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Black Panthers Seek Hearings

April 22, 1998 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Even time doesn’t heal all wounds.

It’s been 29 years since gunfire rocked the UCLA campus and left two Black Panthers dead in a blood feud with the Us Organization, a rival black power group.

And it’s been four years since Larry Stiner, an Us member convicted in the 1969 shooting, voluntarily ended his two-decade exile in South America and returned to San Quentin State Prison.

But former Black Panther leaders David Hilliard and Elaine Brown still vent the same raw fury the Panthers used to rattle the status quo a generation ago. And they’re still looking for answers about the government’s secret campaign to undermine civil rights and anti-war groups.

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A Senate investigating committee revealed in 1976 that the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign had used false documents, infiltrators and snitches to divide and smear civil rights and anti-war organizations. Hilliard, for one, is convinced that Us was working with the FBI, a charge that Us strongly denies.

``Two of our men were shot in the back because of the collaboration between Us and the FBI,″ said Hilliard, who was the Panthers chief of staff from 1968 to 1974. ``I don’t believe in sweeping this matter under the rug just because some years have passed.″

Holding out the example of the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings on apartheid-era abuses in South Africa, the former Panthers say it is time for government hearings to bring out the truth.

``At least in South Africa, they will have the record straight,″ said Brown, an Atlanta author who chaired the Panther Party from 1974 to 1977. ``Here, our history is a lie. ... If they can hold hearings on Ruby Ridge and the fire at Waco, they can hold hearings on the campaign to destroy the Panthers.″

Their call for truth hearings isn’t the first.

In 1997, Reps. Ronald Dellums of California and Bobby Rush of Illinois, a former Panther leader in Chicago, asked the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on the COINTELPRO program.

Their request was never granted. Dellums has since left Congress and Rush declines comment.

Julian Bond, the new chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says he would support any hearings ``that let the truth come out.″

Hilliard, director of the nonprofit Huey P. Newton Foundation, dedicated to preserving the moribund Black Panther party’s history, says the aftereffects of the FBI’s campaign against the Panthers are felt today.

``We were the victims,″ said Hilliard. ``A lot of us never got the opportunity to work in the system _ or to be the head of any college departments.″

His reference is aimed at Us Organization founder Maulana Ron Karenga, chairman of the Black Studies Department at California State University at Long Beach. Karenga, best known for creating the African-themed Kwanzaa holiday, has denied ever working for the FBI. He declined to be interviewed.

An official of the Us Organization, which now runs a cultural center, youth program and Swahili classes from its Los Angeles headquarters, calls the Panthers’ charges of collaboration by Us ``nothing but character assassination.″

``It’s sad that 30 years later they still feel like that,″ said Chimbuko Tembo, co-vice chairman of the organization. ``Many black organizations suffered (under COINTELPRO). They weren’t the only ones hurt.″

An FBI spokesman had no comment on whether the bureau would support hearings on COINTELPRO.

Charles E. Jones, a Panther Party researcher and chairman of the African American Studies Department at Georgia State University, is among those who doubt Karenga worked for the FBI.

If the rumors were true, ``there would be something solid by now,″ he said.

Clayborne Carson, Stanford University history professor and Panthers researcher, said police did treat the Panthers more harshly than Us members but their different philosophies were a factor.

``The Panthers were in the business of confronting authorities,″ said Carson, adding that he has seen nothing in FBI files to indicate Karenga worked for the government.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Its membership reached 5,000 as it spread to other cities.

The group called for an end to police brutality and tried to document excesses by authorities. Members had conflicts with police, but they also ran breakfast programs and pushed for better housing and more jobs.

In all, 28 party members and 14 police officers died in armed conflicts.

The differences between the Panthers and Us erupted in bloodshed on Jan. 17, 1969, during a student meeting at the University of California at Los Angeles where there was a dispute over a black studies program. Larry Stiner and his brother, George Phillip Stiner, were sentenced to life in prison for murder but escaped in 1974 after five years at San Quentin.

Larry Stiner returned to the United States in 1994 from Surinam and is back in prison. His brother remains at large.