to mention all the people who were always shot, innocently killed throughout the country and even in Seattle. We were saying, “We’re not gonna take this anymore: If you’re gonna shoot at us, then we’re gonna shoot back. We’re gonna defend ourselves.”

Where was the Black Panther headquarters in Seattle?

It was 34th and Union, right there in Madrona.

These days people would say, “Madrona? That’s upper-class.”

Oh, God yes. Sometimes I hate going back up there. That’s the neighborhood I grew up in. It was mostly a black and Asian community, except for going past 34th, it was mostly white. It was a perfect place for us to have an office at that time.

One of the stories that really got me in this book was about the typewriter.

Well, we were not aware the local police authorities and the FBI would infiltrate the organization. We just recently found out the FBI had a program, called Ghetto Informant Program, where they were recruiting people in the community to be informants. So when we opened our office up, we took over 300 applications from people who came to join the Party. Some of those people were police informants.

While we were trying to get our office together, we were in need of a typewriter. Someone says, “Oh, Aaron, so and so says that he’s gonna give us a typewriter down by Model City. All we have to do is come down there after 5 and go. The door will be open.” I said, “OK, good.” So we went up there after 5, I carried it out, and I carried it into the office. I didn’t know that there were some detectives a block away that were observing me. Probably about two months later, they issued a warrant for my arrest for stealing a typewriter, and in the process they raided our office and began to carry out files and different things out of our office.

How did it resolve?

First of all, it led to the only major riot that Seattle’s ever had. When word spread to the community that I’d been arrested, we organized a rally at Garfield Park. The rally turned into a rebellion. Rebellions had been taking place all across the country: Detroit, Chicago, everywhere. Now this was the time for that explosion in Seattle. The riot lasted three days. Helicopters were shot at, police cars were overturned and a lot of buildings were firebombed. Young people were out there just going crazy. It ignited a war between the Black Panther Party and the Seattle Police Department. And it lasted all through the summer of ‘68. I mean, if you would read a blotter page of things around the country, you would’ve sworn that the revolution had started. Finally by wintertime, things had subsided. I went to trial in December, and William Dwyer, considered the best lawyer in the state, he came down to our office and offered to take my case. It boiled down to the secret witness that the prosecution had [that] they said was gonna seal the deal for them. I was facing seven to 10 years.

For stealing a typewriter?

Yeah. Larceny is what they call it. [Laughs]. The secret witness never showed up, so I was found not guilty.

You mentioned earlier that if you would’ve looked at the paper in ‘68, you would’ve sworn that the revolution was happening. Well, here we are, it’s 2013. What happened to the revolution?

A lot of things. One was a program called COINTELPRO [or Counter Intelligence Program] that the FBI had put together not only to destroy the Black Panther Party, but other organizations, because there were a lot of organizations: The Brown Berets [Chicano nationalist and Mexican-American group], you had the Red Guards [radical Chinese-American group], you had AIM, American Indian Movement, you had SDS [Students for a Democratic Society, a radical left student group], you had the Weathermen [radical left group], you had Patriot Party, which was white leftist hillbillies, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Rights Movement. It was just really powerful and really beautiful to see so many people coming together. We were able to create a lot of change. The Gay Rights Movement was one we supported. And you had the anti-war movement, which was probably one of the most powerful with 200,000 – 300,000 students all over the country that were protesting against this war.

But the repression against that was pretty heavy, particularly against the Black Panther Party. We didn’t know until recently that they had planned to have us killed by 1969.

Fred Hampton, he was going to be the next great leader in America, if not the world. He was just the most phenomenal person. At 19 years old, he starts the Chicago chapter. December 1969 he was assassinated, and of course the Chicago chapter never rebounded from his assassination.

Then the whole leadership of the New York chapter is arrested and charged with conspiracy to blow up buildings. Afeni Shakur, [rapper] Tupac’s mom, was among them. All across the country offices were being raided and attacked, and leaders were being killed.

You got people from those cities that I just named that are still in prison to this day because of the organizing that we were doing with the Black Panther Party. So they were hitting us really hard and heavy.

We had orders that we had to fortify our offices. We had double sandbags all the way up to the ceiling. We had steel plates on the door, we had gas masks. Party people had to be on security two hours a night, all through the night. People got kidnapped, people were mysteriously killed. [The FBI] even contacted the Hell’s Angels to participate in trying to wipe out the Black Panther Party. So we were under a tremendous assault.

We had The Black Panther Newspaper, which was one of the most powerful alternative newspapers ever created. At its height we had a circulation worldwide at 250,000, and these papers came out every single week. It was the voice of the people. And the FBI, they burned the papers. A lot of times different chapters and branches would go get the papers from the airport: They’re burned, they’d been soaked with water, they disappeared. It was just a constant battle.

