Book recounts New Haven's Black Panther trial

Posted: Friday, January 19, 2007

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - This city was supposed to be a model of urban renewal in the 1960s, but by 1970, authorities were so worried about a large-scale riot that they sent in tanks and the National Guard.

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The turbulence of the era had reached a fevered pitch as this small New England city braced for the upcoming trial of Black Panther Party members, including founder Bobby Seale, for the murder of a suspected police informant.

Protest leaders such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were heading to New Haven for a massive May Day demonstration over the trial. Some agitators threatened to destroy the city, while a Yale University student named Hillary Rodham was among those trying to keep the peace.

Protesters distributed gas masks and set up first aid stations. Vietcong flags filled the air and a flag pole was greased so no one would burn the flag.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Civil unrest was erupting around the country, but New Haven was dubbed the "Model City" after launching the nation's most extensive anti-poverty campaign, spending more per capita than any other city. But amid the splendor of Yale, New Haven still struggled with poverty. The Black Panthers had set up a New Haven chapter and Seale, during a 1969 visit, threatened to kill police.

The New Haven trial sparked a protest that April at Harvard that led to a rampage in which demonstrators smashed windows, threw rocks, lit fires and clashed with police. More than 200 people were hospitalized.

The New Haven trial resulted in a hung jury and the charges were dismissed against Seale, who could have faced the death penalty, and other defendants. Some Panthers were convicted before and after the trial.

David Rosen, Seale's lawyer at the time, said the Panthers were committed to a peaceful protest then because they were confident the trial would exonerate Seale.

"It was an ironic twist on the Panther slogan, which was the menacing phrase, 'Free Bobby by any means necessary,"' Rosen said. "The legal system channeled the enormous conflicting energies of the different groups into a small room in New Haven where everything played out in an orderly way."

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