The LA chapter was the most military minded of all the chapters: They had machine gun nests inside the roof. [The FBI] used helicopters and armored vehicles in this assault on the Panther headquarters, and they had a shootout that lasted for eight hours. Two or three days later the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] leave, and they come to Seattle. They try to conduct the same type of raid in Seattle, but Mayor Wes Uhlman refuses to give them support from the Seattle Police Department. Because Mayor Wes Uhlman, he saw what happened in Chicago and LA, and he didn’t want to have that blood on his hands. Seattle was a smaller city, and we were much entrenched in the community.

In the summer of ‘68, the Seattle Police Department had put a $25,000 contract on my head to end the firebombing because they couldn’t stop it. They figured the only way to stop it was to have me killed. So some informants in the Seattle chapter tried to set me up with the police in a shootout, and it didn’t work.

In 1971, I went out to the gun range with another Panther member to make sure all our weapons were working, and the last weapon we fired was a shotgun. I was gonna fire from my shoulder. A voice told me, No. I fired it from my waist. And the shotgun blew up. My arm was hanging off. I made it to the hospital, and they were going to have to amputate it, and my mother told them, “No”. We had the shotgun shells tested and find out that gunpowder had been taken out and high explosives had been put in its place. So, you know [laughs], it was…

A lot.

It was a lot. We were literally fighting for our lives.

When did the chapter here dissolve?

I’d say probably about 1980. Seattle was one of the longest-standing chapters.

And your arm. What happened with your arm?

Well, I got — here: I’m gonna show you my battle wounds. [He pulls up his sleeve to reveal a tangled scar on his lower left forearm.] They put in a steel rod; I got steel plates on both sides here. I had to wear a cast for a year. It caused me a lot of pain for a lot of years. But it works really good. [Laughs]

You also ran in 2006, for the [U.S.] Senate on the Green Party ticket. What motivated you to do that?

I was approached by the Green Party, and they asked me if I would run against Maria Cantwell because they wanted to challenge her support of the war in Iraq. I was on my way to Venezuela, and I told them, “Let me think about it.” So when I came back I decided, OK, I’m gonna do this. So that’s why I did it: It wasn’t something that I wanted to do.

What happened at King 5 [TV studio]?

Well, King 5 has a debate for the candidates. Part of the requirements to participate in the debate is they have to have a million dollars in their coffers. And, of course, we didn’t have a million dollars. We had $100, but we didn’t have no million dollars. [Laughs]

So I decided I’m gonna go down there and raise some hell. And that’s what I did: called a press conference. And they refused to let me in, and I refused to leave. I yelled and hollered and made a lot of noise, and they called the police, and I was arrested. That was one of the best things for our campaign because we got so much publicity. I got so many calls from right-wing radio talk shows to be on, because that really resonated with them, that you had to have a lot of money to be in the debate.

Any plans to run for office again?

Oh, heck no. I’ve been asked so many times. I mean, I’m not a politician. That is not something that interests me at all. It’s too much work. I would never, ever run again.

[In] this book you described yourself as someone with a shy, inward nature. So how does that jibe with starting a chapter of the Black Panther Party?

I’m sure it surprised a lot of people, because I was a pretty shy and quiet guy, but I was also a very serious person. My elders used to tell me all the time, “Oh, you take things too serious.” So I guess that’s what the tradeoff was. I was a serious person. Once I committed to something, I stuck to it.

At the beginning of this book, you said that in ‘89, when Huey Newton [the other co-founder of the Black Panther Party] was gunned down, there was a memorial service. Someone approached you and said you should write a book about your experiences. And it took two decades. Why did it take you that long?

Because I was going through what many Black Panther Party members were going through. We didn’t know that we had some form of post-traumatic stress [disorder]. We were trying to find our footing in this new dynamic, nonrevolutionary environment, trying to make sense of what had happened and all the deaths and all the people that had been killed. I became a single parent. My kids’ mother had got addicted to crack cocaine, and, you know, the whole crack cocaine thing, it was just really devastating to the black community.

Yeah, it got my brother.

That’s what my second book is gonna be focused on.

So not only did I end up raising my kids, but I was raising other people’s kids. Then I became a gang counselor, working with at-risk youth. I went back to school at Seattle U. full time and worked full time. I had too many other things going on in my life. But you know, even though I had so many other things, it was always in my mind that I was gonna get this book completed.

How does it feel to be a part of history?

Like I said, it was a very hard, serious time. It left us with a lot of scars and wounds, things that will always be with us. Stories that will always be with us. But, on the other hand, we made a tremendous contribution, not only to this country but to humanity as a whole. A lot of our programs that we started are embedded in our society now, like the medical clinics, the free legal aid programs. The whole memory of the Black Panther Party is something that will always last forever, not just in this country but in the world. People revere the Black Panther Party so much. It was a special time; it was a very special time. I still feel privileged to have been a part of it.

Photo by Lucien Knuteson.

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